by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 12, 2016
THE ORIGINS OF THE REPUBLICAN TRUMPOCALYPSE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Norm Ornstein is a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He's on every major news organization's speed dial list when they need a quote.
And while he's resisting the urge to say, "I told you so," Ornstein can rightly say that he saw the crackup of the Republican Party long before anyone else, and that the rise of Donald Trump is merely the ultimate manifestation of that crackup.
In 2012, he co-authored with Thomas Mann "It's Worse Than It Looks," a book that blamed the dysfunction in Washington on a Republican Party they called "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
That such withering criticism came from two centrist political scientists raised a few eyebrows at the time but, for the most part, liberals shrugged their shoulders while conservatives dismissed it.
Since then, the GOP has only gotten more extreme, more scornful of compromise, and now has the most polarizing political figure ever nominated by a major political party as its candidate for President in 2016.
In an interview with Andrew Prokop on the online news site Vox, Ornstein called Trump "a self-inflicted wound by Republican leaders."
Why? Ornstein explained.
"Over many years, they've adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.
"And add to that, they've delegitimized President Obama, but they've failed to succeed with any of the promises they've made to their rank-and-file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, 'what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you're going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?'
"Trump clearly had a brilliant capacity to channel that discontent among Republican voters - to figure out the issues that'll work, like immigration, and the ways in which populist anger and partisan tribalism can be exploited. So of course, to me, he became a logical contender."
But Trump merely reaped the whirlwind that was unleashed by the person that Ornstein believes helped create the conditions that gave us the GOP of today, former House Speaker New Gingrich.
Ornstein told Vox that Gingrich had a simple blueprint.
"He delegitimized the Congress and the Democratic leadership, convincing people that they were arrogant and corrupt and that the process was so bad that anything would be better than this. He tribalized the political process. He went out and recruited the candidates, and gave them the language to use about how disgusting and despicable and horrible and immoral and unpatriotic the Democrats were. That swept in the Republican majority in 1994.
"The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that sh-t. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government, not just the President but the actions of government itself in Washington.
"And Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, were complicit in this. I think when Republicans had their stunning victory in 2010, Cantor et al thought they could now co-opt these people. Instead, they were co-opted themselves."
So while the Gingrich strategy gave the Republicans control of Congress, it also delegitimized government and emboldened an anti-establishment, mostly white and middle-aged base that Ornstein says is "driven by identity politics and culture and a visceral reaction against leaders of all sorts."
Thus, you get a candidate like Donald Trump, a man who Ornstein says "is content-less, and knows less about policy, domestic or international, I would say, than any candidate in the last 50 years - including Pat Paulsen, the comedian."
At the same, he said, "you have a large share of the public who say, 'You know, the people who know about policy were the ones who fuc-ed all of this up! And how could Trump do worse?'"
But what are the chances that Trump could actually be elected President?
Ornstein thinks Trump has a 20 percent chance, but that could change depending on other events, such as England leaving the European Union, the Islamic State trying some Paris-style terror attacks in the United States, or another economic meltdown such as that in 2007-08.
"When you have an election and history is not to be completely discounted, we know that elections that occur after eight years of a two-term president focus around how much change you want," said Ornstein. "And Hillary Clinton still has that hurdle to overcome, that she's not exactly a candidate of change. And if events occur that create more of a desire for change, then people might roll the dice with Trump."
Of course, the last two times that Americans decided to roll the dice with two marginally qualified Republican presidential candidates, we ended up with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A Trump presidency is certainly not an impossibility, but it certainly is something that our nation must not allow to happen.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 35 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.