Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
GOP leaders lamenting the rise of Trump and Cruz should blame themselves, writes Julian Zelizer
For decades, the party has been eager to get the votes of aggressive conservative base, he says
A number of prominent Republicans have been complaining about what is happening to their party.
“Rarely has a party so passively accepted its own self-destruction,” lamented New York Times columnist David Brooks. He and others have complained that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are hijacking the GOP, moving the party of Lincoln and Reagan into an extreme realm of politics that will forever damage its standing.
The National Review, the most influential conservative publication since World War II, has published a special issue in which the editors state their opposition to Donald Trump, calling him a threat to the political tradition they have promoted: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot on behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as The Donald himself.”
On Capitol Hill, the leadership has continually warned that the conservative obstructionism of the tea-party oriented Freedom Caucus has devastated public opinion about Republicans as a party that can govern. John Boehner complained about the caucus when he stepped down, saying, “Garbagemen get used to the smell of bad garbage.” The new speaker, Paul Ryan, has expressed similar concerns about the rhetoric coming from the campaign trail.
But Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves. The party needs to own up to the kind of politics that we now have. The style promoted by Trump, Cruz and the entire tea party is a conscious product of the key decisions and strategic choices that mainstream Republican leaders have been making for decades.
Long history of aggressive party base
Republican leaders have been forming alliances with an aggressive right wing party base for a long time. Just pick up any good history about Ronald Reagan and it quickly becomes evident that some of the biggest candidates in the party have relied on the conservative base to achieve election victories.
When Reagan first proved he was a serious force in the 1976 Republican primaries (losing to Gerald Ford, but barely), one internal administration memo warned that the right-wing groups turning out exhibited a “‘rule-or-ruin’ attitude toward the GOP.”
In 1980, Reagan courted the Moral Majority and other right-wing activists like Paul Weyrich as part of the coalition through which he defeated Jimmy Carter. Even though many were disappointed he did not do enough for their issues in his first term, they joined him again in his landslide 1984 victory against Walter Mondale.
Prominent figures on the right such as Edwin Meese held high-profile positions in the administration. While George H.W. Bush liked to think of himself as distinct from the rank-and-file, his 1988 campaign fully embraced the movement’s central message by castigating Massachusetts Gov.r Michael Dukakis as a left-of-center Democrat for supporting the ACLU.
Under the direction of Lee Atwater, the Republicans ran blistering campaigns that played on racial tensions in the electorate and leveled accusations that Democrats were weak on defense. George H.W. Bush was equally careful to make room for neoconservative hawks, supply-side zealots and religious conservatives.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain, who had gained his fame as a maverick independent, picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee, and she became a voice for the most recent incarnation of conservatism. Palin had the support of many “establishment Republicans,” including Bill Kristol. Last week Palin endorsed Trump. As Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post, “once Republicans forced the party to take the governor of Alaska seriously as a vice presidential candidate, they opened a populist door that they’ll not easily shut.”
Welcoming the tea party
In the House of Representatives, Republican leaders were more than welcoming to the tea party revolution that took hold in 2010 — until it no longer suited their purposes. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell welcomed the energy and enthusiasm that tea party activists brought to the fight against President Barack Obama.
While the activists might have pushed the boundaries of acceptable partisan compact with threats like allowing the government to go into default, the discipline as a voting block and willingness to stand up to an ambitious President helped, in the leadership’s minds, to revitalize the standing of the party. Or at least that’s what Boehner thought before he felt he had to leave.
The conservatism of Ted Cruz reflects the general direction the party has taken since the 1980s. Most of the best social science research on this issue, such as that of Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann, makes clear that there has been a decisive shift to the right among Republicans that has been much faster and more dramatic than what occurred in the Democratic Party. The moderates in the GOP would have been considered conservative just a decade ago.
The kind of smashmouth, in-your-face politics that Trump and Cruz have been practicing in recent months is also born out of an era of conservative cable television and Internet outlets that have promoted this aggressive style of discourse.
For decades, conservative talk radio, which flourished in the 1980s, has been a major outlet for lashing out against political correctness. Hosts like Bob Grant, who cut his teeth in New York talk radio at the same time Trump came into the media spotlight, spread this talk all over the airwaves.
Conservative media outlets like Fox News and Internet sites like the Daily Caller or The Drudge Report encouraged Republicans to take a tougher approach against Democrats as well as their own leaders who were too cozy with the opposition.
The hosts on these outlets and the talking heads accepted a no-holds-barred style of conversation. This media environment became a regular outlet for many Republican politicians, who learned to talk this lingo to make sure they received airtime.
Running against Washington
At the heart of the Cruz and Trump campaign is an essential message that has been a central theme of conservatism in the post-World War II period: that Washington is never good and career politicians are without virtue.
Their anti-politics rhetoric comes directly out of the “conservative establishment” politics that formed in the 1970s and 1980s. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan said.
Republicans have blasted government as ineffective and inefficient. Markets always work better, the say. In the minds of many conservatives, government bureaucrats, whether they work in the Department of Education or the IRS, are incompetent at best and evil at worst. Almost every major Republican presidential candidate has campaigned on this theme. Thus, it is not a surprise to see the Washington establishment is once again the enemy. In this respect, the message of Trump and Cruz is as traditional as can be.
It is certainly true that Trump has supported a number of issues, such as higher taxes, that don’t fit well within the party orthodoxy. But even with that, his basic message and his political style fit well with trends that we have seen in Republican politics.
Republicans might want to complain about what they are seeing unfold before them. But this has deep-rooted connections to the kind of politics the party has been practicing. If Jeb Bush and John Kasich feel as if they are being pushed out by the “anti-establishment” mavericks, they need to acknowledge that these candidates are of their party’s own making. The alliance, the ideas, the rhetoric and the style have all come from the heart of Republican politics. The only difference is that some of the major leaders no longer feel as if they are in control.