Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump
Note: I wrote this review about a month ago, before Congress began an impeachment investigation against President Trump. I have left it unedited.
Alberta is a political correspondent for Politico. I read his book with Stephen Davies’ political realignment thesis in mind. According to Davies, people tend to align around two opposite poles in politics–but those poles tend to move around every few generations. For a lengthy period starting around the end of World War II, those two poles were capitalism and socialism. Now, with the Soviet Union almost 30 years gone, those poles have lost their relevance. Worldwide, political parties are realigning around new poles. This time around, it’s a nationalism-vs.-globalism axis.
This is apparent in the UK’s Brexit debate, and the election of populist leaders in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. The process usually takes a couple of election cycles, and happens faster in some countries than in others. As Alberta’s book unintentionally shows, realignment is happening right now in America. It is also fairly far along, but not yet complete.
The GOP’s civil war is a referendum about President Trump on the surface. But the deeper philosophical split is one of nationalism against a more cosmopolitan worldview. The same fight is happening in the Democratic party, though without its own Trump-like figure to rally around or against, the struggle on the left side of the aisle is quieter. Alberta focuses almost exclusively on the GOP; a similar treatment of the Democratic Party’s realignment process would be a welcome addition to the literature.
The main fault with this book is that it is far longer than it needs to be. This is especially true of its 2016 campaign coverage, which feels as endless as the original campaign did. 2016 takes up about a third of a book that covers an entire decade. A fair amount of the campaign season slog in the book is essentially an ESPN-style highlight show of debate highlights, gaffes, and flash-in-the-pan candidates and personalities who were relevant for a few news cycles, but not particularly important for Alberta’s larger story arc.
Alberta convincingly shows, though again in more detail than necessary, that once Republicans choose a leader, they’ll follow him no matter what. This was apparent during George W. Bush’s presidency, when Republicans went along with Bush’s massive spending and entitlement increases and needless wars, and even the Keynesian bailout on which he collaborated with President Obama, who is otherwise mostly a two-minutes hate figure in the GOP.
Republicans’ pre-existing meekness has greatly amplified under Trump, almost to the point of becoming the party’s defining characteristic. He is strongly disliked inside his own party, but nobody in a position to is willing to put up meaningful opposition, whether to Trump’s spending and deficits, or his trade and immigration policies. They are just as meek about Trump’s intentionally divisive rhetoric, cozying up to dictators, and at times, outright racism.
Paul Ryan’s tragic career arc is the most prominent example, and Alberta tells it masterfully. Ryan’s choice of party over policy backfired, and ultimately led him to retire–though he was also put in an impossible situation. He became House Speaker with his party in mid-realignment. He also had a President foisted on him who is not temperamentally fit for the job, and has no philosophical commitment for or against Ryan’s policies, making him neither friend nor foe, despite their shared party membership.
Ryan’s story is is just one of many sad commentaries on party politics. Alberta shares savage assessments about Trump from some of Trump’s closest allies—many without the cover of anonymity. It is almost worse that Republicans are going along with Trump’s policies with their eyes open. They know better, and yet they continue to support Trump’s policies, values, and rhetoric. They have chosen to be this way.
Alberta’s story of weak Republican knees extends to the human weakness for a good us-vs.them narrative. People are eager to affirm their identity as part of a group, and are quick to vilify people outside it. This is why hard partisans are so eager to believe odd conspiracy theories, such as Barack Obama being born in Kenya, or Hillary Clinton running a prostitution ring from a pizza parlor—stories which Alberta tells in comic, yet tragic fashion. It also explains why President Trump’s base and party stick by him despite almost widespread misgivings about his character and his policies.
Adding Davies’ political realignment thesis on top of Alberta’s storytelling adds another level. The GOP’s reluctance to pursue limited government policies under Bush has become an active hostility to its Reagan-Goldwater tradition. People with an economist’s views on trade, immigration, and spending restraint used to be merely ignored. Now, they are actively sought as the enemy, to the point of Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro bizarrely comparing the Wall Street Journal to the communist China Daily. The GOP is still running on an us-vs.-them narrative, but the definition of “them” has changed. “Them” used to be socialists or people who prefer big government. Now “them” is seen in national, cultural, or racial terms.
The question is what will happen post-Trump. Both parties have strong populist elements. But in a two-party system there is likely only room for one strong populist party. Will that party be the Republicans or the Democrats? It’s too early to tell. The GOP base has eagerly embraced national populism, but most of the party establishment is playing along reluctantly. That support is also largely personality-based, and that personality will be gone from politics in either 2021 or 2025. The Democratic party is also divided, though the base-establishment split isn’t nearly as clean. They also lack a personality-cult figure to rally around. Much as I dislike horserace politics, how this one plays out over the next few cycles will be interesting to watch. About all we know for at this point is that there are very few good guys in this story, and they will all likely lose.