The essential mystery of American politics is this: How is it that the Republicans have succeeded in laying the groundwork for long-term dominance at the very moment they have allowed their party to be captured by an irrational, irredentist faction with virtually no concern for public opinion, honest governance, or even empirical reality?
Beginning next year, Republicans will control not only the House and Senate but also 60 percent of state governorships and nearly 70 percent of partisan state legislatures, their strongest position ever. At the same time, the party is being led by a group of people with politics so extreme and explanations so silly—and often transparently dishonest—that one cannot help but question their sanity. Can Donald Trump really believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that virtually all undocumented immigrants are potential rapists and murderers? Can Ben Carson truly consider Obamacare on a par with slavery? And which answer would be more comforting: shameless liar or lunatic fantasist?
And yet The Washington Post recently reported on a “growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability” of Trump and Carson and “widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them.” The story quoted an unnamed strategist who worried, “We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job.… It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?” What the story did not explain—and what most members of the punditocracy appear intent on denying—is that this same disease has infected the entire Republican field. In the hopes of appealing to angry, ill-informed, and xenophobic primary voters, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina are all adopting positions that are not only beyond the boundaries of the beliefs of the vast majority of Americans, but also contrary to the laws of physics, economics, and, of course, common sense.
The causes are multifaceted and mutually reinforcing. Most obvious is the power of money in a post–Citizens United world. Billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, and Paul Singer defend their fortunes and positions by investing in a massive infrastructure designed to purvey misinformation and mask the extremism of Republican candidates who spout it. A combination of housing patterns (often enforced by officially sanctioned segregation) and aggressive gerrymandering by Republican state legislatures stacks the deck against Democratic voters, who are profoundly underrepresented at the state and federal levels.
The Democrats are also at fault. By failing to present a class-based appeal to Americans besieged by a pitiless global capitalism, they’ve allowed themselves to be defined as elitist snobs who view the everyday struggles of working-class Americans—especially white males—with contempt. At the same time, they have failed to protect vulnerable minorities from the consequences of the rage and fear felt by this class—manifested most obviously in oppressive patterns of policing that victimize people of color, impoverishing their families, weakening their communities, and ensuring their lifelong alienation from mainstream society.