“But what is their endgame?”
A friend asked me that question as we were surveying the wreckage of the past 18 months since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, capped by a series of demoralizing decisions by the Supreme Court and the prospect of an even more conservative court with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
What kind of country would the Republican elite who currently control all levers of power in the United States like to see? President Trump himself represents a primal scream on the part of a group of voters who fear the changes that were leading to greater racial and gender equality as well as the impact of globalization. Those were not the reasons that wealthy Republicans voted for a chaos agent like Mr. Trump. But they have been willing to tolerate the crassness and erratic behavior of the president to benefit from tax cuts and Supreme Court justices who will protect their corporate interests.
And so, the question remains: Having gotten their tax cut, what is their endgame now? What does the society that they envision look like? Let’s use some broad brushstrokes to start.
It seems pretty clear by now that this Republican elite would be perfectly happy in a United States circa 1925. This was an era of uninterrupted Republican control, an economy with little financial regulation that skewed more wealth to the wealthy, and an anxious nativist, anti-immigrant base. These features — but with better technology and less flagrant racism and sexism — seem to be in our near future.
First, there are the open efforts — with Supreme Court support — to gerrymander the Democratic Party to permanent minority status in many states, including states whose populations are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, such as Wisconsin, and to suppress minority voting suggest that they intend to rig the system to guarantee Republican control.
Next, their determination to stack the federal courts and government agencies with free market ideologues indicates that they want more deregulation and an end to any residual bargaining power on the part of employees and consumers.
Finally, this America offers little to benefit to the denizens of Rust Belt states who voted Republican in the recent election; but that will be OK, too.
Sure, these are the people Mr. Trump promised to protect during the presidential campaign, but now they are losing their jobs as Harley Davidson moves operations overseas and Mid Continent Steel & Wire, Inc. threatens to close down because of new steel tariffs. However, the Republican elite — or rather, the more rabid Trump surrogates such as Steve King of Iowa — will toss out enough racist and misogynistic red meat to keep the base satisfied that at least someone else has it worse off. Broader Republican policies that demonize immigrants, disadvantage black and brown citizens, marginalize the LBGTQ community, and undercut feminist gains will stoke the culture wars that keep the white working class on their side. And once all these goals are achieved, the Republican elite will justify their wealth and power by invoking allegedly morally-neutral “market forces” as responsible for a divide between rich and poor that will only grow wider.
And yet, as Slate’s Stephen Metcalf recently suggested, the Republican elite will continue to want access to the beautiful things that creative individuals — the “liberal elite” they mock relentlessly, but whose approval they seek — have made possible: fine restaurants, music, movies, plays. Mike Pence wanted to go see “Hamilton.” Paul Ryan wanted his picture taken with Seth Rogan. Sarah Huckabee Sanders wanted to eat at a trendy farm-to-table restaurant. They want to send their children to the excellent schools and universities that the intellectual classes provide. I assume that they hope that these educated and artistic classes who voted overwhelmingly against them in the last election will come to accept the new status quo and their own place in it.
To me, this sounds like a dystopia, and I suspect it is not necessarily the world that those white working-class Trump voters thought they were signing up for. But it seems to be the direction in which we are moving. I am a historian, and I am pessimistic. I am reluctant to bet against a wealthy, authoritarian elite, especially one that seems to be taking all the right steps to entrench itself as a permanent ruling minority. The one thing that gives me hope is the passion and anger I see on the part of Democrats who don’t want to live in this world, a passion that I hope will persist through November. With a final backward glance to the 1920s, I hope that it will not take another Great Depression to save us.
Christine Adams is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.