Prophecy is a lonely business. Often you have to wait a long time to get a return on investment, if you get one at all. Suffering defeat in the Republican primaries in 1996 (after getting off to a roaring start), Pat Buchanan bowed out with these words: “Within this party, a new party is being born.” Give the devil his due. He was right.
Bill Barr is worse than an enabler and a hypocrite. He’s a delusionist. Get rid of Trump, he hallucinates, and some reincarnation of a mythic Ronald Reagan will set things right, as in the right kind of right. But Buchanan knew better. Long before Trump arrived on the scene, the GOP was undergoing a social transplant that actually began with Reagan’s triumph. The “party of Reagan” which Barr fantasizes about was never the way he imagines it. Its vital components included a politically awakened evangelical Christianity, and working-class refugees from the Democratic Party, whose numbers have grown over the years – “Reagan Democrats” – who were fed up with liberalism’s failures to address the tragic wounds accompanying de-industrialization. This is not Barr terrain.
Signs of this social realignment resurfaced again and again after Reagan retired to Rancho Bravo. There was Buchanan himself, of course, whose politics of resentment were feared by established Republican leaders as too anti-elitist, even anti-corporate, or what William Buckley had years earlier labeled “country and western Marxism.” (Sachems in the party had no trouble with Buchanan’s anti-immigrant outbursts; Barr himself, while Attorney General under Bush Sr., indulged.) Then, there was Ross Perot, not a Republican but who fished in similar waters and garnered 19% of the vote in the presidential election of 1992, making Bill Clinton a minority President. And then, in the wake of the global financial collapse of 2008, arose the Tea Party. Denouncing bailouts to the banks and bailouts to evicted home-owners caught in the web of the sub-prime debacle, the party was a true insurgency from within. It commanded the loyalties of middling sorts, among them entrepreneurial types and wannabe entrepreneurs whose religiosity mirrored the religion of family capitalism, its piety, its patriarchy, its mythos of self-reliance, and hostility to the state which in real life they lived off. While dynastic capitalists like the Koch brothers and others supplied lots of money, the notion that this rebellion was fake, a kind of Astro-turf confection summoned and dismissed at will by the high and mighty, was another delusion, this one entertained by the liberal-left.
Uprising or call it what you will, it had real grass roots. And it was long in the making, and had real victories; for example, in challenging establishment, incumbent Republicans. Senators Rubio, Lee, and Rand Paul took office through such challenges to the old guard, as did many members of the House. Of course, its ultimate triumph was Trump.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party that Barr pines for kept out the barbarians like Buchanan. It consisted of the business classes, including the main arteries of the corporate economy, agribusinesses and real estate developers and family farmers as well as a mass constituency in a suburban universe of professionals, middle managers, techies, and their families, plus congregations of upright Protestant denominations and lace curtain Catholics. Those were the days when the GOP was grand enough to embrace heterogeneous multitudes, but homogenous enough to stay within boundaries of bien pensant bourgeois life.
Those days, Barr’s paradisical days, are over. Elements of that old order remain. But they no longer run the show. Faux populists with an authoritarian bent do. Authoritarian populism draws its energy from a stew of sentiments. Restorationist impulses (a return to patriarchy, calls to duty and self-reliance, nostalgia for small town life, yearnings for law and order) on one side. On the other, a hostility to upper middle-class elitism (or what has more recently come to be called the “professional-managerial class”), to the welfare state bureaucracy, its implicit holier-than-thou attitudes and its explicit judgmental surveillance, and to the Olympian circles of finance and industry which have, with great imperial indifference, turned the accumulated wherewithal of working-class life into road kill.
Among the “deplorables” some vent their ressentiment racially. No doubt Barr deplores these “deplorables” for their uncouthness. But what he wants banished is not so much the racially impolite, but the undertones of class consciousness which racism often reveals, however perversely.
On the one hand, the main institutions of industry and finance have deserted their customary home in the Republican Party and gone native; “woke capital” is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. So, people like Barr or Mitch McConnell feel abandoned. On the other hand, the barbarians who’ve taken over are not shy about excommunicating the Fortune 500, which is not at all what the old guard feels comfortable doing.
Take Ron DeSantis. Lately, he’s gone to placing the corporate and financial elite in the cross-hairs of his political blitzkrieg. Nor is this limited to his take-down of Disney. “Masters of the Universe are using their economic power to impose policies on the country that they could not do at the ballot boxes.” Championing the “little guy,” he vowed during the midterms that, “We will fight the woke in corporate America.” This kind of populist language has become popular in a party that once would have turned away in disgust. A recent Gallup poll notes that Republican unhappiness with corporate America has risen from 36% to 68%.
DeSantis is a textbook demagogue. But this kind of class-inflected political rhetoric used to find a home in the Democratic Party. Of course, it still does in the person of Bernie Sanders and the movement/political caucus he’s created. However, certain anomalies suggest the new social dynamics that led to Trump and that leaves Barr out in the cold. Liberals may find some cold comfort in dismissing the Trumpian upheaval as the outpouring of hillbilly racism. But during the 2016 primaries many undecided voters wavered between voting for Trump or Sanders. When it came to the 2016 presidential election, districts that had voted twice for Obama voted for Trump. One in ten Trump voters had been Sanders’ supporters. Meanwhile in 2020 the twenty wealthiest congressional districts in the country voted Democratic.
The old verities have lost traction. For some time now, the bipartisan failures of the neo-liberal order have left things in flux. Whither the Republican Party? Who knows? Splitting in two seems next to inconceivable, given the American context. Trump blusters in that direction, and while rare it’s happened before. One thing seems more certain. Among the unlamented casualties of the Party’s transformation are people like Barr. The barbarians are inside the tent. Trump looks like he’s done (famous last words I realize). But as many agree, Trumpism is not. “Never Trump” is no more than an impious wish concealing the hapless ambition of a professional suck-up hoping to surf the wave. Good luck with that.