A New American Conservatism
In 2013, Stephen Bannon, former Executive Chairman of Breitbart, a conservative news website, spoke against the Republican establishment in Washington D.C., calling for a populist insurrection “to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and institutional Republican party.”
Three years later, in August 2016, Bannon became Chief Executive Officer of the Trump Campaign. Establishment Republicans in recent history have not allied themselves so directly with media moguls and vice versa, so this partnership represents an unprecedented shift in Republican campaigning. Bannon was formerly a United States Navy Officer and then an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and he has also directed and produced films such as Fire from the Heartland: the Awakening of the Conservative Woman. Conor Friedersdorf wrote that month in the Atlantic, “Bannon’s visceral hatred of the left and self-righteous desire to destroy it frequently appears to overwhelm whatever other moral or ideological beliefs he holds.” According to Friedersdorf, Bannon’s anti-leftist sentiments have overwhelmed his work in media and left little room for accuracy and plenty of space for outrage, turning Breitbart into “a propaganda arm of the Trump campaign.”
“There’s always fear mongering in American politics so I think [sites like Breitbart] appeal to those who are worried about the American future and their role in America,” said Jeffrey Berry, Professor of Political Science at Tufts and co-author of The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. “Breitbart is certainly alternative in the sense that it is very conspiracy-oriented. Breitbart and similar websites have lots of articles that are, if not fantasy, then representative of very extreme points of view that are not based on real journalism. They have less respect for data and hard journalism precepts.”
Breitbart’s tab titled “2016: The Race” features articles heavily biased in favor of Trump and against Hillary and Bill Clinton. One article’s title features the phrase “Crooked Hillary,” a phrase coined by Trump himself, and in the “National Security” section of the site, one can find an article headlined, “Mexico Sees Spike in Death Cult, Demonic Possession, Exorcisms.”
“This stuff isn’t like the old Republican or Conservative politics. This is different: far more xenophobic and far more nationalistic,” said Professor of Political Science at Tufts and President and Founder of the New Democrat Network, Simon Rosenberg.
Breitbart’s overt, and therefore novel, display of xenophobia and racism mirrors the transformation that the Republican Party is seeing with Trump’s candidacy. According to Rosenberg, Trumpian Conservatism is a “cousin” of other strains of Republican rhetoric that America has already seen.
“Trump is articulating something that feels different, and it is. There has been, historically, in the modern era, an outwardly focused, globally oriented political party, and a more nativistic, parochial Republican party. There’s part of the Republican Party that is still focused on the Chamber of Commerce, growth, capitalism, etc. Trump is far more avowedly nativistic and, arguably, anti-capitalist,” Rosenberg said.
Political Science Department Chair and Professor Deborah Schildkraut explained that this shift in the Republican ethos to one more focused on White nationalism depends on factors like immigration, the Obama presidency, the rise of the Tea Party, and the 2010 mid-term elections. Professor Berry noted that demographic changes in America have inspired feelings of uncertainty within White, often-rural communities at different points in the country’s history, including today.
“There’s frequently a nationalist or much more extreme-oriented sector that’s less committed to small government and business and more committed to working to protect certain peoples’ rights, White rights,” he said. “There’s also a reaction against growing numbers of minority people in the United States, and a feeling that an ‘American way of life’ has been lost. Trump appealed to that constituency in a much more direct way than any of the other candidates.”
Schildkraut believes that the prominence of the Tea Party, a grassroots movement with the idea of “taking America back” from big government as its core message, in recent elections propelled Trump to his current position in the Republican Party.
“I think it’s very unlikely that [Trump] would have been as successful as he is without the Tea Party, even though he is not aligned with the Tea Party and does not use that label to describe himself,” she said. “I think it’s fairly clear that this is the case of the Tea Party phenomenon working its way up the political food chain in that you have a Republican political establishment that just doesn’t know what to do.”
Internal factors within the party also contributed to changes in Republican ideology. The 2010 mid-term elections saw substantial gains for Republicans in Congress. Schildkraut explained that there was huge pressure for Republicans to move further right, while establishment leaders were left in the minority with little voice.
This new, extreme, fringe conservatism that is xenophobic, nativistic, and anti-global at its core is not present only in the United States.
“This is not happening in a vacuum. There are similarities to what’s happening in Europe but it’s not the same,” Rosenberg said.
European nations are taking strong stances against immigration in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis. A Pew Research Center survey revealed that in Greece and Italy, over half the sample population said that growing diversity makes their countries worse places to live. Another Pew Research Center poll showed that over half the populations of 8 out of the 10 countries surveyed believe that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism on their soil.
Though the rhetoric may be similar globally, Rosenberg points out how the United States and Europe are separate entities, each with its own distinct past and present.
“I think our country is very different and it’s not going to play as well here, that’s my own view. We have a completely different history with migration and race than Europe does,” Rosenberg said. “What [Trump] is doing is conflating the terrorism in Europe with domestic threats.”
Rosenberg also hinted at troubling connections between Trump and Russia. Trump has claimed that Obama founded ISIS and has blamed both Obama and Clinton for strife in Syria though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has supported President Bashar al-Assad militarily. Moreover, Russia seems responsible for both hacking DNC emails and infiltrating Clinton Campaign data in July; this occurred following a public statement by Trump encouraging hackers to search through Clinton’s data.
“He had all the time in the world to denounce the Russians for interfering in the election and he’s never criticized them for anything,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg suggests that, aside from his racist rhetoric, this aspect of Trump’s campaign is another reason why establishment Republicans have distanced themselves from him. Trump appears willing to compromise the democratic process in order to win the election.
Rosenberg, who has worked in politics in Arizona, cites the Arizona Republic’s endorsement of Clinton on September 27 as an “unimaginable event” considering the publication’s conservative history.
It seems this election has changed the Republican party irrevocably and indelibly, and Trump was a natural result of factors present for the last decade. Schildkraut thinks that using strategies of White nationalism to win a presidential election may fail, but they can be effective in congressional and senatorial races.
“I think in the long-term there’s some truth to the argument that demography is destiny, and the nation is changing so much demographically that to be a party where your supporters are mainly White is going to make it really hard to be successful at a presidential level. In the short-term, the fact is that many senators, governors, and people running for congress don’t face that same problem,” she said.
While Berry predicts that Trump will become the “dominant force in the party going forward” if he wins the election, he also believes there could be “a fight over the soul of the Republican party between the very conservative, grass-roots Republicans and the business, establishment Republicans” if he loses. Rosenberg posits that, win or lose, Trump has already boosted the confidence and self-importance of some far-right members of the government.
“Huge numbers in the House who have been empowered by Trump are going to come out of the election believing that they are not a minority of the Republican Party, but rather the future of the Republican Party,” Rosenberg said. “So, the fight over the future of the Republican Party is going to be more bloody and consequential even than it’s been to this point.”
Establishment Republicans’ disavowals of Trump and unwillingness to associate with him make this election so remarkable. The Tea Party outcropping enabled Trump’s rise and he has, inadvertently or not, widened the divide within a major political party.
“There’s been a rejection of Trump by institutional interests in the Republican Party that is unprecedented in the modern history of our country,” Rosenberg said. “That’s a sign that things are not okay. This is a more pernicious version of this strain of xenophobic politics that had been latent in the Republican party.”