NORTH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – NOVEMBER 07: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Clark County Election Department on November 7, 2020 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Around the country, supporters of presidential candidate Joe Biden are taking to the streets to celebrate after news outlets have declared Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden winner over President Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential race. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Jelani Cobb has a piece in the current New Yorker that neatly encapsulates the magazine’s stock in trade when it comes to political analysis—tightly rendered arguments displaying elements of erudition but ultimately undermined by blinding ideology. In the piece, Cobb poses a question that is distilled in the headline: “How Parties Die: Will the G.O.P. go the way of the Whigs?”
It’s a pertinent question in the wake of the party’s presidential defeat last year and as the nation seeks to sort out the complexities and lingering political realities of the Donald Trump phenomenon. And Cobb provides a worthy sketch of the Whig demise as part of his thumbnail history of political parties in America, from the short-lived Federalists to our own era of partisan wrangling and positioning. But the repugnance he obviously feels toward the Trump rise, and his view that it represents a kind of political depravity, deprives him of any apparent ability to step back and consider in a probing and nuanced way a fundamental question of our time: How do we account for that guy blasting past all the political obstacles of 2016 to become the president of the United States?
To Cobb, a journalism professor at Columbia and New Yorker staff writer, it’s quite simple: The Republican Party has become a party of white, racist radicals.
It all began, in Cobb’s version, with Barry Goldwater in 1964. New York’s Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller warned the party that year that the Arizona conservative represented the politics of “racism and sectionalism,” and others warned that his nomination would lead to a party takeover by “the Ku Kluxers, the John Birchers and other extreme rightwing reactionaries.” Cobb notes that even Richard Nixon attacked John Birch Society zealots as “kooks” (an action that campaign chronicler Theodore White called “courageous”), while Goldwater refused to repudiate the organization.
And when Goldwater captured the nomination anyway, writes Cobb, “shock at his extremism…began to morph into compliance,” as moderate Republicans sought “to protect their own political prospects.” In other words, when the bad guys gained party dominance, erstwhile good guys joined up out of political expediency.
Cobb sees the same thing today in, for example, the political behavior of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell—“despising Donald Trump but knuckling under to the reality of his immense popularity among Republican voters.” And just about everything that happened in America from Goldwater to Trump is viewed through the same prism. It is a story of white Americans flocking to an increasingly extremist Republican Party as a refuge against the forces of history.
“[T]he Party’s predicament,” writes Cobb, “might fairly be called the revenge of ‘the kooks.’” And what drove this rise of a kook-dominated GOP? Not surprisingly, Cobb turns to the hoary notion of “a sensationalist right-wing media” stoking kookish sentiment across the land. But he adds “the emergence of kook-adjacent figures in the so-called Gingrich Revolution, of 1994.” Plus he throws in the “Tea Party” movement, founded in February 2009 as a protest against promiscuous fiscal policies of deficits and debt. All these factors, Cobb tells us, “have redefined the Party’s temper and its ideological boundaries.”
The analytical flaw here stems from the fact that Cobb makes no effort to identify, parse, or understand the complex and dynamic political sensibilities harbored by those Americans he writes about with such carefree censure. The analysis is both binary and static. Binary in that Cobb sees just two fundamental points of view competing in the political marketplace—the commitment to social and racial justice, on the one hand, and rejection of it, on the other. And it is static in that this binary struggle has defined American politics, and the Republican Party’s role in it, from Goldwater to Trump with hardly a zig or zag in the story.
Thus does Cobb conflate Goldwater Republicanism with the John Birch Society, Newt Gingrich with Nixon’s “kooks,” and the great mass of Trump voters with QAnon. That makes for stark polemics (and probably quite effective argumentation with most New Yorker readers). But it’s ultimately superficial political history and transparently tendentious. American politics is far more complex than that: an interaction of competing sentiments, attitudes, interests, hopes, and fears, all swirling through the polity in varying degrees of force and intensity. This wonderful process of democratic politics is never static, always multifarious. Grand victories often contain the seeds of their own reversals; abject defeats sometimes presage party rebounds (as the Goldwater debacle led to the Ronald Reagan presidency just 16 years later).
This swirl of civic energy can be seen in the high-voltage issue of immigration. Cobb doesn’t explore it in detail, but in heralding the Democrats’ emergence as “a multiracial coalition emphasizing civil, women’s, and immigrants’ rights,” he places the issue within the framework of his binary analysis—social justice vs. those who oppose social justice.
But the issue is far more multidimensional than that. Back in 1964, during the Goldwater controversy, the proportion of foreign-born people in America was about 5 percent—a number that generated little popular pushback based on economic or cultural concerns or anxiety about the challenge of assimilation. Today that number is at least three times higher, matching the percentage at the turn of the last century, when immigration stirred the kind of political energy we see today. It isn’t as simple as immigration-good, anti-immigration-bad; fluctuating realities often generate legitimate political concerns that deserve respectful acknowledgement in the messy process of political adjudication.
In an unguarded moment, Cobb quotes historian Ira Katznelson as saying Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, a major black mark against him at the time in the minds of liberals, largely for libertarian reasons. That suggests there were other factors, not involving race, that influenced the debate. And yet Cobb can’t seem to get beyond race to explore such considerations with any seriousness. Similarly, he castigates Republican senators who voted against Trump’s conviction in his impeachment trial after January 6 without noting legitimate constitutional questions involving the propriety of the Senate convicting a private citizen. In his effort to portray those Republicans as craven Trumpists, Cobb conveniently glosses over that aspect of the story.
Of course, it should be noted that Trump has consistently opened the way for attacks like Cobb’s with his often odious behavior and jarring rhetoric. He certainly committed an impeachable offense on January 6 by inciting angry supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and thwart the certification of the Electoral College outcome. But Trump’s great political achievement was seeing in 2016 what almost no one else seemed capable of perceiving—that vast numbers of heartland Americans felt marginalized and put upon by the country’s ruling class. Trump leveraged that potent political reality in often crude ways, but those agitated Americans weren’t going to stay quiescent forever, and they’re not going away.
Cobb’s effort to draw a direct line between what he sees as Goldwater’s extremism and Trump’s excesses meets a powerful counternarrative in Christopher Caldwell’s latest book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. The reforms of that decade, writes Caldwell,
came with costs that proved staggeringly high—in money, freedom, rights, and social stability. Those costs were spread most unevenly among social classes and generations. Many Americans were left worse-off by the changes. Economic inequality reached levels not seen since the age of the 19th-century monopolists. The scope for action conferred on society’s leaders allowed elite power to multiply steadily and, we now see, dangerously, sweeping aside not just obstacles but also dissent.
Caldwell packs more enlightenment in that single paragraph than Cobb musters in his nearly 6,000-word essay. The Democratic Party has become the party of American oligarchy, and that is going to generate powerful political counterforces well into the future. The Republican Party likely will supply the dialectical coherence and political energy to those counterforces.
Which brings us to Cobb’s suggestion that the GOP may be going the way of the Whig Party, which succumbed to the crushing force of the slavery debate after the 1856 presidential election. He writes that the Federalists died out because they failed to expand their demographic appeal, while the Whigs faded because of internal incoherence over what they stood for at a time of powerful political passions. “Among the more striking dynamics of the Trump-era G.O.P.,” he writes, “is the extent to which it is afflicted by both of these failings.” He marshals plenty of vote statistics and demographic data to bolster his case, following generally the work of political analyst Ron Brownstein of Atlantic Media and his exploration of what he calls the “coalition of the ascendant.”
Perhaps Cobb and Brownstein are correct in predicting the looming GOP demise. But huge political battles are raging in America these days: nationalism vs. liberalism; immigration curtailment vs. open borders; foreign-policy restraint vs. American hegemony; governmental retrenchment vs. governmental expansion; Black Lives Matter vs. law and order; identity politics vs. the color-blind society; and the fiery passions incited by the question of political correctness. It’s difficult to visualize the death of the Republican Party so long as these issues are roiling America.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy, including, most recently, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).