Some of the more immediate causes are the moral bankruptcy of the GOP. After Obama was elected in 2008, the leadership realized that they could not gain power with policies that were out of touch with a large swath of U.S. citizens. Energized and made more conservative by the Tea Party, they decided to take advantage of the upcoming 2010-census-based redistricting. Basically, they decided to gerrymander themselves into power. While gerrymandering is the usual thing a party in power does during redistricting, the GOP pulled out all the stops – call it gerrymandering on steroids. David Daley describes this in his book. The unusualness of the GOP approach becomes also clear by the number of redistricting laws that have been struck down in recent months. The other prong of the GOP power-grab was undermining the voting rights of those they could not reach with their conservative policies: People of color. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it opened the way for the racist laws that would restrict voting access. And state-level Republicans took full advantage of that – to Corrupt Trump’s benefit.
(As an aside, because the GOP also knew that their policies contradict the US constitution – at least from the perspective of legal minds without agenda – they needed to prevent Obama from appointing a Supreme Court judge. They were not confident that a judge without a conservative agenda would uphold their illiberal laws.)
With Corrupt Trump, they did not see a man who has no moral compass, who personifies Harry Frankfurt’s ideas on bullshit. Instead they saw an opportunity to take advantage of a man without policies to push their agenda through, to complete undermining at least the promise of the United States’ visionary foundation. To understand why they did this, we need to look at two other things: The authoritarian origin of conservatism and the mixed brew of racism and sexism.
Before we do, let’s briefly add to the more immediate causes the failure of too large a portion of the Left/Democrats/Progressives – basically everybody not in the authoritarian-wing of the GOP – to see how that wing was organizing. They systematically filled positions in local and state governments, which allowed them to push through their immoral agenda undermining the liberal aspects of our democracy. The biggest failure might have been, though, not to fully understand, let alone address, the origins of the authoritarian thinking.
The origin of authoritarianism, as I argued in my thesis, is the nuclear family headed by the male father. The father has the authority both over his wife and his children. He decides. He rules. While this type of family has been somewhat democratized, this shift did not happen at all in conservative families. In fact, conservatism is maintained through the strict father model, which, when brought to politics, produces an authoritarian leader. The influence of this conservative, hierarchical family might be reflected in the decreasing number of people, especially young people, who believe it is essential to live in a democracy. (This could also be a lack of experience with non-democratic ways of living… Or both…)
There is another central institution in the U.S. and North-Western countries: The capitalist corporation. The corporation is an authoritarian system: It is headed by one person – usually by a white, cis-gendered, married man – who makes decisions on the direction of the company that impact all stakeholders, many of them without any input. The erosion of unions, going back to at least Ronald Reagan, has increased the power of the CEO and his cronies, greatly contributing to both the increase of wealth and income inequality and the further undermining of democracy. As inequality increased, the incentive to corrupt the political process to ensure the maintenance of the current system took over both political parties, particularly the GOP. With the selection of Corrupt Trump as their presidential candidate, the GOP stopped pretending to be a democratic party. Their open embrace of an authoritarian made them an authoritarian party.
Gerrymandering and voter restrictions were not enough to ensure their power grab. They also needed to convince enough voters. The GOP did so by shoring up the ideas that have been latent even before the US was founded. Recently pushed into the underground, they were ready to explode back into the open: Racist and sexist ideas that could be used to justify a system that only works for the few.
After the election, predominately white, mostly male pundits and politicians were quick to blame economic anxiety for Corrupt Trump’s win. The data shows otherwise: It’s what The Atlantic euphemistic calls “cultural anxiety,” the anxiety white men (and women) feel about losing their status at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. It was the interplay of racism and sexism that drove this cultural anxiety.
As an example, the vast majority of white Evangelicals voted for Corrupt Trump – to the tune of 81%. While this might seem to contradict their values, after all he has been married multiple times, for example, it is consistent with Evangelical Christian history and with the authoritarian hierarchy in their families and churches. Racist ideas that justified their economic advantages allowed Puritans to support slavery and helped Southern Christians feel nothing when keeping supposedly freed slaves in horrid conditions as late as the 1930s.
So, what are the key ideas justifying this current mess? The key ideas center around systems justifications of the strict father model, which is also known as patriarchy! While there are too often debates about whether racism or sexism are at the root, I argue that they are so intertwined that it makes little sense to look at them separately. Racism and sexism uphold each other. The hierarchical system of patriarchy is maintained by dividing women through racism and by dividing people not at the top through sexism. Who is at the top? White men. They are followed by white women, then men of color, and finally women of color. There are further hierarchies within each group justified with other forms of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination, including homophobia and singlism. It is a hierarchical system that is based on arbitrary criteria, such as gender and skin color, instead of things like skill, knowledge, or wisdom.
In summary, I believe there are three keys to our current political regime:
- The strict father model creates the foundation by teaching us to accept hierarchies and making authoritarianism seem normal. It is taught within the nuclear family and/or through the structure of organizations most of us work for.
- Sexist ideas are used as systems justification for the strict father model within the family and the larger system.
- Racist ideas are used as systems justification for the strict father model within the larger system.
What do we do now? How do we dismantle this system? It will involve several strategies – including a shorter-term defense of democracies. Longer-term it needs to include restructuring families – probably through a system similar to the intentional family I sketched in my thesis. I am also looking to the work of Grace Lee Boggs for some guidance and will share my ideas here once they are ready.
Update: Not surprisingly, I am not the only one thinking along these lines. I just discovered an article in The Establishment that makes similar points. It is crucial, though, to add sexism to the mix because it furnishes more ideas that justify the system that brought us Corrupt Trump. And it is likely what drove a higher percentage of black men to vote for Corrupt Trump compared to black women.