There’s a fascinating debate going on in punditland and in the political science community over the craziness breaking out in every direction in the GOP presidential nominating contest. The conventional wisdom remains that it’s all a mirage, and that eventually sane “adult” voices in the GOP will resume command and the restless grassroots elements supporting various extremist candidates will fall into docile place, just as they always do. In other words: nothing to see here folks, move along.
But it ought to set off some alarms when AEI’s Norm Ornstein says he doesn’t think this is all political business as usual, as I discussed at Washington Monthly today:
Us old folks remember a time when AEI’s Norman Ornstein was the very voice of The Conventional Wisdom. So his new column at The Atlantic ought to come as a particularly significant warning about this election cycle and the particular level of conservative freakout we are dealing with:
Almost all the commentary from the political-pundit class has insisted that history will repeat itself. That the Trump phenomenon is just like the Herman Cain phenomenon four years ago, or many others before it; that early enthusiasm for a candidate, like the early surge of support for Rudy Giuliani in 2008, is no predictor of long-term success; and that the usual winnowing-out process for candidates will be repeated this time, if on a slightly different timetable, given 17 GOP candidates.
Of course, they may be entirely right. Or not entirely; after all, the stories and commentaries over the past two months saying Trump has peaked, Trumpmania is over, this horrific comment or that is the death knell for Trump, have been embarrassingly wrong. But Trump’s staying power notwithstanding, there are strong reasons to respect history and resist the urge to believe that everything is different now.
Still, I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. And I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals, and itself has been largely co-opted or, at minimum, cowed by them.
As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington. In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, there are regular statements or positions that make the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild.
Perhaps he’s thinking of the widespread subscription to the lunacy of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories, or there’s something even more alarming crawling around out there. But I digress…
Egged on by talk radio, cable news, right-wing blogs, and social media, the activist voters who make up the primary and caucus electorates have become angrier and angrier, not just at the Kenyan Socialist president but also at their own leaders. Promised that Obamacare would be repealed, the government would be radically reduced, immigration would be halted, and illegals punished, they see themselves as euchred and scorned by politicians of all stripes, especially on their own side of the aisle.
So the forces favoring a big-time right-wing insurgency, says Ornstein, are already at the kind of levels that produced conservative uprisings in the GOP in 1964, 1976 (Reagan’s primary challenge to incumbent president Ford), 1980 and 1994. But wait: it could be worse than those:[I]s anything really different this time? I think so. First, because of the amplification of rage against the machine by social media, and the fact that Barack Obama has grown stronger and more assertive in his second term while Republican congressional leaders have become more impotent. The unhappiness with the establishment and the desire to stiff them is much stronger. Second, the views of rank-and-file Republicans on defining issues like immigration have become more consistently extreme–a majority now agree with virtually every element of Trump’s program, including expelling all illegal immigrants.
There’s more from Ornstein, but you get the idea. For years right-wing insurgent energy has flamed up and died down in a cycle that keeps getting more dangerous. This time the fire may be out of control.