Yesterday, America awoke to the news that the Supreme Court blocked Donald Trump’s attempt to leverage the futures of 700,000 Americans for selfish purposes. Yes, this is a familiar refrain. Hum along with me anyway.
The DACA policy then-President Barack Obama adopted in 2012 allowed individuals brought illegally into the United States as children to obtain work permits and maintain residence here. Trump attempted to rescind DACA, but has no interest in deporting DACA beneficiaries. Even 70% of Trump voters want them to stay. But like all of humanity, Trump’s only interest in these 700,000 souls is to exploit them as leverage. He hoped to cancel the policy and then force its legislative reinstatement in trade for wall funding or sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads or whatever Trump’s white nationalist backers demand in tribute.
For now, the Supreme Court has stopped all that, holding that Trump’s attempt to rescind DACA was—surprise!—“arbitrary and capricious.” If that is the standard, everything Trump does is illegal. And what is more, the deciding vote was cast by Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee supposedly part of the Court’s conservative majority.
The DACA opinion was the Administration’s second legal setback of the week. The Court also extended the federal Civil Rights Act to protect gay and transsexual Americans from discrimination. The 6-3 decision was written by Trump’s own appointee, Neil Gorsuch, Federalist Society prince and heir to Justice Scalia’s originalist throne, and also joined by Chief Justice Roberts.
The Lucy-and-the-football relationship between conservatives and the Supreme Court is nothing new. They were convinced the votes existed to overturn Roe v. Wade in the early 1990s, only to have Republican appointees David Souter and Anthony Kennedy betray them then. Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were both Kennedy clerks. There may be reasons to doubt the sincerity of their purported loyalty to social conservatives.
At the same time the Supreme Court was gutting Trump’s legal strategy, the Republican Party suffered its latest blow from John Bolton, whose only achievement in his 17-month tenure as National Security Adviser was to discover that Trump is unqualified. While Bolton’s epiphany is a more significant achievement than any of the office’s other three Trump-era occupants have managed, it is hardly news. Bolton’s target audience must be those who missed the nuance in former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s warning about “those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution” and Trump’s own “lack of mature leadership.” Antifa could have appointed an entire Board of Directors out of ex-Trump cabinet members before Bolton even cashed his advance check.
With these events in mind, it’s fair to say that the modern conservative era wasn’t supposed to end with a barely-literate game-show host. More to the point, it wasn’t supposed to end at all. In 1980, Ronald Reagan carried nearly 51% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes. Jimmy Carter managed only 40% and 49 electoral votes. Reagan won an even larger landslide victory four years later, and these results were to auger the Golden Age of conservatism.
The demographics of the 1980 voting populace are instructive. 18-29 year olds divided exactly down the middle that year, 44% for Reagan and 44% for Carter with the rest to John Anderson. But Reagan clobbered Carter among voters making $25-$50,000–a middle-class wage in 1980–by a whopping 26 points. Those making over $50,000–5% of Americans that year–handed Reagan a 40-point victory. And Reagan significantly improved his standing in all these categories when he ran for re-election in 1984.
Reagan’s personal background was also reflective of the country, as he often liked to remind voters. An active Democrat and one-time President of the Screen Actors’ Guild during his Hollywood years, Reagan moved to the right after acting as a spokesman and television host for General Electric. He didn’t leave the Democrats, Reagan said, the Democrats left him.
Middle-class Americans went with him. And Republicans assumed that young voters would get jobs, join the middle-class cohort, and maintain the Republican advantage. It worked for a few years.
But if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. After Ross Perot’s independent 1992 bid broke up the Reagan coalition and ushered in the Clinton years, George W. Bush recaptured the White House in 2000. But the Republican majority had collapsed to 537 disputed Florida votes. After the tragedy of 9/11 and the Iraq War, Bush narrowly won reelection with a bare majority–the last popular majority Republicans may ever win. The Great Recession then swept Barack Obama to eight years in office, a psychological indignity Republicans never overcame.
The details of Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 win need not be recounted here. Though he won only 46% of the vote–Hillary Clinton received 48%–Trump filled his electoral inside straight by relying on the most evenly-distributed demographic group in America–non-college educated white men. Fortunately for Trump, they are particularly well-distributed around the electoral vote-rich Great Lakes states that powered Trump’s victory–Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
But now with only a few months left in his term, multiple polls show Trump losing by double-digit margins. Americans register severe disapproval of Trump’s handling of COVID-19 and racial protest. But even these headlines doesn’t quite reflect Republican peril, which now poses an existential threat.
Take just one recent poll conducted by YouGov and The Economist, showing former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump 50%-41%. While this lead is sizable, Mr. Biden led Trump among 18-29 year olds by 43 points, and among 30-44 year olds by 24. The 40-year coalition of social conservatives with the Republican Party has been so successful that its children want nothing to do with it.
And wait, there’s more. Remember those middle-class suburbanites that supported Reagan? While YouGov 2020 respondents in every income category preferred Mr. Biden, those earning $50-$100,000–today’s middle class–chose him by an astounding 57-35 margin.
These results are not unique. Fox News reported in its most recent poll that Mr. Biden enjoys an overall 12-point advantage, but the lead expands to 37 points among voters under 30, and 22 points among suburban voters.
Given these trends, it seems fair to ask: Even if Trump somehow managed reelection, what would be the point with the country’s future so lopsidedly against him?
Some maintain that the point is for Trump to preserve “Christian” values. Stop laughing. Yes, I know. Conservatives abandoned the so-called “culture war” decades ago. Republicans’ obsessions with money and power motivated their retreat from any pretense toward culture—music, art, literature, television, movies—and now they feign surprise that the feeling is mutual. Republicans’ disdain for the humanities merely reflects their disinterest in humanity. One Republican once told me our young boys shouldn’t take tap dance classes because they might become gay. Better gay than Republican, as voters are coming to see.
This cultural retreat has driven the secular Republican Party and the “Christian” right into an unholy alliance—like the crazy couple dating each other because no one else will. This has resulted in an increasingly bizarre amalgam of cockamamie church-and-state incest, wherein “Christians” invoke the Lord’s imprimatur to defend decidedly non-scriptural positions like refusing to wear masks in public.
“Christians” also stoutly defend Trump because alleged societal collapse has become, for them, an exercise in fundraising. Indeed, it’s hard to track whether the fundraising is for conservatism, or the conservatism is for fundraising. Gorsuch’s opinion alone is probably worth another $10 million in advertising buys and consulting fees. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and remember that in today’s Republican Party, everything is Caesar’s. Pass the hat.
Others claim that Trump must shepherd the economy. Voters concerned about their pocketbooks may be willing to be persuaded, but recent events clarify that Social Darwinism is not their idea of economic progress. For instance, COVID has only increased the percentage of voters supporting universal health care, and Black Lives Matter reminds Americans that some have been victimized by generations of malignant actors, not natural selection. They are coming to realize that society’s “winners” rigged the game, and so like the rules as they are now. In any event, most voters appear interested in a president who does more than ride the vagaries of the business cycle.
At the end of the day though, it is a mistake—both by Trump’s supporters and his opponents—to suggest that Trump holds any kind of ideology at all. To say Trump is a social or an economic conservative is like saying a gorilla is a fish or a lemon. Gorillas don’t have scales or peels, and Trump has no values. Instead, Trump merely personifies modern Republican sensibilities—he detests ideas, worships money, abuses power, fears minorities, justifies the means by the ends, and encourages chaos to distract attention from his sociopathy.
Remarkably enough, the young, suburban voters most likely to sustain any kind of long-term realignment aren’t buying the Republican Party’s alpha avatar. In fact, they are the most opposed to Trump’s reelection. Should the loss of these voters bear out in November, it is entirely fair to wonder what the Republican Party will do for the next two decades while waiting for this generation’s children to age enough to rebel against their parents.
Or to put it another way, if Trump isn’t making America great for young and middle-class voters, who’s he making it great for? Once you’ve answered that question, you may begin to understand just what a road to nowhere Republicans have constructed. Here we go. Here we go.