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This review appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
When Republicans get their hands on American Carnage, they’re likely to read it and weep. Tim Alberta is pessimistic about their party’s future and has few nice things to say about its leaders. When (and if) Democrats read the book, they’ll rejoice over Alberta’s account of the GOP’s decline. It’s extremely well-reported and readable. Indeed, it has the best collection of political anecdotes—serious anecdotes, not just funny ones—I’ve read in years. This is a great book, all 612 pages of it.
But I have one qualm. Politics is unstable, unpredictable, and unpleasant these days. There are no dynasties and no permanent majorities. When my son took a job with a Republican House member in 2009, I warned him that he’d be working in the minority for years to come. He’d have to be patient. The next year, Republicans won sixty-three House seats, then held the majority for the next eight years. My point is that fast recoveries are possible.
Nonetheless, Alberta makes a compelling case for a continuing Republican decline. And there are valid reasons for believing a comeback isn’t around the corner. What Alberta calls “the Republican civil war” between the establishment and uncompromising conservatives has abated, but only because Republicans are no longer in total charge of Washington.
There are two ways to look at American Carnage: the visceral and the thematic. By visceral, I mean how you react emotionally to a book or article as you read it. You may tear up, for example, as you read about the brave men on Flight 93. By thematic, I’m referring to strategies, ideas, policies, and individual Republicans, and how these things stack up.
Alberta may not be a NeverTrumper, but he’s close. He provides many anecdotes about Trump’s dishonesty and unsavoriness. They are bound to have a negative impact on readers, who may get angry. Trump claimed he didn’t really believe President Obama was born outside the United States. House Speaker John Boehner told Alberta that Trump “absolutely” did. “He wouldn’t have spent the money to send people to Hawaii and do the investigation if he didn’t believe it,” Boehner told Alberta. Someone was lying, and I doubt it was Boehner.
“Trump told hundreds and likely thousands of provable lies during the 2016 campaign, falsehoods both big (his supposed opposition to the Iraq War) and small (his endorsement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” Alberta writes. “He routinely said things far outside the mainstream of political discourse, be they personal insults or pointless boasts or menacing threats.”
And here, thanks to Alberta, is a Trump tale I hadn’t heard. “As if intentionally pushing the limits to see what else he could get away with, Trump joined the InfoWars program hosted by Alex Jones, the country’s most prominent conspiracy theorist,” Alberta writes. Trump told Jones: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” To Trump, Jones was “someone who could help him win the presidency.”
Another reflexive response may be prompted by Alberta’s analysis of the 2018 midterm elections:
The story of the midterms was Democrats’ supremacy in the suburbs. From New York to Philadelphia to Washington to Richmond to Atlanta to Detroit to Chicago to Des Moines to Houston to Oklahoma City to Denver to Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, Republicans bled support in America’s suburbs, giving away dozens of districts that had been drawn by GOP lawmakers not long before under the impression that those voters were party lifers.
In national exit polling, Democrats won women by a nineteen-point margin, up from a ten-point spread in 2016. Among white women, Democrats won by twenty points. Some of the most effective GOP members—such as Peter Roskam of Illinois and Barbara Comstock of Virginia—who possessed “strong individual brands back home” could not “overcome the president’s devastating unpopularity,” according to Alberta. Trump “proved an explosive accelerant” to the suburban trend away from the GOP.”
Trump has singled out Roskam and Comstock as House members who lost because they failed to “embrace” him. This is self-indulgent nonsense. Their middle-class suburban districts are simply not Trump territory. They know better than Trump what works best for Republican candidates and what doesn’t.
Nationally, Republicans are on the wrong side of demographic tables. “Trump’s party performed splendidly among the fastest-declining groups of voters and the decreasingly populated parts of the country in 2016, but Democrats dominated among the fastest-growing groups of voters and increasingly populated parts of the country,” Alberta writes.
Alberta has more bad news. In 2018, “Republicans found that no amount of spinning their Senate and gubernatorial wins could mask the three-front war awaiting them in 2020.”
Democrats were converting the suburbs into political garrisons. They were reasserting themselves in the Rust Belt states, demonstrating the limits of a strategy banking on big margins with working-class whites. And they were creeping closer to parity in three states, Texas, Arizona, and Georgia.
Alberta may be exaggerating on these points, but not by much.
On the Republican side, there’s something missing. Since Trump was a leading cause of the rout of Republicans in the midterms, he now needs to transform himself into the cause of a rebound. It would require him to tone down his crude and accusatory style. Should he refuse, many of the suburbanites who abandoned the GOP last year won’t be coming home in 2020.
It’s no secret that being personally likable is an asset in politics. It worked for Ronald Reagan and JFK. They didn’t spend time counterpunching journalists, Hollywood figures, and minor political opponents. Why? Because it didn’t help them win elections. Nor does Trump’s truculence boost him and Republicans today.
Among the President′s Enemies
Alberta deals with two Republican struggles, both of which are harmful to the party. One pits Freedom Caucus conservatives in the House against their elected leaders. Alberta is on the side of the conservatives. The other fight is between Trump and any Republican in Congress who has uttered an unkind word about him. Alberta likes the president’s enemies best.
What’s odd is that three of Alberta’s best sources are recent House leaders now out of politics and willing to be quoted on the record: ex–House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan and former House majority leader Eric Cantor. Boehner is especially quotable. Cantor’s comments are wise. Ryan is Alberta’s whipping boy.
I assume the anecdote about Boehner and John McCain at an emergency White House summit during the 2008 presidential campaign came from Boehner. A Wall Street bailout was being considered.
“So, Boehner,” McCain says, “what’s the plan?”
“What the hell do you mean, what’s the plan?” Boehner said, coughing cigarette smoke. “You’re running for president. You suspended your campaign. You called the meeting. You tell us!”
McCain had no plan. His campaign had reached a dead end.
As Speaker, Boehner preached teamwork. But a “vocal minority . . . dismissed Boehner’s call for teamwork and rebelled, convinced that brawling in pursuit of the unattainable was better than accepting half-measures.”
This led to “a catch-22,” Alberta writes. The author understood the impasse that most of the Washington press corps didn’t. “Republican leaders envisioned using their majority to demonstrate the party’s capacity for smart, responsible governance, but they had won their majority by mobilizing the conservative base around patently unrealistic promises. They had set themselves up for failure.”
Alberta has a clever explanation of “the underlying problem bedeviling the GOP.” It was “a lack of congruity” that “could be chalked up to its whiplash-inducing return to power in 2010. Time in the minority can be enormously beneficial for a political party—time to reflect, study, question, strategize, change. Storming back into the House majority just two years removed from George W. Bush’s departure, Republicans, it was clear, were not yet prepared to be a majority party.”
Nor was the party prepared for Trump. It’s been nearly three years since he was elected, and it’s still not clear if he is destroying the party or saving it. Alberta considers the case for savior. The party “was pacified. It was insular. It was disconnected from the concerns of everyday voters. It was fragile and apathetic and utterly without conviction.”
As president, Trump has “channeled the angst of forgotten Americans. He campaigned in ways that exposed the impotence and indifference of the ruling class. And he governed in ways that were fearless, prioritizing with single-mindedness his commitments to the few rather than modulating in hopes of gaining approval of the many.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes Trump’s first two years in office were the most productive from a conservative standpoint since he was elected in 1984. Alberta echoes McConnell: “Trump has accomplished more for Republicans than any individual in three decades.” His “judicial appointments alone have altered the landscape of American life for a generation.”
Then he asks the pertinent question: Was the cost of unleashing Trump too high? Republicans have failed to rebuke Trump’s bad behavior. And they’re now beholden to him. “The elemental prerequisite for GOP lawmakers attempting to keep their job is to stay out of the president’s crosshairs, to avoid antagonizing his supporters back in their states and districts,” Alberta contends. “This requires considerable sacrifices, chief among them ideological consistency.”
Alberta has a warm spot in his heart for few Republican politicians. The exceptions are those rebellious conservatives in the House whose agenda consists of measures with no chance of passage. At least they believe in it.
On the other hand, he takes an unfair potshot at McConnell. “Forever paranoid about his vulnerabilities on the right,” Alberta writes, “McConnell privately worried that in the two years between passing a bill in 2018 and standing for reelection in 2020, all it would take was a single paroled criminal doing something heinous to end his career.”
The issue was the criminal justice reform bill that cleared the Senate earlier this year. Bob Dole’s famous adage about the safest way to vote is to vote against any bill that passes and for a bill that doesn’t. But McConnell didn’t take the safe path by voting no. He voted for the bill under which thousands of convicted criminals have already been released from prison.
Alberta has also picked Ryan for harsh criticism. He adopts the tool used by Never Trumpers against Republicans every time they remain silent when the president makes a boorish comment or takes an unpopular action. The anti-Trump gang pillories them. Their aim is to embarrass Republican leaders and get them to abandon Trump. But Ryan worked with Trump and rarely chastised him. Thus he was an enabler of Trump.
The enabler idea is invoked to intimidate, spread blame, and tar someone’s name. And Alberta accuses Ryan of making “a Faustian bargain in which he sold his soul to Trump in exchange for policy wins. The tragedy was, in the eyes of Ryan’s friends, that those wins, from tax reform to the omnibus bill, weren’t remotely worth the damage to his reputation.”
As luck would have it, I happen to be a long-time friend of Ryan’s. I’ve known him since he arrived in Washington as a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of Miami University of Ohio. His reputation as an honest, principled, fair-minded, and conservative politician is intact. It’s dented only because, in his leadership role, he couldn’t achieve the impossible, such as entitlement reform. And he was right not to blow up the Republican Party by exploiting his perch to part ways with Trump.
My objection to Alberta’s treatment of Ryan is a disagreement—a strong one. American Carnage is not exactly my take on the Republican wars. But it’s the best book on politics since Robert Novak’s Prince of Darkness in 2007. ♦
Fred Barnes is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the coauthor with Morton Kondracke of Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America.
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