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‘How the hell did that happen?’: The Trump takeover of the GOP and what it means

Posted at 12:41 PM, Jul 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-16 14:41:58-04

American Carnage,” Politico reporter Tim Alberta’s deep dive into how President Donald Trump staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party — and what the party has done since — is out today. Alberta’s reporting in the book is already driving news cycles; former Speaker Paul Ryan’s critical comments about Trump led to a series of tweets from the President attacking Ryan.

I reached out to Alberta to talk about the broader themes of his book, most importantly what Trump’s rise tells us about the current state of the GOP — and where it might head once he is gone. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Paul Ryan had plenty to say about Trump in your book. But he never made those critiques as speaker. Did he explain why not to you?

Alberta: In his own way, yes. His explanation boils down to the notion that President Trump is erratic, volatile and clueless about government — and that without capable people around him to help steer the ship, it might just sink. Ryan was well aware that the Republican Party — and his own reputation — would suffer by virtue of remaining silent in the face of some of the President’s indignities. But he was convinced that the greater risk was to the country itself. He believed that for as bad as things were, they would have been even worse if it weren’t for people like him and John Kelly and James Mattis biting their tongues in order to preserve their influence over Trump, which they in turn used “to (keep) the guardrails up, to drive the car down the middle of the road, and don’t let the car go off into the ditch.'”

Cillizza: How many current GOP members were willing to speak to you on the record about Trump? And how many did you ask?

Alberta: Hmmm. A rough estimate — I asked approximately 50 to speak on the record, and of those, probably half of them did.

Cillizza: Is there a sense among the GOPers — elected officials, former elected officials, staffers — of whether the Trump era is an anomaly within the party or the new normal?

Alberta: I’d actually split that into two questions (sorry!) because there’s an important distinction to be made.

The first question: Do Republican officials believe Trump’s populist appeal is durable?

Absolutely. The GOP establishment grew laughably complacent in the post-Reagan years, essentially ignoring the plight of working-class Americans and catering to corporations and the managerial class, making policy that targeted the Wall Street Journal editorial board rather than the Main Street business owner. Trump exposed this, and although his policies have often betrayed his rhetoric, he was prescient in identifying the resentment so many blue-collar conservatives had for the GOP elite. Republicans will bear those lessons in mind long after Trump has left office, whether in the context of trade agreements or immigration or global policing.

The second question: Do Republican officials believe that Trump-style economic nationalism (and overt appeals to nativism and prejudice) is a sustainable political model? Absolutely not. One of the Shakespearean ironies of the past decade of Republican politics is the fact that Reince Priebus, as the party’s chairman, commissioned an “autopsy” after the 2012 election explicitly making the argument that Republicans could no longer rely on the overwhelming support of white voters to win presidential elections. Trump didn’t disprove that theory in 2016; he simply delayed the inevitable.

America is undergoing a sweeping demographic transformation that is accelerating by the day. The Hispanic population has tripled in Arizona over the past three decades. In Harris County, Texas — anchored by Houston and representative of the state’s rapidly diversifying population — Mitt Romney and Barack Obama essentially tied in 2012; in 2018, Ted Cruz lost Harris County by 200,000 votes. In Georgia, where Republicans narrowly escaped defeat in the 2018 governor’s race, Democrats are bullish on turning the state blue in the near future for one simple reason: the white share of the population has dropped 16 points since 1984.

All of this to say: The demographic writing is on the wall for the Republican Party. Even if states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania remain in the Republican column — and remember, Trump won those three by a combined 77,744 votes — the GOP’s electoral math is going to be unworkable if it loses its chokehold on Arizona, or Georgia, or certainly Texas. Because of this simple reality, and because political parties adapt or die, you can bank on seeing the Republican Party self-correct on matters of race relations and identity politics. The only question is how many beatings they’ll have to take at the ballot box first.

Cillizza: Trump has already come out swinging against Paul Ryan because of what’s in your book. Is there anyone else who is going to be on his target list when the book comes out?

Alberta: Probably. There are plenty of characters in the book who were once staunch critics of the President’s only to wiggle their way into his inner circle. Some of their evolutions he knows all about; others, not so much. Trump is keenly aware of the opportunism and duplicity at work in today’s GOP; you don’t hijack a party and remake it in your image without the support of some former enemies.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In a decade, the Republican Party will look back at Trump’s presidency and think ___________.” Now, explain.

“In a decade, the Republican Party will look back at Trump’s presidency and think, ‘How the hell did that happen?'”

And hopefully, they will pick up a copy of “American Carnage.” Because, in all seriousness, that’s why I wrote the book — not to capture the palace intrigue of Trump’s chaotic tenure, or to set the gossip scene in Washington ablaze with insane quotes (that’s been a bonus). I wrote it so that Americans looking back on this period 10, 20, 50 years from now will have a contextualized, three-dimensional view of the cultural and political dynamics in the early 21st Century that invited Donald Trump’s political ascent.