The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Republicans are more afraid of change than ever

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When your party’s presidential candidate is trailing in the polls by nearly 10 points with a little over three months to go, it’s natural to start worrying about what will happen if he loses. And if you’re a Republican, there’s an entire cable network devoted to filling your evenings with terror.

Consider what Tucker Carlson, the highest-rated cable TV host of the moment, told his viewers Thursday night:

The presidential election, in fact, believe it or not, is almost right here. In some places, early voting begins in just over a month. The results of that voting will define the country’s future. If Democrats take both the Senate and the White House, and they could, you will not recognize America a year from now.

This kind of message has particular resonance for conservatives, since by definition they’re inclined against change. And those who seek to mobilize them — such as Republican candidates or right-wing TV hosts — will almost inevitably wind up telling them that the change that will come will be not just unpleasant but downright cataclysmic. We hear this every four years, without fail.

It’s not that Democrats don’t predict disaster if they lose, because they do. But the conservative warnings of doom have a particular theme: the end of America as we know it.

I can’t count how many times in 2008 Republicans said that Barack Obama had a secret plan to remake the country into something utterly unrecognizable. And what did he do with the eight years he was in office? Exactly what any sane person would have predicted: He governed as a reasonably liberal Democrat, with some successes and some failures. By the time January 2017 rolled around, America could still be recognized.

Now make no mistake, having your party in the opposition is undoubtedly a drag. You have to open up the paper or turn on the TV every day to see that the president has begun some new initiative you disagree with, or appointed some high-ranking official you dislike. It’s frustrating.

But all of us, no matter our party, will have to endure multiple presidents from the other side over the course of our lifetimes. It’s the nature of democracy. And yes, that’s sometimes downright awful. But at least since 1865, the country has always remained intact.

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But I suspect that fear of change is going to grow more intense on the right, not because Joe Biden is such a terrifying figure (I mean, c’mon), and not even because President Trump has taken conservatives to such a paradise that they can’t bear the thought of losing it.

No, it’s because Trump has failed.

I don’t mean the failures you may be thinking of, which are legion. I mean that as Trump supporters contemplate the unsettling prospect of future change, they can’t help but realize, even if unconsciously, that Trump hasn’t delivered on the most basic change he promised, which was to arrest and reverse the deep and fundamental social changes so many conservatives find so troubling.

That was the heart of “Make America Great Again”: the idea that we could revert to some point in the past, unwind the clock to when things were great. Keep in mind that for many conservatives, nearly all the social developments of the past few decades have ranged from objectionable to horrific. Kids don’t respect their elders, fewer people are going to church, women demand equality, gay people can get married, everyone’s talking about racism, and when you go down to your local supermarket, you hear people speaking a bunch of different languages.

And guess what: Donald Trump couldn’t do a thing about any of it.

He’s been president for four years, and no reversal of history has taken place. Young people are still driving you nuts, that rap music is everywhere you go, and you aren’t given the respect you think you deserve. This is the most anti-immigrant administration in a century, and yet the country is still full of immigrants.

It turned out that these are deep and fundamental changes, changes any one president can’t control.

Look at the campaign Trump is running, all about how chaos is overtaking the streets. Yes, it’s exactly what Fox News viewers have been warned about every night for years. But whatever you think is happening (even if your view is distorted and exaggerated), it’s happening while Trump is president, not because some permissive Democrat is letting the hooligans run wild. Surely even some of Trump’s supporters are aware of the irony.

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In the end, that may be the most frightening thing for them: not that a Democratic president would bring distressing change to America but that the change will come no matter who is president. If America is going to become unrecognizable to conservatives, it won’t be because we pass universal health care or raise the minimum wage. It’ll be because time will continue to move forward.

That is what Trump promised them he could stop. But he never could. And soon they’ll be more upset about it than ever.

Watch Opinions videos:

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