Sooner or later, Donald Trump will be gone. Trumpism, however, is here to stay.
Look at West Virginia, which holds its Republican Senate primary Tuesday. Candidate Don Blankenship, a disgraced coal baron who spent a year in jail after a mine explosion killed 29 workers, was reportedly trailing two respectable GOP rivals just over a week ago.
Then Blankenship, who calls himself “Trumpier than Trump,” uncorked a racist and demagogic jeremiad about Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his Asian American wife, Elaine Chao, who happens to be a member of President Trump’s Cabinet. Blankenship dubbed McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” implying he profited from drugs once found aboard a ship owned by McConnell’s father-in-law, who Blankenship calls a “China person.”
“Swamp Captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people,” Blankenship said in an ad. “While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”
It was disgusting — and it apparently worked. Internal polling by one of Blankenship’s opponents showed Blankenship surging from third to first place, according to Axios’s Jonathan Swan.
Trump finally intervened with a tweet Monday, not disapproving of the vile things Blankenship has done but saying Blankenship couldn’t beat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III in November.
Whether or not the president stops Blankenship, the West Virginia GOP primary confirms that this sort of vulgar demagoguery is becoming routine. Trump’s election was no aberration. Rather, he exploited deep problems in American politics that had been building for years — and others, following his example, will exploit those same problems after he’s gone.
Before Trump, there was Sarah Palin, the tea party movement, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the Republican Study Committee, the Freedom Caucus. The Republican Party tried to harness the rage of the nativist right but ultimately couldn’t contain it. House speakers John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) failed, as will whoever leads the party next. Now we have Blankenship, Roy Moore, Joe Arpaio and a proliferation of name-calling misfits and even felons on Republican ballots. They are monsters created by the GOP, or rather the power vacuum the GOP has become.
Political scientists have observed that American politics has deteriorated into an unstable combination of weak parties and strong partisanship — dry brush for the likes of Trump and Blankenship to ignite. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform restricted party fundraising, and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 essentially destroyed parties by giving everybody else freedom to spend unlimited sums to buy politicians. The moderating influence of parties was replaced by the radicalizing influence of dark money.
Related to this, partisanship in Washington escalated, aggravated by partisan redistricting that puts almost all House members in safe seats where the only threat comes from primaries. Primary voters tend to favor extreme candidates — who, once in Congress, turn politics into warfare.
Democrats suffer from the weak party/strong partisanship phenomenon too, as seen in the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaign’s squabbles with the Democratic National Committee and the recent efforts by some Sanders followers to taint any candidate supported by the party. But the problem is most severe among Republicans, and it’s no small irony that the man who arguably did the most to create the current system is now under attack by it. McConnell, who championed unlimited dark money, cheered Citizens United and dramatically accelerated the partisan revenge cycle on the Senate floor, is now the victim of extremists his own actions created.
McConnell-affiliated groups have spent in the seven digits for TV ads opposing Blankenship in West Virginia. But Blankenship, free to spend as much as he desires, has far outspent his opponents, reportedly buying $640,000 of TV time in the past week alone. And he’s appealing to voters’ worst instincts. “I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying ‘China person,’ ” Blankenship said during a debate hosted by Fox News. “Some people are Korean persons and some of them are African persons. There’s not any slander there.” He suggested McConnell’s family ties could disqualify him from voting on China policy.
Trump didn’t condemn such filth; he merely said Blankenship “can’t win” and cited the example of Moore — who Trump unsuccessfully opposed in the Alabama GOP primary.
Blankenship responded by calling Trump a “swamp” creature. “Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message — no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote,” he said. “As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump, and this morning proves it.”
West Virginia Republicans have their say Tuesday. But this much we already know: McConnell unleashed the forces now shredding his party. Blankenship, like Trump, exploited those forces. And nobody controls them.