AMERICAN CARNAGE: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump
So when I learned that Tim Alberta’s book “American Carnage” would emphasize the divisions within the Republican Party, I was disappointed. Too narrow, I thought. But as I read the book, and as my reading coincided with yet one more moment of brazen Trumpian bigotry and painful Republican silence, I realized the title fit. The coarsening of America under Trump is inseparable from the complicity of the Republican Party. This American carnage is theirs, too.
Alberta is hardly the first to make such connections. He writes that early in his second term, for instance, President George W. Bush met with advisers and shared his worries about growing protectionism, isolationism and nativism in the country and especially in his party. “These ‘isms’ are gonna eat us alive,” he warned. The Republican who less than two decades ago won the presidency under the banner of compassionate conservatism knew what was coming.
Alberta’s nominal focus is the fight between the Republican establishment and the GOP’s conservative hard-liners, mainly in Congress but also among donors and other party players. That is the “civil war” of the subtitle, and its shifting battle lines from 2008 through 2016 consume much of this lengthy, indispensable work. But it is a conflict that would be superseded by the nomination and election of Trump, who instinctively grasped how party leaders’ infighting abandoned the increasingly resentful Republican faithful. “Trump’s conquest effectively ended the squabbling that had defined the GOP in the post-Bush era,” Alberta writes, “replacing disputes over policy and principles with a simpler question that spoke to the dueling identities in the party: ‘Are you with Trump or not?’ ”
The GOP’s answer has been overwhelmingly affirmative, regardless of how gleefully Trump tramples principles of free markets, fiscal responsibility and executive restraint, and no matter how impulsively he deploys cruelty and nativism as governing tools. Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico and a former National Review writer, marries insight on Republican politics with room-where-it-happens reporting to show how easily a major party surrenders ideology to the temptations of power and revenge.
The power was all about Trump; the revenge all about Obama.
Barack Obama scared the Republican establishment and angered the Republican base, and that dichotomy helped chart the party’s path over the past decade. Party leaders scrambled to soften the GOP’s stance on immigration — with the bipartisan Gang of Eight proposal in the Senate, the post-2012 Republican autopsy report and other quaint memories — hoping to attract a sliver of the Obama vote. But the party’s right wing had no interest in appeasement. Its response to the “demographic death spiral” that GOP leaders feared, wherein Obama’s diverse “coalition of the ascendant,” as journalist Ron Brownstein described the Obama vote, would overwhelm the white working class, was not accommodation but resistance.
“Obama brought out the worst in the Republican base,” Alberta writes. Such voters resented the liberal policies, lecturing tones and shifting cultural terrain, but “perhaps most critically, the dark skin and the African roots and the exotic name.” Not just because of what he did but because of who he was, the first black president became “a perfect villain for the forgotten masses of flyover country.”
This animus helps explain the strident political opposition to Obama, and Alberta deftly peels away the veneers. Take the tea party movement. Ostensibly animated by fiscal rectitude, its stalwarts took Congress by pledging to “legislate as conservatives first and Republicans second,” Alberta writes, tacking to the right of the party’s old guard. “In theory, it was all about spending,” former House majority leader Eric Cantor tells Alberta. “In theory. But I began to question that.” (Perhaps he began questioning it after his stunning loss to a tea party favorite in a 2014 primary featuring immigration as a key divide.) Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is less diffident: “If you actually looked at the survey data, the Tea Party were our people — and the cultural issues were the top priority for them.”
The proof came under Trump, when the supposed GOP budget hawks backed more debt and deficits. The tea party, Alberta concludes, “can be viewed most honestly as an early indication of the disquiet felt by many Americans regarding the changes sweeping the country — demographically, culturally, politically.” Or as Trump puts it to Alberta: “The tea party still exists — except now it’s called Make America Great Again.”
Similarly, the battle to repeal and replace, or at least defund, Obamacare was less about improving health care than opposing the Democratic president, fundraising and positioning for 2016, Alberta reports. It even prompted a government shutdown in 2013, yet the bluff was obvious once Republicans controlled Congress and the White House and still failed to get it done. “Voting to strip health coverage from millions of people, with no ready replacement, had been a whole lot easier to do when a presidential veto loomed as the backstop,” Alberta writes. “Now there were real consequences to consider; it was no longer an empty ideological exercise.”
Politically, it hardly matter. The base cared more about fights than about results; in that sense, Republican voters mirrored the president who would soon lead them. “As feelings of desertion took root during this period of dizzying cultural and economic transition,” Alberta writes, “voters came to crave one quality above all others in their elected officials: a willingness to scrap, claw, kick, and bite on their behalf, demonstrating an understanding of their frustrations.”
Why think twice about shutting down the government when your base wants to burn it down anyway?
Alberta dwells on the minutiae of midterm election cycles — The insurgents strike in 2010! The leadership counterpunches in 2014! — as the battlefields in the civil war. He usually sides with the establishment, at least journalistically. Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan of the House Freedom Caucus, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz and other self-styled insurgents, are prominent here, but John Boehner and Paul Ryan, the back-to-back House speakers, dominate the tale. “American Carnage” unfolds on their watch and through their eyes. Alberta offers dishy details on how the two lawmakers survived multiple attempts to oust them and how they made their peace with Trump’s rise.
Boehner looked at his leading options for the 2016 Republican nomination, Cruz and Trump, and opted for the latter. (“Crazy I could deal with. But not pathological.”) Ryan, gearing up for a post-election speech in his Wisconsin hometown denouncing Trump after Hillary Clinton’s expected victory, quickly downshifted when the returns came in. “This was Ryan’s chance to actually achieve the things he had spent decades fantasizing about,” Alberta notes. “His friends called it ‘Paul’s deal with the devil.’ And Ryan, like most Republicans, did not think twice about making it.”
The litany of prominent Republicans who criticized Trump during the campaign only to grovel after he won is too long to list here; just know that Alberta has their before-and-after pictures. Longtime Trump loyalists call them the November Ninth Club, those who found religion after the election. Ryan stands out not for the strength of his early critiques — after the “Access Hollywood” video, he pledged only to stop actively supporting Trump, a sort of profile in calculation — but because Alberta lets him indulge in What I Was Really Thinking, that great Republican pastime of the Trump era.
“I told myself, I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right,” Ryan tells Alberta. “Because, I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government . . . Those of us around him really helped to stop him from making bad decisions. All the time . . . We helped him make much better decisions, which were contrary to kind of what his knee-jerk reaction was.” Ryan, from the safety of retirement, explains sagely how technology and moral relativism have “blown up” norms of civility and morality in America, and how the “test of our generation” is to “rebuild these guardrails.”
Except Ryan already took that test, and failed. “He had come to Congress as a Jack Kemp conservative and would depart as a Donald Trump Republican,” Alberta concludes. Even his final accomplishment, the 2017 tax bill, undermined his reputation for fiscal prudence. In the Trump revolution, Alberta writes, Ryan will be remembered as “both victim and accomplice.” Still, rest assured that if Trump loses reelection on Nov. 3, 2020, there will be a November Fourth Club, full of those who enabled Trump’s worst impulses but only, you see, to keep him from making bad decisions. (Membership applications will be heavy.)
Vice President Pence, a onetime conservative true believer, emerges as a powerful early player in the Trump White House, strategically stocking the administration with sympathizers and pushing forward the White House agenda. “Unlike the other West Wingers who nurtured narratives of their own indispensability — Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, among others — it was the vice president who pulled the levers during the early months of 2017,” Alberta says. But cognizant of the jealousies of his boss, Pence maintains a posture so servile that some friends jokingly wonder if Trump is blackmailing his veep.
Trump’s portrait in “American Carnage” is less definitive. Alberta interviews the president, and the traits we’ve long seen — the obsession with loyalty, vindictiveness and hulking ego — are again apparent. But Alberta seems torn over how to explain him. He writes early on that Trump’s underlying values and motives don’t matter, but warns later against misunderstanding the president’s “bedrock beliefs” on immigration and trade. Alberta emphasizes Trump’s “inherent disinterest” in legislation, but also shows him sitting through long lectures with Ryan or Karl Rove or Sen. Tim Scott on matters of policy, politics and race. Not that the tutorials made much difference.
Perhaps we already know what we need to know about him and the party he controls. Alberta doesn’t pretend that the elements animating the GOP are new. Sarah Palin, with her “God-given capacity for channeling the forces of panic and populist grievances,” preceded Trump, just as “the contours of the GOP’s racial paradox,” as Alberta delicately describes the evolution of the party of Lincoln into a champion of the old Confederate states’ rights creed, “predated Obama.” And from the speech announcing his candidacy, in which Trump assailed immigrants as criminals, to the “Access Hollywood” recording, when he bragged about sexual assault, from his appeasement of white supremacists after Charlottesville to his call for citizens serving in Congress to “go back” to where they came from, the president has always made his values clear.
The contours of Trump’s 2020 pitch — a mix of love-it-or-leave it nationalism with undisguised white identity politics — are becoming clear as well. Alberta explains that Ryan retired from Congress because he found the idea of enduring another Trump election cycle “nauseating.” He isn’t the only one, except the rest of us can’t opt out.
“American Carnage” is not a conventional Trump-era book. It is less about the daily mayhem in the White House than about the unprecedented capitulation of a political party. This book will endure for helping us understand not what is happening but why it happened.
In the Republican civil war, Alberta writes, “the conservatives thought the leadership cowardly; the leadership thought the conservatives reckless.” Both were right. And the result was President Trump.