How did the GOP get here? The conventional account emphasizes white backlash, particularly white male evangelical backlash. After the civil rights era, Republicans attracted an increasing share of resentful white voters by stoking outrage against a growing list of boogeymen: lawless immigrants, godless liberals, anti-gun zealots, dark-skinned freeloaders. In this account, white mobilization in rural and small-town America explains both Trump’s 2016 victory and his 2020 vulnerability.
This account is not so much wrong as badly incomplete. In its fixation on right-wing populism, it ignores right-wing plutocracy: conservative business leaders and reactionary billionaires who’ve focused not just on winning elections, but on rewriting the rules of our economy and our democracy. The growing power of these forces has encouraged the GOP to embrace a retrograde economic program that has little support even among its own voters. One effect is more inequality. Another is a Republican Party more reliant on white identity to stay in power.
The United States is not just a distinctively diverse nation; among rich democracies, it’s also a uniquely unequal one. To a degree unparalleled elsewhere, the shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy has exploded the gap between the rich and the rest. The share of national income going to the top 1 percent of Americans has doubled since 1980, with much of that increase going to a small fraction within the 1 percent.
This wrenching shift is one source of populist grievance. But it hasn’t empowered the aggrieved. Instead, it’s the super rich who’ve flourished. With concentrated wealth has come unprecedented investments in politics by billionaire donors and business organizations, mostly on the right. Showcasing this conservative tilt, in 2016, the anti-government advocacy network associated with Charles Koch spent about as much to advance its reactionary agenda and elect sympathetic politicians as the Republican Party itself. In the process, plutocratic forces have reshaped the positions of both parties — especially the Republican Party.
As recently as the 1980s, the GOP was, by global standards, a fairly conventional center-right party. Today, it’s on the fringe — to the right not just of mainstream conservative parties elsewhere, but even of some insurgent right-wing parties. (Democrats, by contrast, remain squarely center-left.) In a nation where political rule requires popular support, Republicans have increasingly flouted public sentiment to back plutocratic priorities, from rolling back popular health protections and gutting environmental rules to showering tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy.
But political rule does require popular support — even with aggressive tactics to tilt the playing field, such as extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression. As inequality has soared, Republicans have confronted a dilemma strikingly similar to that faced by European conservative parties when the franchise expanded to include wage workers: How do you get votes from those on the losing side of extreme inequality when your agenda backstops those on the winning side? Alas, Republicans have arrived at an equally long-standing answer: Stoke other powerful divides.
The GOP’s variant of this strategy is typically traced to Richard M. Nixon. But Nixon governed before the spectacular rise in inequality, and his party embraced positions far to the left of today’s Republican Party, including tax increases on the affluent to fund social programs. It was Ronald Reagan who truly began to chart the path that would, in time, make the Republican Party safe for plutocracy.
Reagan’s most visionary mapmaker was Lee Atwater — the operative now remembered for the Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. In 1983, the young Atwater wrote a 63-page memo warning Reagan’s reelection campaign that most voters would never be “laissez-faire free-marketeers.” Instead, Republicans needed to attract “populists” — less affluent whites who were “liberal on economic issues” but “conservative on most social issues.” The key was emphasizing cultural conflicts.
Atwater didn’t need to add (but did elsewhere with ugly frankness) that race was at the heart of those conflicts. Indeed, all sorts of issues could be pitched to resentful whites, Atwater explained, so long as big government was seen as about helping blacks. Even Republicans “talking about cutting taxes” could ensure “race [was] coming in on the back burner.”
Atwater died in 1991, but a fellow operative in George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign shared his understanding — Bush’s son. When George W. ran himself in 2000, he wooed big donors by repudiating his father’s 1990 tax hike — designed to balance the budget, a key plank of pre-Reagan Republican orthodoxy. The centerpiece of Bush’s campaign was instead huge tax cuts skewed toward the rich. And when John McCain threatened to snatch the nomination with a program of political reform and tax cuts targeted to the middle class, Bush buried him in South Carolina with a racist whisper campaign led by local evangelical leaders.
The South Carolina ambush showcased a deepening alliance — call it “plutocratic populism” — between organized money and organized outrage. In the 1990s, GOP leaders like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and future House Speaker John A. Boehner embraced wealthy donors and an increasingly assertive business community, which had started ramping up its political efforts in the 1970s. Simultaneously, they nurtured grass-roots groups skilled at stoking grievance, particularly the Christian right and the National Rifle Association. Crucially, so long as these groups got a full-throated defense of gun rights and traditional values (especially from nominees to the federal courts), they had no problems with the party’s plutocratic priorities.
Nor did they have problems with exploiting racism. The Christian right arose by capitalizing on IRS decisions that threatened all-white religious academies that mushroomed in the South as schools desegregated. The NRA gained power by framing firearms as the last line of defense against violent “urban” crime and a federal government threatening states’ and gun rights alike. In time, right-wing media — first talk radio in the 1990s, then Fox News and later digital sites such as Breitbart — would become another sort of GOP surrogate, reinforcing the message of racial threat.
Trump’s victory accelerated this process. Though his populist rhetoric was a departure for the GOP, he quickly joined congressional Republicans in pursuing an extraordinarily anti-populist agenda: huge tax cuts for business and the superwealthy and an effort to slash health protections that aided the party’s electoral base. He nominated economic reactionaries — most of them either personally super-rich or drawn from the right pole of the party’s increasingly conservative congressional delegation — to his administration. Meanwhile, popular promises on infrastructure and prescription drugs got deep-sixed.
The wins for plutocracy have been big. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described 2017 as “the best year for conservatives, across the board” in 30 years. Koch, whose network is very well represented in the Trump administration, crowed that he had “accomplished more in the past five years than … in the previous 50.”
But these wins have come at a growing price. Outsourcing outrage has secured elections but also succored extremism — at times violent extremism. Conservative media have amplified the worst of it. Republican leaders who cultivated backlash soon found themselves undone by it. Two GOP speakers resigned in turn. As Boehner’s chief of staff lamented, “We fed the beast that ate us.” Trump, who fattened the beast, was the party’s logical destination.
Now the bill may be due. If the problem were just an aging and outnumbered voting base, it would be vexing enough. But Republicans have also locked themselves into priorities with powerful backers yet little popular support. When Republicans’ extraordinarily top-heavy 2017 tax bill looked set to fail, one GOP senator predicted “the financial contributions will stop.” Another warned, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ ” A year later, GOP donors were privately advocating that candidates downplay the tax cuts and hype an immigrant “invasion.”
Atwater was correct: Less-affluent workers want government help. Republicans have been able to aid the rich instead only by weaponizing racial backlash. If Trump soon leaves office, GOP leaders will be pressed to reject his most extreme stances. But rejecting plutocratic populism will require reckoning with the party’s original sin: exploiting white identity to defend wealth inequality.