A lot has been said about the importance of the rebellion of working-class whites -also labelled “the losers of globalization”- to explain Trump’s victory. And this is just true. They are a block of swing voters heavily present in some swing states. So it is difficult to overstate to what extent this is a key demographic group. However, I think that the election of Trump -a populist bent on using a xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric is an earthquake in American politics of such magnitude that can’t be explained based only on that factor. Let’s not forget that among college-educated whites, only 39 percent of men and 51 percent of women voted for Hillary Clinton. We are missing something.
Probably, Trump would not have won the primaries and the general election without the creation of a robust counter-hegemonic narrative among the most radical sectors of America’s right during the last 8 years that has penetrated into a large part of the American society. I don’t know if the sorts of Steve Bannon have read the brilliant Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci, but they have been able to perfectly apply his thesis. Gramsci argued that once you are able to achieve the hegemony in the cultural and ideological field, even if you are an opposition force, sooner or later you will achieve power. And this is what the so-called alt-righ has done. This is how.
Just after the 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party was in a state of confusion, if not outright panic. It is not only that Obama had defeated John McCain by a sizeable margin, but he had inspired millions of people, many of them young. They were afraid that Obama could be a “transformational” president who would deeply change the American society, winning the loyalty of a whole generation for the Democratic Party. In January 2009, while Obama had a soaring popularity -around 70%-, the Republican establishment hesitated between collaborating with the new president in order to save the US out of a Big Depression or blocking his agenda in Congress.
Finally, the decision was taken by Rush Limbaugh, a popular far-right radio journalist whose program had more than 13 million daily listeners. During the debate about the size and nature of the stimulus package, the bill that was supposed to help the economy to recover injecting it with billions of dollars, Limbaugh threatened the moderate Republican congressmen who were negotiating with the White House. His followers flooded the offices of those politicians with calls and e-mails. They all ended up backtracking. He had successfully drawn a red line in the sand. Obama had to be fought tooth and nails.
While the Republican establishment teetered, some fringe groups within the conservative movement took the stage. Some of them were behind the creation of the Tea Party movement, and they started to elaborate a radical counter-narrative. They exhibited a deep rage against the Obama administration. Their arguments were often false: Obama was an illegitimate president because he was secretly born out of the US, he was Muslim, there was a danger that Islamic sharia would be the law of the country, climate change was a “hoax”, etc.
When the media exposed these arguments as what they were, flat lies, they responded that media were part of a “liberal conspiracy”. Under this label, they did not only place renown progressive outlets like The New York Times or MSNBC, but also media pretty much in the center, like CNN or USA Today. Quite often, in their political rallies, all mass media was considered the enemy except for Fox News.
However, the Republican establishment never denounced their false statements or the bigotry behind them. They applied a policy of no-holes-barred against Obama. Conservatives politicians were just too happy to use this (misplaced) fury to their advantage. Riding on this wave, they were able to recover the majority in the Congress in the mid-terms elections of 2010 and 2014. This is how the so-called post-truth slowly took roots in the US, and a Frankenstein grew up inside the Republican Party.
In 2015, Donald Trump decided to run for president and he came to naturally embody this radical counter-narrative. Without the temperament and experience to be president, and having strayed away from some sacred conservative principles, the Republican establishment tried to pull the rug under his feet. But it was too late. Trump could not stop making controversial remarks and telling outrageous lies, like attributing to Obama the creation of no other than ISIS, climate change to a “Chinese conspiracy”, or stating that real unemployment rate was 42%. The conventional wisdom was that sooner or later he would cross the line, and his campaign would deflate. But it did not. He kept winning and winning primaries, while dismissing the critics as part of “the conpiracy of the liberal media”. Frankenstein had woken up and stolen the Grand Old Party from the Republican establishment.
Not only that, he was able to pull a triumph against Hillary Clinton in the general election against the odds. Contrary to most analysis, Trump’s huge victory among working-class whites was not the most surprising phenomenon that night of November 8th, but the high level of support he enjoyed among Republican voters. More than 90% voted for him, despite the misgivings of most of the party’s elite, included both Bush presidents. And this was only possible because of the deep-seated hatred towards Hillary within all wings of the Right and registered independents, the increased polarization of American politics in the era of social media, and the legitimization of a radical narrative of fringe Conservative groups by the Republican elite during the Obama presidency.
Paradoxically, in November 2016, the Republican establishment is not in a much better shape than in 2008, despite the defeat of their Democratic adversaries. They are torn by an intricate dilemma: should they collaborate with president-elect Donald Trump or keep away from him so that his likely failure does not damage their brand? Their best-case scenario would be to restrain Trump and make him a conventional Republican president. Nevertheless, at this stage, this does not seem possible. After his stunning victory, his ego must be flying somewhere between the Aconcagua and the Everest. Therefore, he will hardly bend. Especially, to those people who despise him and who did not even strongly support him against Hillary Clinton. Probably, the only hope for the Republican establishment is that after a few months, Trump’s approval rate will be so dismal, that he will come back to the fold asking for help.