It would be a mistake trying to make sense of the Trump era in terms of the personality or antics of its major exponent, Trump himself. Tempting though it may be, it’d produce no significant result. Hence the underlying assumption driving this presentation, namely that our president is but a symbol, albeit an apt, cartoon-like symbol, of an era that has been long in coming.
To uncover therefore the root causes of present-day anomalies in the American political landscape, I propose that we move our clocks backwards five years or so, to the staggering defeat of Eric Cantor on June 2014 in his bid for re-election to Virginia’s 7th Congressional district.
Cantor’s defeat, dubbed by many as the most unprecedented upset in the history of congressional races, can only be matched by his meteoric rise to power in 2000 from a relative unknown to Republican Whip, which position he held until the end of his congressional career. In case you’ve forgotten, Cantor, along with Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, was a member of the so-called “young guns,” a new generation of conservative leaders with a clear agenda to move the country forward by relying on “common sense for the common good.” Indeed, in light of Cantor’s stature as one of the highest-ranking Republicans with a bright future to boot (e.g., almost a shoe-in to become the next Speaker of the House), Cantor’s stunning defeat in the primaries to a rather obscure opponent in just as obscure congressional district remains all the more inexplicable.
Furthermore, Cantor was the proverbial thorn in Obama’s side during the president’s first and second term in office, having been singled out by Obama himself as his arch nemesis. Cantor not only opposed, and was instrumental in defeating, the President’s jobs bill. He was virtually front and center in every effort to thwart Obama’s agenda, especially the raising of the debt ceiling and revenue increases (by insisting on commensurable cuts in government’s spending and entitlements); and then, to put the nail in the coffin, in effecting, however temporarily, the government shut-down, in order to ensure that the bulk of the Democrat’s agenda be dead on arrival. Couple this with the fact that Cantor had helped elect a great many Tea Party Republicans, all of whom had come to regard him as their father and mentor, his 2014 defeat remains an enigma.
In order to solve this puzzle, again we must turn back the clock. The first thing to realize is that however greatly the Tea Party freshmen had infiltrated the rank and file of the John Boehner/Eric Cantor Republican- controlled House, the establishment Republicans still formed a formidable enough bloc to prevent the newcomers from effecting a complete takeover; and the “young guns,” Eric Cantor included, were definitely part of the establishment and still in charge. But however radical Cantor may have appeared in his effective opposition to most of Obama’s programs (including the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus package, the jobs bill, etc.), he still believed, unlike his Tea Party brethren, in compromise – “cooperation” was his term of choice – as a means of solving the country’s problems the old-fashioned, albeit conservative way.
Indeed, Cantor’s openness to “cooperation,” as essential element in all manner of political solutions, would become more and more evident during Obama’s second term. More than once Cantor was caught, on and off the record, alluding to the Republican Party’s need to become a more inclusive tent, so as to be able to accommodate some of the more divergent viewpoints and become more responsive to imminent shifts in the composition of the US electorate – demographic, generational, ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic.
One would think that given Cantor’s steadfast opposition to the Democrats’ agenda, his Tea Party colleagues would give him a pass, and it was conceivable that they would, but Cantor had gone further, much further. The last straw, or so it seems, was his support for the DACA bill – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – Obama’s pet project. Cantor’s main concern, of course, was with making inroads toward arriving, sooner or later, at a long overdue comprehensive immigration reform, but that was not to be. Eventually, it turned out to be his undoing.
Soon thereafter, there had emerged multiple voices from conservative talk-radio show hosts (Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levine, most notably), not to mention Steve Bannon from Breitbart News Network – all rabid anti-establishment types and “deep state” conspiracy theorists, each accusing Cantor of being a patsy and thus misrepresenting his advocacy of DACA as a disguised push for general amnesty. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the charge had stuck. It had become, in fact, the rallying cry on behalf of his Tea Party opponents in Cantor’s re-election bid, and it worked. The rest is history.
It should be noted at the outset that the Tea Party, initially at least, was formed to combat government spending and undue government interference in everyday affairs. The issue of immigration was never the centerpiece of the Tea Party platform. The fact that it had become so in a few short years is significant.
Although anti-immigration sentiment was never off center in the mindset of the hardcore Right – one need think here only of the terror-stricken, post-9/11 era, or the longstanding antipathy towards our Southern neighbors – it was never as overt or widespread as it is today.
As regards that first sentiment, don’t forget that it was precisely that and no other (symbolized by the infamous “wall”) that constituted the main thrust of Trump’s 2016 election campaign. And as to the second, the fact that it was successful and propelled Mr. Trump to the office of the presidency is a clear testimonial to its by-now widespread currency.
It had became so widespread in fact that in addition to the usual suspects, comprised mainly of the impoverished residents of the rural South (dubbed by Secretary Clinton “the deplorables”), it came to include such an unlikely component of the general electorate as the working class, especially in the Rust Belt and such pivotal (and typically “blue”) states as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – electorates which, for the most part, had voted in the past two election cycles for Obama. Be that as it may, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that come 2016, the anti-immigration sentiment had acquired all the characteristics of a populist movement: it had become, in effect, the main prong of that movement.
There are, of course, several theories, each purporting to account for the result of the 2016 election. And here, we may include a variety of explanations: Russian interference, James Comey’s untimely revelation of having uncovered the bulk of Hillary’s “missing emails,” the Green Party vote, and, last but not least, Mrs. Clinton’s inattention to the industrial, battleground states – states she had taken for granted. And indeed, given the rather narrow margin of victory in those states – a measly 72,000 Trump votes or so in total to put him over the top – each of these accounts comes across as plausible; and indeed, all of them combined may have made the decisive difference. But surely anti-immigration sentiment, heralded by Trump and Trump alone, must figure in as one of the determining factors.
Initially at least, Cantor would deny the allegation that his 2014 primary loss was due to any one single factor (see, for instance, CNN’s “7 reasons Eric Cantor lost“), but that was in the immediate aftermath of his defeat. Perhaps it was the consummate politician that he was and a “good Republican” speaking; or perhaps it was just too close to the event itself to have acquired a proper perspective. Eventually however, Cantor would become more amenable to the idea that his immigration stance may have been more instrumental in determining his 2014 re-election outcome than he had originally supposed. At any rate, his subsequent interviews on the subject confirm the change in his thinking.
In Part II, I’ll examine the manner in which the entire immigration question, as posed by Mr. Trump and his cohorts, had become the basis of the populist movement at hand, and the effects of this paradigm shift in thinking and attitudes on the state of the union.
(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics, Politics section, on April 26, 2020)