Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

'Make America Great Again'? It never stopped being great

Why Donald Trump, of all people? Why now?

Because for the last few decades, the Republican Party has preached the utter incompetence of the federal government, the fatal undermining of traditional white Christian values, the distrust of American institutions and the concept that the country is being stolen from those to whom it naturally belongs so it can be handed to the undeserving and the newly arrived. Through that message, the GOP has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of heightened fear and paranoia among its target audience that has produced motivated voters and has proved highly profitable for the hucksters that help to feed it and then feed upon it.

But once you've created that atmosphere of desperation and held yourselves up as its salvation, what next? You can't keep endlessly ramping up the emotions and never provide a resolution to it. If you've convinced good, patriotic Americans that the very foundations of our nation and civil society are about to crumble, then at some point in this time of supposed crisis you must be willing to take dramatic actions that are commensurate with that dramatic threat. To cite a specific example, if you've convinced your electorate that ObamaCare poses the greatest threat to American freedom and prosperity since Joe Stalin walked the Earth, then surely you will use every weapon in your arsenal to undo it as quickly as possible, right?

Well, no. As Sen. John Thune recently explained the Senate Republican position, “I think if we use reconciliation (to repeal) Obamacare, I don’t know if there’s any particular rush to doing it. You know that’s an issue that’s going to be around for a while. It’s not going away." So ... maybe next year, when the election is closer and the GOP can wring some additional political advantage out of it.

If I were a Republican, and if I honestly believed the things that the Republican Party has asked me to believe, then I too would be angered and amazed at that kind of reaction from my elected leaders, and I too would be looking elsewhere.

Likewise, if illegal immigration endangers the very core of this nation, surely a Republican House and Republican Senate would be able to pass legislation addressing that problem, correct? And if ISIS poses an existential threat to the United States, surely a Republican Congress would at least be able to pass a resolution authorizing the president to take military action against it, right? And if Planned Parenthood is the very embodiment of evil, then surely it is worth shutting down a federal government that is already worthless anyway in order to strip that organization of federal funding.

Yet Republicans leaders say no, no, and no.

In short, Republicans have created an atmosphere of crisis and then demonstrated to their supporters that they either don't believe their own rhetoric or lack the guts to act upon it. And by selling a diagnosis of impending doom while proving reluctant to do anything, they have opened the door to a charlatan like Donald Trump, who claims that he and only he can "Make America Great Again".

It doesn't matter that his "plans" are nonsense. If you scare people sufficiently, they will gravitate toward the man whose plans are nonsense over those who have demonstrated that they have no plans at all. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Now, I'll admit that these can be dismissed as the musings of a liberal columnist and blogger, someone looking on as an outsider. But it's fascinating to watch longtime, stalwart conservatives as they start to come to grips with what is happening and what it might mean. Trump has pushed them to the edge of the abyss, and they are looking down into that abyss and are terrified by it.

For example, Ben Domenech at The Federalist warns that the GOP is now at a dangerous tipping point away from a supposed "freedom" agenda to something much darker.  "What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right," he concludes, as if that light just now went off in his head. Charles Krauthammer writes that despite its popularity with the base, Trump's immigration policy "would all be merely ridiculous if it weren’t morally obscene," warning that he may be dooming the party's chances in 2016. And you can almost smell the rising panic from longtime GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who warns that Trump's campaign "must now be taken seriously by a stunned Republican establishment,"  pointing out that "desperate people do desperate things ... and the American people despair their country is failing."

But that's the thing. Their country -- our country -- is not failing. We've been told it is failing by those invested in that failure, but it is not. Likewise, our government is not some foreign occupying power, nor is it our enemy. Our economy remains the envy of the world.  The challenges that we face, while significant, are no more intimidating than those faced by previous generations of Americans.

But if you've built an entire political movement around the notion that none of that is true, then at some point you better be willing to take major, dramatic action. By creating despair but demonstrating that you have no means of alleviating it, you invite somebody else to muscle into your little con game and hijack it for his own entertainment.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.