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On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump
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American Carnage (2019) details the ideological battle at the heart of the Republican Party over the last decade. From George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” to the Tea Party’s right-wing fervor, Tim Alberta covers the ideological metamorphosis that led to Donald Trump’s presidency.
Key idea 1 of 9
During the 2008 Republican primaries, the anti-immigration mood signaled what the future would look like for the Republican party.
By 2008, the Republicans had been in government for ten years. The subprime mortgage crisis was in full swing, and the Iraq War had proven a disastrous and costly expedition. If you were a Republican facing the coming election, things looked bleak.
In the primary contests, Republicans expected the debates to center around two big issues: endless war abroad and the financial crisis.
They didn’t. When the various candidates began campaigning in town halls and stadiums around the country, they found that the most heated topic was immigration.
In 2007, President George W. Bush had passed a comprehensive immigration reform plan that would have allowed millions of people without official residency the right to attain full citizenship. John McCain, one of the Republican presidential contenders in 2008, had helped pass that policy.
Now, he was meeting Republican voters and was taken aback by how viscerally angry they were about it. Even in regions where there was very little immigration, it remained the key issue. At one meeting, exasperated by yet another question about “Mexican illegals” endangering the local community, McCain snapped: “Ma’am, you live in New Hampshire, what are you worried about? A bunch of angry French Canadians?”
To mainstream Republican politicians, the root of this pervasive fear was clear: immigrants were scapegoats for the feelings of instability that deindustrialization and free-market policies had brought to large swathes of the US over the last thirty years.
Mitt Romney, who was one of the other contenders in the 2008 contest, understood this. He knew that many of the free-market policies that the Republicans had supported themselves had devastated industry and fragmented public services. Car and steel factories had closed down as the US sought cheap imports. And basic state services had long ago been privatized or underfunded as all was sacrificed to market ideology.
Romney knew all of this but, opportunistically, he played to right-wing prejudices. He even began attacking McCain on his pro-immigration record, insinuating that McCain didn’t understand the real concerns of working Americans. What this all boiled down to was a rejection of what George W. Bush had termed “compassionate conservatism.” Rather than the open, internationalist worldview of the Republican Party establishment over the last thirty years, Romney was inflaming nativist prejudices for political gain.
This theme would return again and again over the coming years.