Riding the Republican Nostalgia Train

By Will Kirkland

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The video is disturbing in a particularly 2015 kind of way. Captured in the vertical smartphone frame we’ve come to expect in evidence of public brutality, it shows a older white man dragging a young Latino student across a ballroom floor and landing a kick in his side. Around them a mostly white crowd is egging him on, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

The man being dragged is Ariel Rojas, a senior at Florida International University who went to the ballroom that night to protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The man doing the dragging is a white, heavy-set supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It all goes down in the Donald J. Trump ballroom at the Trump National Doral Resort, which was hosting the real estate mogul himself that night for his first official rally in Florida. The video ends before you can see what happens to Rojas after he is dragged by the collar through the frenzy.

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The 2016 presidential election was supposed to be a game-changer for the Republican Party— the one that would galvanize the party to become more welcoming and tolerant. Riding a wave of success out of the 2014 midterm elections, Republican leaders predicted that if they could attract even a modicum of support from minority communities and sway a few more female voters, the presidency was theirs for the taking.

In the autopsy report of Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign, party leaders and strategists wrote that in order to win in 2016, Republicans needed “to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.” The data suggested that charting a course toward a more diverse party would give them a good chance of beating the Democrats, whose inroads in minority communities helped them win five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections. So they made a plan for 2016: to become the Party of the Future, whose optimistic message of economic conservatism and cultural tolerance would land a unifying candidate in the White House.

Then came the summer of the 2015. Apparently someone forgot to tell the voters about the grand new plan for the Grand Old Party, because it derailed in spectacular fashion. Donald Trump, of course, has claimed most of the credit. From the moment he descended that escalator in the atrium of the Trump International Hotel and proceeded to offend every immigrant in America, he was writing the rules of the race. Like the Uber of Republican politics, his campaign was an arrogant and media-sucking disruption of the electoral market from which there was no going back. For the rest of the summer, he continued to spew a kind of winking xenophobia that subverted any effort by party leaders to introduce the GOP to minority communities. So what happened? How did the plan to diversify and open the party fail so miserably and so quickly? The belly-flopping center of gravity crashing the Republican pool party has rightfully gotten a lot of the blame, but the Trump phenomenon doesn’t tell the full story.

In fact, Trump is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The deeper, more insidious reason the Party of the Future project has stalled is that a large part of the GOP voter base wants to be the Party of the Past. They are opposed to the idea of re-orienting the party to attract more women, minorities, non-Christians, or LGBTQ Americans, and this summer they have come out in force to demonstrate their intransigence under the national spotlight.

This cohort is not only against the idea of re-orienting the Party to reflect the cultural and demographic reality of America in 2015: it takes much of its very identity from a rejection of that reality. It’s not just that it doesn’t want incorporate new voices into the Republican fold, it’s that the glue that holds this faction together is formed in reaction to those voices. They don’t want to re-orient toward the future because their fundamental rallying cry is a return to the past. They don’t want to open the Party doors to new communities because in many ways they built those doors to keep them out in the first place. They support candidates like Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz because their campaigns are geared toward an American of yesteryear— a whiter, more Christian, less tolerant America that rejects the progressivism and multiculturalism that defines much of our culture in 2015.

Political commentators have mostly seen the conflict between the insurgent candidates like Ben Carson and establishment candidates like Jeb Bush as a referendum on the political system. GOP voters, they say, are flocking to outsider candidates because they are tired of political insiders who betray their conservative bona fides as soon as they get to power. But while that political conflict is clearly a factor, the summer of 2015 has also revealed a potent cultural conflict over the heart and soul of the GOP. The battle is led by angry, defensive Republicans hell bent on sabotaging the Party of the Future project in an effort to hold on to the Party of the Past.

What drives these voters to support the nostalgic candidacies of Trump, Carson, and Cruz are the realities of contemporary American culture. To these voters, 2015 is a scary place. Thanks to the Obergefell decision, gay marriage is a constitutional right in every state. Our current president is half-black and has an Arabic middle name. Former Olympic hero Bruce Jenner is now reality television star Caitlin Jenner. Kendrick Lamar is topping charts with an unapologetic black American dream. Black Lives Matter is taking to the streets and laying bare the institutional racism embedded in our entire socio-political structure. Muslim Americans are building clocks, not bombs. Millennials, the least religious generation in American history, are trading church Sundays for Netflix and chill. The Pope has a message of tolerance and progressive politics. Hispanic Americans are the largest, fastest growing minority community in the country and outnumber white Americans in states like California. The biggest Spanish-language television network in the world, Univision, is aimed at Americans and headquartered in New York City.

Against this contemporary backdrop, the nostalgic backlash of the summer of 2015 starts to make more sense. Boxed in by these cultural and demographic realities, advocates of the Party of the Past are lashing out.

First they turn to Donald Trump. They relish in the “Make America Great Again” message emblazoned on his old-school trucker hats— a message that’s heavily influenced by white identity politics. [Dear millennial progressives ironically wearing these fucking hats: please stop. You aren’t helping. These ones are funnier anyway]. When Trump rants about the wall that he wants to build around the country, his supporters understand it as a righteous step toward Fortress America. They erupt in the kind of “U-S-A” frenzies that lead old white guys to drag young Latinos across ballroom floors. It’s a message formed in reaction that compels revenge: building a transcontinental wall, abusing protesters, beating up a homeless Hispanic man Boston. It’s a political platform born out of a culture that rejects the present and looks to the past. Should we be surprised that only 2% of Trump’s supporters are under the age of 30, and that one in three is over the age of 65?

Then they turn to Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon whose life story is lifted straight from a Dickens novel. Carson’s supporters look a lot like Trump’s: old, white, and angry. His particular appeal to the Party of the Past stems from his Christian revivalism and his rallying against “political correctness”. His evangelicalism is a straightforward campaign against contemporary trends toward secularism, gay rights, and social progressivism. When he says “we’ve got to stop progressives from trying to drive God out of our land,” he is calling for a crusade in the name of passé traditionalism. The political correctness argument, meanwhile, really boils down to a rejection of the contemporary culture that brings marginalized voices into the fold. When Carson says he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” he implies that the US Constitution does not apply to Muslims— a sentiment he echoes in his vocal support of Guantanamo.

And they turn to Ted Cruz, the poor man’s William F. Buckley. He’s a fellow crusader on the puritanical warpath who represents the least cool parts of old-school Ivy League culture. Finally they turn to Mike Huckabee, who strives for headlines with photo-ops with Kim Davis’s hillbilly husband and offensive tweets about Caitlin Jenner. Meanwhile, Rand Paul is the only candidate who has spent his energy purposefully reaching out to minority communities and he is nowhere in the polls.

The Republican Party leaders who envisioned a Party of the Future hoped that this all would be a summer-time fling, over by the time school started up and the presidential race got down to business. But Trump and Carson are still miles ahead of their competitors in national polls, with the former holding down a huge lead in New Hampshire and the latter taking Iowa by storm.

There is still one hope for the Republican project in 2016 and in recent weeks the pundits have been calling his name. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American politician interested in actually governing the country and a vocal supporter of immigration reform, may be the last best hope for the Party of the Future. His poll numbers are still unimpressive, but if he can mobilize enough support in the wings of the GOP that aren’t primarily motivated by nostalgia and anger, it could mean big things for the Republican Future project. Wouldn’t it be nice, just for a change, to hear chants of “U-S-A” rising in support of a second-generation Hispanic American immigrant instead of in the name of an old, white crusade against a multicultural America?

Will Kirkland is Chicago-based writer and student who has too many opinions which he airs too frequently. He is currently re-watching the Benghazi hearing with a bottle of Jameson.