As the campaign to delegitimize Donald Trump goes forward, GOP leaders are doing little to stop it. In fact, they appeared to be leading the attack after Trump bypassed them to cut a deal with the Democrats on the debt-ceiling and also—though the signals are mixed—immigration. This came after The New York Times reported, in late August, a “profane shouting match” between Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, over McConnell’s refusal to protect Trump from the widening investigations of Robert Mueller.
A week earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others had condemned Trump’s sympathetic remarks about the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis, some in guerrilla camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, clashed with peaceful counterprotesters, causing the death of a young woman. Yet all this is undercut by the stubborn fact of Trump’s continued support from the GOP base. Republicans still give him an approval rating of about 80 percent, five times higher than they gave congressional Republicans following the Senate’s initial failure to pass the long-promised bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. However erratic Trump may be, and however unsuited for high office, the voters who elected him are still loyal. “Right now, it is his party,” the former Bush official and vehement “Never Trumper” Peter Wehner recently said.
The insistent portrayal of Trump as a “counterfeit Republican and no conservative,” in George Will’s words, overlooks the most important fact about him and his supporters. He is the latest in the modern pantheon of right-wing tribunes—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan were others—who have risen to power by seizing on and directing passions that more conventional politicians have been careful not to exploit.
A strong early indication of Trump’s bold approach came during the first GOP presidential debate in the summer of 2015. Today it is his exchanges with the moderator Megyn Kelly that are remembered most vividly. But a more telling moment occurred earlier, in the very first question, put to all ten candidates on stage by the second moderator, Brett Baier, for the purpose, it was plain, of exposing Trump as an interloper. “Is there anyone,” he asked,
and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?
Again, we’re looking for you to raise your hand now—raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight.
A single hand went up: “Mr. Trump.”
The irony became explicit seven months later, when Trump’s struggling opponents would be asked if they would pledge their support to him. (All said they would, though one, John Kasich, in the end did not vote for him.) But there was a deeper message. Trump’s candidacy had already taken on the character of a third-party uprising, the latest in a long history. Reagan, so often cited today as the paragon of party loyalty and genial enforcer of its “Eleventh Commandment”—“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”—in fact was more loyal to his own cause than the GOP’s. After losing a bitter nomination fight in 1976 to a sitting Republican president, Gerald Ford, Reagan seemed content to watch the Democrat Jimmy Carter win in November. “During the general election battle, Ford asked Reagan to campaign for him in four Southern states; Reagan pleaded prior commitments,” his biographer Lou Cannon wrote.
In one of those states, Mississippi, Carter won by fewer than 15,000 votes. It’s possible that Reagan, who was popular there, might have made the difference. More involvement by Reagan would at a minimum have freed Ford from spending as much time as he did in Carter’s home region and allowed him to campaign more in Ohio, which he lost by a little more than 11,000 votes. If Ford had carried Ohio and Mississippi, he would have been elected.
Reagan instead stayed true to his more important identity as insurgent and outsider, as much at odds with GOP chieftains as with Democrats. The pattern has been repeated many times since, during elections, and also in policy disputes. In 1990, the GOP congressman Newt Gingrich led a budget revolt against President George H.W. Bush that softened Bush up for attack in the New Hampshire primary by Trump’s ideological forerunner Pat Buchanan in 1992. The next Bush, after being elected to a second term, was soon thwarted in his attempted immigration reform by a wave of conservative protest, including opposition from hard-line conservatives in the House. The issue of immigration also led to the humiliating defeat of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, in a primary in 2014. Ryan’s predecessor John Boehner was sent into retirement in 2015 by rebels in his own caucus. In 2016, many of the Republican contenders competed for the label of bomb-tossing outsider, only to be outdone by Trump.
Against this history of intraparty discord, Ryan’s early hopeful promise of “the dawn of a new unified Republican government” was destined to dissolve into another dark night of the Republican soul. Trump isn’t the cause but the outcome—the most extreme case of the truism enacted, time and again, in our dysfunctional politics: Democrats, who know how to make policy, are bad at winning elections, while the modern GOP has figured out how to win them but has no idea how to govern. This isn’t really surprising for an ideological movement whose founding principle is that government itself is the root of most, if not all, evil.
As long ago as 1954, Theodore H. White, canvassing the political mood in Texas, found a “nameless Third Party…one of whose central tenets is that ‘if America is ever destroyed it will be from within.’” Its articles of faith are still with us: “labor unions and foreigners are dangerous”; “our Allies are bloodsucking America into bankruptcy”; “the United Nations is a compact with the devil.” Finally, “both older American parties are legitimate objects of deep suspicion.” The new third party’s heroes, Douglas MacArthur and Joseph McCarthy, were Republicans. But so were its villains, President Dwight Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
The true vehicle of the movement, in any case, wasn’t practical politics, but the politicized melodrama that played out in newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and right-wing publications like Facts Forum, American Mercury, and Human Events, soon to be joined by a more sophisticated new journal, National Review. White also described an emerging broadcast culture on the right—conspiratorial anti-Communists and fervent champions of states’ rights reaching audiences on the radio (“246 stations from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon”) and TV (over two hundred local stations).
Nevertheless, the third party remained curiously underground or “unrecognized,” White wrote. One reason was that dissident voices coming from Texas and other hinterland states were drowned out in a barrage of “concepts, prejudices, and symbols that have been loaded and aimed from emplacements in New York, Washington, and Hollywood,” which manufactured a quasi-official American myth of hope, tolerance, and horizonless prosperity. The chorus of dissent, though growing, was inchoate, “not an organization but a state of mind.”
But organizers arrived soon enough. Nicole Hemmer’s well-researched and well-argued book Messengers of the Right adds an important layer to this history by emphasizing the contributions of three “media activists” who helped give coherence to the midcentury right: the radio host and political organizer Clarence Manion, the book publisher Henry Regnery, and the longtime National Review publisher William A. Rusher. Hemmer convincingly shows how all three helped pioneer the ideologically charged conservative media of our own time.
Their strategy was to go on the counteroffensive and present an alternative narrative, all but ignoring what the other side said. “For the right, fairness did not demand that liberals have a chance to respond to conservative broadcasters,” Hemmer writes. “Conservative broadcasters were the response.” The argument explains a good deal about conservative media today. The attraction of a book by Dinesh D’Souza or an article on Breitbart begins not in the promise to expose the falsehoods and mistakes committed by the mainstream media but to tell the all-important stories they mean to keep from us. Let the liberals cry foul and pounce on errors and practice other arts of distraction in the name of “pseudo-impartiality” and “Utopian ‘objectivity’”—right-wing messengers would persevere in bringing their higher truth.
The most innovative of Hemmer’s subjects was Manion, a former dean of the Notre Dame Law School—hence “Dean” Manion in conservative circles—whose name had been floated as a possible labor secretary or even Supreme Court justice when Eisenhower was forming the first Republican administration elected since 1928. Manion instead was put in charge of the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which was supposed to look into federal waste and “redundancy.” In practice this meant that Manion could crusade for states’ rights, his great cause, though he was fired after six months for his tireless insubordination, which included a national barnstorming campaign in support of the Bricker Amendment, a direct attempt by old-guard Senate Republicans to curtail the president’s treaty-making powers. A version of the bill came within a single vote of getting the required two-thirds vote in the Senate.
The debates over the Bricker Amendment were among the main irritants in Eisenhower’s first term, not far behind Joe McCarthy’s rampages. But for Manion and others on the right the bill would have wrested power from the president and his internationalist masters in the UN and restored popular sovereignty, parallel to the states’ rights campaign. Manion was also an early adopter of “interposition”—the claim that states can exempt themselves from federal laws that they consider unconstitutional—as the all-purpose vehicle for denouncing the Moloch of “big government” in all its forms. “Whether it is gambling in Nevada, segregation in South Carolina, education in California, or the right to work in Kansas, the basic challenge to American liberty is the continuous, contemptuous disregard of the 10th Amendment,” Manion, by then a flourishing radio commentator, said in a 1956 broadcast. That year he organized a rally at Carnegie Hall at which McCarthy and William F. Buckley Jr., both guests on his radio program, gave speeches. Manion also teamed up with an association of white citizens’ councils in the South to organize a third-party presidential ticket headed by another Eisenhower defector, T. Coleman Andrews, a Virginian who quit his job as IRS commissioner and called for repeal of the income tax, along with the perpetuation of segregated schools.
These alliances were common in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Much has been made recently of Buckley’s banishment of the John Birch Society and other extremists from National Review, but that came after deliberation lasting some years. In the late 1950s, Buckley’s sister Priscilla, an editor at National Review, simultaneously helped edit the Camden News, a Citizens’ Council weekly published in Camden, South Carolina, and financially supported by their parents, who had a winter estate there. In 1962, the writer and activist Medford Evans became a full-time staff “consultant” to the national Citizens’ Council shortly after leaving the National Review masthead, which he’d been on since 1955.
When Andrews’s campaign flopped, Manion had the better idea of taking over the GOP rather than taking it on. Future success lay in presenting the hidden third party not “as an oppositional minority but as an oppressed majority,” Hemmer writes. This was a variation on what the columnist Robert Novak called “the woodwork theory of hidden conservatives,” the “hoary maxim that millions upon millions of conservatives” were there, and only remained invisible because they were disgusted with the milquetoast “me-too” GOP candidates and so didn’t vote. This remains a dogmatic conviction on the right. Ted Cruz, for one, continued to believe or at least to say that any and all Republican defeats, including Mitt Romney’s in 2012, are the price the GOP pays for fielding ideologically weak candidates.
There is no evidence for this today, and there wasn’t back then, either. The despised moderate Eisenhower won twice in large landslides and by all appearances brought out Republicans in droves. And one of the worst losses in 1958 was dealt to National Review’s favorite politician, the hard-right William Knowland, in an election for California governor that drew a prodigiously high turnout—nearly 80 percent.1
But the ideological right begins in grand myth, not petty fact. And Eisenhower, as the GOP’s leader, remained the Pied Piper of defeat, especially after the 1958 midterms, a crushing loss for the GOP. In a postmortem, National Review’s political columnist, L. Brent Bozell, speculated that the time had come for “secessions from both parties…a coalition of conservative Republicans, conservative Democrats, and conservative independents, if not as yet in a third party, at least around a third candidate”—an alternative to the frontrunners in 1960, the heretically moderate Nelson Rockefeller and the unreliable Richard Nixon. Manion agreed, and had someone in mind, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, one of the few right-wing survivors of the 1958 debacle. Manion organized a committee to get behind him and recruited Bozell, who had been writing speeches for Goldwater, to draft a book that would raise his profile and launch his candidacy. Bozell wrote the book in the course of several weeks, with little or no help, or hindrance, from Goldwater himself.
The result was The Conscience of a Conservative, still the most admired of all GOP campaign tracts. When it became a best seller, Goldwater pretended he really was its author, rather as Donald Trump still pretends he is the author of The Art of the Deal—and no more convincingly, since Bozell’s learned, scholastic prose, with its call for a showdown “equally with autocrats and ‘democratic’ Jacobins,” sounded comically unlike Goldwater’s own roughhewn idiom. But in contrast with Trump, Goldwater was admirably candid and eventually admitted that the words and also “all the ideas” were Bozell’s. “Well, I read the book,” he said at length. “I even agreed with parts of it.” There is little shame in this. Politicians seldom write their own books. But since The Conscience of a Conservative endures as a graven tablet of ideological principle, it is imperative to some that the movement’s first great figure be not only a crafty politician and well-liked senator but also a political philosopher.
In his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who claims to be an ideological descendant of Goldwater, takes the fairy tale even further. Not only does he credit Goldwater with sole authorship of this “founding document of the modern conservative movement,” but he also presents it as a manifesto in the tradition of Edmund Burke or Tom Paine, courageously intended to meet “an emergency—the collapse of conservative principles.” For conservatives, life in America really is one long emergency or threatening apocalypse, as White discovered in 1954. Touring the affluent Texas suburbs after some years in postwar Europe, amid its wrecked landscape and grinding hardships, he was startled to find passions seething in suburbs that otherwise seemed a “slice of paradise.” Even in “tolerant and easygoing” San Antonio, “the Minute Women put the Catholic Archbishop under surveillance because he had been heard saying he was going to vote for Adlai Stevenson.”
In Flake’s case the emergency is more immediate. He got on Trump’s bad side after Trump clinched the nomination and swept into Washington to meet with Republican senators. Instead of deferring to Trump, Flake sharply challenged his disparaging remarks about his fellow Arizona senator John McCain and Mexican immigrants, for whom Flake has warm feelings going back to his teenage years, when uncomplaining migrants did the backbreaking work on the Flake family’s ranch.
Trump taunted Flake in a speech in Phoenix and on Twitter, and Flake adopted a more conciliatory position. After Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the scourge of Arizona immigrants and the leader, along with Trump, in the birther attack on Obama, Flake criticized the decision—he denounces Arpaio in his book—but also said, “I’ll continue to support the president, work with him when I think he’s right, and challenge him when I think he is going in the wrong direction.” However, in a speech to the Senate on October 24, Flake condemned the “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior” emanating from “the top of our government” as “dangerous to a democracy,” and announced that he would not run for reelection in 2018.
Flake’s slim book has been praised for its unflinching criticism of Trump and the GOP, and it is true that he itemizes Trump’s sins and calls out the flame-throwers of an earlier time, including Gingrich and Tom DeLay. But when it comes to his own ideas, Flake simply recycles libertarian clichés on the virtues of “limited government” and so unintentionally makes the case for Trumpist populism, as astute conservatives like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have pointed out. But Flake is correct when he says that Goldwater is the great founding figure of the modern right—not because of his “ideas,” whatever they really were, apart from the ones Bozell stuck in his head, but for his political acumen. His campaign in 1960 went nowhere but it clinched his leadership of the third party and put him out in front when it came to the domestic crisis of his day. The civil rights movement, Goldwater understood, ahead of many others, created an opening in the South for the GOP, the party that defended traditional business practices and the settled “social life of the community”—his unusually delicate phrasing coming after the Kennedy administration began to pursue civil rights measures in response to the Freedom Rides and sit-down protests of the early 1960s.
As early as 1961, Goldwater went south to build up the GOP there. At a press conference in Atlanta he said “he favored watering down the civil rights plank adopted by the Republican national convention in 1960,” as the Associated Negro Press reported. He also opposed “any moves to ‘force integration’ of the public schools.” Two years later, Goldwater was the ringmaster of a Senate group—the others were Dixiecrats—that vehemently criticized a new Defense Department policy of telling servicemen on southern bases not to patronize local businesses if they were segregated. This pressure on local business hinted at an emerging “police state,” Goldwater warned, and could lead to “a military takeover”—that is, a new occupation of the South, Reconstruction redux. By this time, William Rusher, writing in National Review, had mapped out a possible GOP victory through the South, soon called the “Southern Strategy,” and was a leader of the “draft Goldwater” movement that enabled him to defeat a succession of Eastern moderates for the nomination in 1964.
Goldwater’s against-the-odds victory remains a peak moment in conservative lore. Some Never Trumpers, such as George Will, have held up his insurgent, ideologically driven campaign as a model of the principled conservatism the imposter Trump has defiled. They forget the campaign Goldwater actually waged, which was reported closely at the time. Richard Rovere, who covered Goldwater in 1964, witnessed his final push through the South and wrote about it in The New Yorker. The enthusiasm of the crowds he drew “was essentially non-political,” he wrote.
These were not really political rallies—they were revels, they were pageants, they were celebrations. The aim of the revellers was not so much to advance a candidacy or a cause as to dramatize a mood, and the mood was a kind of joyful defiance, or defiant joy. By coming South, Goldwater had made it possible for great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy…. [Goldwater] did not, to be sure, make any direct racist appeals. He covered the South and never, in any public gathering, mentioned “race” or “Negroes” or “whites” or “segregation” or “civil rights.” …He talked about those realities all the time, in an underground, or Aesopian, language—a kind of code that few in his audiences had any trouble deciphering. In the code, “bullies and marauders” means “Negroes.” …States’ rights means “opposition to civil rights.” “Women” means “white women.” This much of the code is as easily understood by his Northern audiences as by his Southern ones…. Goldwaterites do not suggest that the “Eastern press” is Communist in sympathy. It is enough for them that it is Eastern and, in their view, predominantly “liberal.” The code word for it is not “Communists” but “liars.”
To Rovere, it seemed a kind of madcap stunt, a “great political caper.” And “unless all the rules have been suspended for this year…the entire strategy is a joke.” In fact, it was the beginning of a new polarizing phase in American elections—“white backlash” politics, not limited to the South or to the GOP. Even as Goldwater went to the South, the Alabama demagogue George Wallace delivered the message more bluntly in the North, entering Democratic primaries in Indiana and Wisconsin with surprising results. He won outright in Lake County, Indiana, site of the steel town Gary, and did very well in Milwaukee suburbs. In both places, racial discord was brewing—over schools, housing, jobs, separately or in combination, a foretaste of the blurred mix of cultural and economic tensions that gave Trump crucial rust belt victories in 2016. Like Goldwater, Wallace was a proto-Trump.
The term “white working class,” so much in vogue today, often emphasizes “white” to the near exclusion of all else. This is a mistake. For every white supremacist or neo-Nazi who thrills to Trump’s coarse melody—or tries to exploit it to his own ends, like the would-be agitator Richard Spencer—there are millions of supporters who aren’t so much racists as distressed citizens viewing an increasingly unrecognizable world through the prism of their victimization, real or perceived. To them enemies abound: immigrants who settle for low wages and drive theirs down, or jump their place “in line” to get social services; liberal elites who devise affirmative action programs on campuses and in the workplace and show greater sympathy for Islamic refugees and migrants than for struggling out-of-work “old-stock” Americans, as they used to be called without irony or ridicule.
In the first blush of Trump’s remarkable victory, these messages, since erased by Charlottesville, were being heard, especially on the subject of the Great Recession and the recovery that came after, with its mixed results. “Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs” in the Obama years, the Times’s Eduardo Porter noted after the election:
Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.
The racial and ethnic divide is starker among workers in their prime. Whites ages 25 to 54 lost some 6.5 million jobs more than they gained over the period. Hispanics in their prime, by contrast, gained some three million jobs net, Asians 1.5 million and blacks one million.
The causes of this remain unclear, but some of it flows from the biggest stealth victory that Manion, Goldwater, and other third partiers achieved over the course of many years. It had less to do with race than with the movement’s attack on “Big Labor”—organized unions. Goldwater rose to fame for his attacks, in the late 1950s, on Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, a champion of civil rights and also of radical-seeming ideas about profit-sharing and pension and other benefits, including health insurance. “The supreme bogeyman for American conservatives,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called him, Reuther had been the main target of attack in 1958, when Manion’s pet issue, right-to-work proposals that would protect workers in unionized workplaces from being forced to join the union or pay union dues, was on the ballot in six states including California. The GOP published a campaign book, The Labor Bosses—America’s Third Party, that described, among things, the war chest Reuther and other union leaders could draw from to influence elections through political action committees.
Five of the six right-to-work laws were defeated. But the issue of “labor monopoly,” and the strategy of pitting blue-collar workers against union leaders, took root, in part because the arguments were subtler than those used in the “interposition” battle against desegregation. While right-to-work proponents in the South warned that Reuther and other labor bosses would force whites to “share the same restroom with Negroes and work side by side with them,”2 others in California circulated a pamphlet, The Negro and His Right to Work, written by a black conservative, Joseph V. Baker, who claimed that “king pins of labor” in the Teamsters had barred blacks from truck-driving jobs in Los Angeles and from joining the skilled trades in liberal San Francisco. Meanwhile, wealthy businessmen, including one of the du Ponts, financed a scurrilous attack on Reuther, Meet the Man Who Plans to Rule America, written by Joseph Kamp, a far-right propagandist with a long history of alliances with anti-Semites and segregationists.
These combinations of race and class could be worked in almost infinite variations, and they became the GOP’s route to the majority it achieved from 1972 to 1992, when the GOP won four of five presidential elections, all in landslides. An important maneuver was Nixon’s “Philadelphia Plan,” which called for the desegregation of the city’s unions, thereby splitting a reliable Democratic bloc, as disgruntled whites fled to the GOP. Another master of this kind of politics was Goldwater’s heir Ronald Reagan. In his new book, The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Henry Olsen shows how Reagan, still a Democrat but newly emerging as a political voice on the right, combined racial and labor politics.
Olsen, even more than Flake, insists that his subject was no mere politician but a political philosopher whose “thinking was too subtle, his wisdom too profound” for us to fathom, though Olsen has a good idea Reagan wouldn’t like Obamacare, even if he did come around on Medicare once he saw he’d never be elected president if he didn’t stop saying it was the first step on the skidding road to serfdom. He was no less subtle and profound when it came to shuffling the race and class deck.
In his first campaign for office, Reagan had been elected governor of California in 1966 because, in part, of his views on race mingled with class concerns. He opposed the state’s fair-housing act, enacted in 1964 and worrisome to white homeowners, and said the Watts riots and urban crime had made city streets “jungle paths after dark.” For this reason, Rusher gathered support for a third-party Reagan-Wallace ticket in 1976. Reagan rejected the ticket and instead followed the Manion-Goldwater formula of an insurgent takeover of the GOP from within, coming very close to unseating Ford. When he captured the nomination, in 1980, Reagan at last found time to campaign in Mississippi, going there immediately after the GOP convention to give a speech. Speaking to a large, mostly white crowd a few miles from the site where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, Reagan said, “I believe in states’ rights.”3
But Reagan calibrated his moves even more deftly on unions. He touted his former employer, General Electric, as a worker-friendly company when, in fact, it was fiercely anti-union, as Reagan well knew. Later, however, he made overtures to unions, arranging a meeting with his campaign and the UAW in 1980, when the rank-and-file turned against Carter’s economic policies and its leader, Douglas Fraser, said, “There is a direct correlation between the rate of unemployment and votes for Reagan.” But one of his first and most far-reaching acts as president was to fire more than 11,000 air traffic controllers when they struck in the summer of 1981.
It was illegal for government workers to strike, but they had seldom been punished for doing so. Reagan broke with this precedent and was widely praised for his tough stand. But the impact on the strikers was an early sign of hard times of a kind that is familiar today. Five years after the confrontation, Joseph McCartin writes in Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011),
70 percent of fired controllers had yet to find jobs that matched their prestrike income. One-third earned incomes so low their families qualified for food stamps. Thirteen percent lost their homes. One fifth still worked in entry-level jobs in clerical, sales, service, or unskilled manual labor.
This is the working-class America the modern GOP did so much to create, one that remains skeptical and even hostile toward labor unions even as wages stagnate and jobs are outsourced abroad. Reagan, again, manipulated the issue skillfully, presenting himself as a supporter of both the working class and states’ rights. He rejected the GOP’s call for a national right-to-work law, saying instead that it should be left up to the states, where it eventually yielded the richest of all Republican states’ rights harvests. In the mid-1950s, seventeen states had right-to-work laws. Today twenty-eight do. Trump won twenty-seven of them.
The exception, Virginia, has an uncommonly large number of federal employees. Today public-sector workers belong to unions at five times the rate of private-sector workers, and a higher percentage of African-Americans than whites are likely to join.4 This is what gives both a racial and an economic cast to GOP politics. Two of the rust-belt states crucial to Trump’s victory, Michigan and Wisconsin, have recently passed right-to-work laws.5 In the Obama years, Wisconsin lost 177,000 union members, and Michigan lost 165,000—accounting together for about a quarter of the reduction in total union membership in that period. In both states the laws were signed by Republican governors who became leaders in the GOP as a result of their battles with organized labor. One of them, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, made it the basis of a presidential campaign in 2016.6
In addition to the twenty-seven right-to-work states, Trump won three others. Two, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both have large cities with histories of racial conflict as well as declining industrial economies and a shrinking percentage of union workers. The third, Montana, remains a union state, though nine GOP candidates there, running for various offices, came under investigation for accepting illegal contributions from the National Right to Work Committee. Trump’s victory was “a banner night for the right-to-work movement,” National Review Online reported soon after Election Day. “At least two states—possibly three—will become right-to-work next year.”
In February, House Republicans revived a right-to-work bill that had gone nowhere under Obama. One of its sponsors is Joe Wilson, the South Carolina representative who in 2009 shouted at Obama, “You lie!” in what seemed, in those innocent times, an unthinkable breach of decorum. The other is Steve King, the Iowa congressman notorious for his hatred of immigrants who, after Trump indicated that he may not, after all, revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), fumed on Twitter, “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair.”
Thus does the nameless third party bore ever deeper into our politics, its adherents streaming out of the woodwork—not a majority, but acting like one, with the confidence that its truth will prevail and make America, at last, a true slice of paradise.
Totton J. Anderson, “The 1958 Election in California,” The Western Political Quarterly (March 1959), p. 277. Lawrence E. Davies, “California Vote of 80% Predicted,” The New York Times, November 4, 1958. ↩
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), p. 112. ↩
Bob Herbert, “Righting Reagan’s Wrongs?” The New York Times, November 13, 2007. ↩
Dave Jamieson, “Wisconsin Lawmakers Pass Right-to-Work Bill as Thousands Protest,” Huffington Post, February 25, 2015. ↩
Alec MacGillis, “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker,” The New Republic, June 15, 2014. ↩