by Jennifer Szalai, NY Times
Over the weekend we learned that President Trump — who has taken credit for an economic turnaround that began under Barack Obama and a hot streak by the Boston Red Sox — insists that he predicted the meteoric rise of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez long before anyone else did. He says that he called her “Evita,” comparing her to Eva Perón, Argentina’s populist first lady and eventual president, ahead of Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in the Democratic primary of 2018.
On Sunday, The Guardian disrupted the publisher’s carefully scheduled rollout of Tim Alberta’s “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump” by leading with this morsel from Alberta’s reporting. Before the end of the day, the online furor had run its course — from amplification and distrust to playful irony and political mudslinging. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out Perón quotes about helping the poor; conservatives gleefully used her tweets to bring up how Argentina under the Peróns became a haven for Nazi war criminals.
It’s a sign of the times that Alberta’s doorstop volume was at first reduced to a sound bite from the president, who has an uncanny gift for making everything about him. But “American Carnage” isn’t just another drop in the deluge of Trump books; in fact, it isn’t really a Trump book at all. Instead it’s a fascinating look at a Republican Party that initially scoffed at the incursion of a philandering reality-TV star with zero political experience and now readily accommodates him.
Alberta, a political correspondent for the conservative magazine National Review before moving to Politico, brings more than a decade of reporting and a real understanding of the conservative movement to “American Carnage.” He reminds readers of the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush campaigned with the promise of “compassionate conservatism,” reflecting an attempt by the Republican Party to present itself as “warm, aspirational, inclusive,” pursuing minority outreach and immigration reform. Republican pollsters had taken a look at the changing demographics of the country, and the numbers spelled doom. The Republican Party simply couldn’t survive by catering primarily to white people.
Or could it? This question cuts to the heart of what the party is becoming under Trump, who was the preferred candidate of white nationalists. Gone for the most part is the big-tent strategy of appealing to moderates and expanding outreach; if the 2018 midterms were any indication, the Republican electoral plan currently consists mainly of riling up the base, gerrymandering and appointing the judges who will decide the gerrymandering cases.
There are exceptions, of course. Alberta showcases attempts by Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, to modify some of the more extremist tendencies in the party, devising tax incentives for investment in poor areas and lobbying for bipartisan criminal justice legislation.
But in a book that weighs in at more than 600 pages, Scott’s efforts made me think mostly of the historian Leah Wright Rigueur’s excellent study “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” As “American Carnage” makes abundantly clear, Trump tapped into and exploited a bigotry that had already been seething, bubbling up to the surface during the Obama administration. Trump might have been a noisy proponent of birtherism, but he was also, Alberta explains, a “latecomer” to the movement. The Republican adviser Karl Rove says he “knew people, smart people, who were into it.”
Rove is one of the more than 300 people Alberta interviewed for this book, which locates Trump’s ascendancy amid a long-brewing civil war in the Republican Party. The narrative begins with the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, when Sarah Palin — a Trumpian politician before Trump became a politician — was transformed into a national figure by the beloved establishment senator John McCain. Rove calls Palin “vacuous” and an “early warning bell”: “We went from wanting people who were experienced and qualified to wanting people who would throw bombs and blow things up.”
This may sound rich coming from someone who had no problem with actual bomb-throwing in the Iraq War, but Rove’s comment reflected a growing awareness among elite Republicans that their grip on the party had been pried loose. What it doesn’t do is acknowledge that those who were “experienced and qualified” enough to serve in a Bush administration remembered for expensive wars and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression might have played a part in their own political demise.
Not that they have all disappeared — far from it. While Tea Party-adjacent Republicans like Eric Cantor and John Boehner were eventually pushed out by the impatient brawlers of the House Freedom Caucus, certain old-guard figures have since seized on what they need to do to keep their jobs and stay in power. Alberta spells out how Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow even a hearing for Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, encouraged otherwise hesitant social conservatives — ever hopeful of overturning Roe v. Wade — to hold their noses and vote for a libertine Trump.
Alberta, who thanks Jesus Christ in his acknowledgments (“despite my straying from the path, He loves me and forgives me”), seems truly astounded by the about-face of the evangelical Mike Pence, a longtime free-trade conservative who embraced tariffs after becoming Trump’s running mate. The born-again protectionism is one thing, but it’s Pence’s unlikely portrait of Trump as a pious supplicant that gives Alberta pause. “I respect the sincerity of his faith,” Pence told Alberta on the 2016 campaign trail.
“This is when the B.S. detector starts to beep,” Alberta writes. His book generally strikes a tone of measured fairness throughout, but he eventually concludes that “Pence’s talent for bootlicking” is “obscene.”
Unsurprisingly, Republicans who have left office are game to give Alberta some of the saltiest quotes. Boehner, who retired as House speaker in 2015, says Congress is filled with “some of the nicest people” and “some that are Nazis.” Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, fumes at evangelical leaders for supporting a president who “comes along defiling the White House and disrespecting God’s children at every turn, but it’s cool, because he gave them two Supreme Court justices.”
“American Carnage” tells the degrading story of the ultimate devil’s bargain: As chaotic as the current administration is, and as much as the president torpedoes conservative shibboleths like respect for the F.B.I. and the sanctity of families, Republicans have scored some goodies they have long craved — the gutting of environmental regulations, a raft of judicial appointments and an enormous tax cut.
The question is how sustainable any of this is. Zac Moffatt, the digital director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, now admits that Romney’s hard-line immigration rhetoric may have had some consequences that were less intended than others.
you have to light a prairie fire to win,” he told Alberta. “But sometimes it
comes back and burns your house down.”
American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump
By Tim Alberta
678 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99