Tim Alberta’s American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump is a concentrated distillation of a decade’s worth of political trauma. Its account of the Republican Party’s descent into populism begins, aptly, in 2008, with an exploration of two countervailing forces: the ascension of Sarah Palin and the collapse of the mortgage market. At the same moment that the Republican Party’s faithful fell in love with a media-savvy neophyte with an instinct for populist demagoguery, its governing class was tasked with taking the painful steps necessary to contain an unfolding economic catastrophe.
Amid the wreckage of the financial meltdown, the architects of the GOP’s fracturing made the most of their moment. The Tea Party, an amalgam of center-right interests galvanized into a movement by the bailouts for America’s most exposed asset-holders, adopted the language of limited-government principles while expressing social anxieties. The conservative movement’s media complex made heroes of figures in and out of government willing to sacrifice decorum in service to emotional displays of distress. Outside groups compelled Republican politicians to mount doomed charges of the light brigades in defiance of insurmountable odds—two government shutdowns—only to use the predictable failure of these charges as an opportunity to fundraise against those very politicians. It was a period of cynicism and paranoia, two conditions Donald Trump capitalized on in the early part of the 2010s by advocating “birtherism”—a baseless and racially antagonistic attack on Barack Obama. All the while, the sources of institutional authority within the Republican Party atrophied, audiences replaced constituencies, and ideas were subordinated to clickbait.
By the early summer of 2015, as the 2016 presidential campaign began in earnest, the conservative firmament had been ruthlessly tilled and the seeds for Trumpism sown. To relive the events of 2016, as Alberta makes us do, is to reopen old wounds. Marco Rubio’s natural political talents are undone by his tactical blunders. Jeb Bush’s anxieties over the prospect of a Trump presidency are betrayed by his campaign’s singular focus on undermining Rubio. Ted Cruz remains committed to a theory of the race that requires Trump’s presence right up until Cruz is forced to concede. Chris Christie’s and John Kasich’s wounded egos are salved only by the failure of their more competent rivals. Alberta recounts a secret meeting arranged by Senator Mike Lee, a last-ditch effort to unify the anti-Trump vote behind a Cruz-Rubio ticket—but Rubio rejected the overture.
All the while, an unlikely alliance in favor of Trump was forming between the party’s populist media figures and their establishmentarian rivals who could not bear the thought of a President Cruz. “We’re not allowed to say anything positive about you,” Alberta alleges two Fox News contributors told Cruz. If Trump was the preferred candidate of conservative media, he was the lesser evil for party men such as Bob Dole and John Boehner. “Crazy I could deal with,” Boehner recalled. “But not pathological.”
In a meeting between Trump, now the presumptive nominee, and Republican veteran Karl Rove, the former reality-TV host insisted his celebrity would lead him to win states like New York and California while dismissing electorally significant states like Iowa. “Why aren’t people in my campaign talking to me about this?” Trump asked of the sordid figures and B-team campaign professionals with whom he was surrounded. The looming insolvency crisis affecting entitlement programs; the mechanisms in the World Trade Organization that allow for the enforcement of claims against bad actors; even the importance of conservative judicial nominees to the party’s base voters—all this was news to Trump.
Republican politicians did not know what to do. House Speaker Paul Ryan regularly assailed Trump’s “racist” remarks and considered withdrawing his endorsement following the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, only to be scolded and rebuffed by his fellow Republicans. Mick Mulvaney, now Trump’s chief of staff, defended the candidate “despite the fact that I think he’s a terrible human being.” Rubio deemed Trump the product of a societal vitriol exemplified by “the things that prominent people write about each other” on Twitter. Prominent Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows “feared living with the legacy of nominating Trump” and planned to blame Ryan for the GOP nominee’s inevitable loss.
The two months of Trump’s transition from president-elect to president might have calmed his Republican critics if he had shown that he had an idea about how to do the job, but he didn’t. Though he was compelled to staff his government with Republican professionals, few of whom could be considered true Trumpian populists, the 45th president also elevated to prominence a few who shared his populist fixations. Among them were the agitator Steve Bannon and speechwriter-turned-policymaker Stephen Miller, both of whom helped engineer some of Trump’s most spectacular debacles. The various iterations of what Trump called the “Muslim ban,” the “zero-tolerance” family-separation policy, and protectionist industrial policies devoting more American steel to U.S.-based projects than American steel manufactures could produce—these were the brainchildren of the new Trumpian wing of the GOP.
Other policy matters were no better. At the beginning of the administration, the president had supported Ryan’s American Health Care Act before Freedom Caucus members Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan convinced him that the bill wasn’t quite ready. As tensions grew within the Republican conference, the White House spent the next week sending mixed signals about whether the president backed the bill or not. This vacillation culminated in Trump’s 11th-hour decision to stand athwart Ryan’s repeal-and-replacement effort.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed reports saying Trump had told Senate Republicans that the House bill was simply “mean.” The president doubled down on his criticisms at a campaign-style rally in Iowa. “I’ve been talking about a plan with heart,” Trump declared. “I said, ‘Add some money to it!’” The mission to replace Obamacare died that day, to the sound of enthusiastic applause from a Republican audience.
“Several of the members, grown men, broke into tears,” Alberta writes of the House Republican conference during health-care deliberations. These Republicans were paralyzed with the fear that they might accidentally defy the president, thus “winding up on the business end of a Trump tweet.” The moral-majoritarian wing of the GOP—people Trump reportedly referred to as “those fucking evangelicals” and “so-called Christians” who supported Ted Cruz and were, therefore, “real pieces of shit”—concocted increasingly ludicrous theological constructs to justify their devotion to a man who exemplifies moral failure. CPAC, an activist conference once populated by the most libertarian-minded constitutionalists, had become a cult of Trumpian personality. “To attend the event was to witness an ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around,” Alberta writes.
The resentment toward Trump among other professional Republicans is palpable throughout Alberta’s book. “It’s like he wants us to lose!” Ted Cruz seethed amid Trump’s desperate efforts to transform the 2018 midterm elections into a referendum on his most nativist policy prescriptions. Executives within conservative activist organizations such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth lamented that the only way to generate traction among Republican voters was to sacrifice fiscal conservatism to cultural grievance-mongering—“immigration, national anthem, whatever worked.” But it didn’t work. Democratic House candidates won nearly 9 million more votes in November 2018. And those Republicans who served on the frontlines in the GOP’s House majority were thanked for their service with a presidential denunciation on the morning after their losses—a display that Republican lawmakers did not appreciate.
The book reveals that even those who cannot bring themselves to say a bad word about the president are aware of the damage he is doing to the party’s brand. That’s apparent in the Republican reaction to the prolonged and needless government shutdown Trump instigated in 2019 in the attempt to force a reluctant Congress to fund Trump’s border wall. “Republicans on Capitol Hill were increasingly agitated, inwardly angry with themselves but outwardly seething at McConnell and McCarthy for having allowed the president to embarrass the party like this,” Alberta observes.
“It’s not about ideology anymore,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund. “It’s only about Trump. Are you with him or are you against him? That’s the only thing that matters to voters in the Republican base.”
American Carnage fails to paint a full portrait of the changes in the Republican coalition because Alberta fails to properly appreciate how the scorched-earth tactics deployed by Barack Obama and his allies accelerated the right’s radicalization.
Alberta says that Obama’s attempt to bulldoze over Republican objections to the “liberal grab bag” of giveaways marketed to the public in 2009 as an economic stimulus by reminding them that “I won” was an “immeasurable gift to the GOP.” But he implies that the GOP’s response was overblown because Obama had “benign intent.” But if the GOP’s objections to the president’s misuse of a true crisis for parochial political gain were made in good faith, where is the benignity?
Alberta quotes Heritage Foundation communications officer Rory Cooper, who mourned how Republicans in the age of Obama cared less for policy and more for culture war. But the example he cites is outrage over an Agriculture Department proposal to impose a fee on fresh-cut Christmas trees. “A lot of conservatives weren’t fighting on policy anymore,” Cooper laments. A tax on Christmas-tree producers and importers designed to fund a program promoting Christmas-tree consumption is, in fact, policy. What’s more, it’s indicative of a spectacularly misguided understanding of how taxes affect consumer behavior, and the fact that it was not implemented stands as testimony to the legitimacy of the right’s arguments.
Alberta chronicles the right’s descent into unenlightened racial paranoia in the Obama years, but, in the process, he conflates the banal with the egregious. Republicans such as Michelle Bachman and Louie Gohmert who accused Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood do not belong in the same league with an unnamed Colorado lawmaker citing a common racist idiom associated with the Joel Chandler Harris tale “Br’er Rabbit”—much less in the same paragraph. Alberta argues that the realignment of the old South, away from Democrats and toward Republicans, “turned the GOP into the champion of the old Confederacy’s states-rights, small-government creed.” No. While the South’s segregationist lawmakers were surely federalists, they could hardly be said to have favored small government. Alberta even attempts to save Joe Biden from himself by whitewashing Biden’s claim before a mixed-race audience that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan wanted to “put y’all back in chains.”
“Contextually,” Alberta writes, “the vice president’s comment was part of a broadside against Republicans’ deregulation of Wall Street.” That is not context. Rather, it’s damage control straight from the Obama campaign. Moreover, Alberta’s contextualization ignores the reelection campaign’s full-court press to brand Romney and his party racists. It ignores how Obama campaign surrogates such as Virginia state Senator Louise Lucas accused Romney of appealing to voters “who don’t like a black man in the White House.” It ignores the comments of lawmakers such as Nancy Pelosi, who claimed that Romney’s outreach to the NAACP was a calculated maneuver to appeal to racists, who would rally to his defense when the audience booed him (a feat of clairvoyance on Romney’s part).
It ignores how the press framed the Romney campaign’s focus on America’s underfunded liabilities as racist. Entitlement and welfare reform were deemed, in the words of New York Times editorialist Thomas Edsall and New York’s Jonathan Chait respectively, subject matter with “racial overtones” that appeal to “highly racialized terms.” It dismisses pro-Obama voices in the media who devoted themselves each day anew to the reckless practice of deciphering racist “code words” cleverly embedded in everyday speech. “Urban,” “Chicago,” “apartment,” “skinny,” and “golf” were deemed “dog whistles,” supposedly audible to white racists alone but really heard only by Romney’s obsessive critics.
Alberta even appropriates for himself an irresponsible line of attack that the Obama administration deployed against Republicans. “America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Alberta writes of the House GOP’s effort to transform Ted Cruz’s doomed 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare’s funding into a showdown with the White House over federal spending. Say what you will about the recklessness of the Republicans’ legislative tactics, it’s not terrorism. That kind of equivalency serves as a wrong-headed validation of Obama-era figures such as White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who insisted that those who advocated spending caps in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike were the equivalent of arsonists, suicide bombers, and hostage-takers.
The Republican Party’s drift away from the civility and decency displayed by Mitt Romney and toward its polar opposite in Donald Trump did not occur in a vacuum. Alberta claims that Barack Obama was a careful steward of American race relations, yet a 2014 poll showed that only 6 percent of Americans in battleground states believed American race relations had improved. This is neither inexplicable nor attributable to Republican agitation alone. As Gallup found on the eve of the 2012 election, 50 percent of Americans said race relations had “greatly improved” while another 39 percent said that racial comity had improved “somewhat.” This decline was precipitous, and the way Obama’s campaign dug into America’s racial scars in pursuit of reelection is partly to blame.
Just as the Obama era’s excesses disfigured the GOP, the Trump era is steadily radicalizing the left. Alberta dismisses the nascent outlines of a progressive version of the Tea Party taking shape today as the indulgences of one “renegade rank-and-file member,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has all but created her own small but potent caucus of progressive insurgents, has thwarted Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s designs more than once, and has demonstrated that the locus of power in the Democratic Party isn’t with leadership anymore but in the grassroots and their allies in left-leaning media. That kind of efficacy in such a short period of time suggests there are stronger forces at work than Ocasio-Cortez’s personality alone.
Just as Democrats appear to be preparing for a more recalcitrant and activist identity when Trump is out of office, so, too, will Republicans resume the fight for the soul of their party. That conflict was only papered over by Trump’s victory, and Alberta makes it plain that the president’s grip on the GOP’s electoral machinery is more a product of fear than lasting admiration. Democrats have not transformed into fiscally prudent free traders and foreign-policy hawks in the age of Trump, and partisan dynamics (to say nothing of a set of looming crises just over the horizon) ensure that the two major parties will not be of the same mind on these fundamental issues. The forces of political gravity alone are certain to revive the GOP’s internal debate over the true merits of conservative policy prescriptions.
In the final pages of Alberta’s book, a handful of knowledgeable observers forecast the rise of a third party—one that embraces Trump’s fusionist brand of cultural traditionalism and fiscal profligacy. Perhaps, but it would have to consume one or the other major party if it were to survive. American political institutions such as the Electoral College and the way majority rule works inside the two branches of Congress have preserved the two-party dynamic by making parliamentary democracy an imprudent proposition. It is, in fact, Trump’s GOP that more resembles the third party these observers describe, which is why the fight over control of that existing real estate will become imperative again in the post-Trump era. The Republican civil war Tim Alberta chronicles in his flawed but important book is not over. It’s only dormant.