American Carnage - Tim Alberta Page 0,1

“I gave them hope.”

TO CONSIDER TRUMP’S RISE IS TO RECOGNIZE THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS of American life: instinctual outrage and involuntary contempt, geographic clustering and clannish identification, moral relativism and self-victimization.

These conditions began to shape the modern political era dating back to the mid-1990s. There was the zero-sum warfare practiced by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who encouraged Republicans to use words such as “traitors” and “radicals” to describe their political opponents. There was the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, whose deception in the face of extramarital scandal might have angered more Democrats had Republicans not brimmed with hypocritical and opportunistic indignation. There was, after the brief interlude of 9/11, the Bush administration’s disastrous handling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. And there was, of course, the election of Obama, whose unifying rhetoric met with the cold realities of governing in a bitterly divided nation, stoking the flames of polarization that had come to inform seemingly every issue, even those where once considerable agreement existed.

Trump understands—intuitively, if not academically—how this atmosphere invited his emergence.

In an interview inside the Oval Office, he misses no opportunity to highlight the failures of the governing class, alternatively delighted and vexed that no politician proved capable of identifying or exploiting the opportunity he did.

The president seems particularly gleeful in swiping at his most immediate predecessors, one of each party, a merry violation of etiquette inside the world’s most exclusive fraternity. Bush, he says, “caused tremendous division . . . tremendous death, and tremendous monetary loss” by focusing on nation-building abroad instead of fortifying a wobbly domestic economy. Obama, the president argues, was even more clueless when it came to the economy, standing idly by as the country hemorrhaged blue-collar jobs, more concerned about preserving political norms than protecting American workers.

Whether fair, or accurate, or nuanced, these sentiments were undeniably shared by a sizable chunk of the American electorate in the waning years of Obama’s presidency. By stepping into the arena and presenting himself as a brawler—someone unbeholden to any special interest, someone unencumbered by the conventions of Washington, someone willing to burn down the government on behalf of the governed—Trump returned the Republican Party to power.

He also understands the relationship between his victory and the GOP’s previous two losses.

The 2008 campaign was “a very rough time for the Republican Party,” Trump says. He recalls how McCain embraced Bush’s floundering war in Iraq; how he resorted to gimmicks as the global banking system teetered on the edge of the abyss; how he repeatedly told laid-off midwestern voters that some of their jobs wouldn’t be coming back. “I gave him money—believe it or not, because I wasn’t a huge fan, then or now, but I raised money for him,” Trump says of McCain. “And then he just gave up on an entire section of the country.”

The 2012 defeat was worse, because to Trump, it was avoidable. Whereas McCain had been hamstrung four years earlier by Bush’s deep unpopularity as well as a dramatic financial crisis, Romney faced a vulnerable incumbent presiding over a sputtering economy. Yet, instead of appealing to the primal instincts of the right, running a bloody campaign against a president whose team was showing no mercy to Romney, the Republican nominee played by the rules. “Romney’s problem was he had too much respect for Obama,” Trump says. “And he shouldn’t have, because Obama didn’t deserve it.”

In both cases, Trump says, these Republicans lost because they acted like, well, Republicans. McCain and Romney defended the merits of free trade, promoted the exporting of American military force, and advocated the importing of cheap labor—all while adhering to a code of conduct that pacified the graybeards of the GOP establishment.

What Trump does not understand is that his populist, inward-facing “Make America Great Again” mantra is less a revelation than a resurrection. For generations, his ideological forebears—from Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, to the leaders of the John Birch Society, to “Pitchfork” Pat Buchanan, who challenged George H. W. Bush in the 1992 GOP primary—have peddled a version of conservatism, known commonly as paleoconservatism, anchored by an intense skepticism of international commerce, military adventurism, and foreign immigration.

As a political philosophy, this brand of right-wing nationalism was crushed under the heel of William F. Buckley’s National Review, the Ronald Reagan revolution, and the Bush dynasty. In pursuing a vision of expansionist, growth-oriented neoconservatism, these forces transformed the post–World War II Republican Party into a champion of global markets, global policing, and global citizenry.

But it was unsustainable. Between the lives and treasure