TIME Magazine Reporter on Trump, the GOP and the Politics of Retribution
National politics & congressional reporter Eric Cortelessa sees the GOP's "politics of retribution" as having limited appeal with Americans long-term.
Eric Cortelessa is a staff writer for TIME Magazine, covering national politics and Congress. He was previously an editor and investigative reporter at the Washington Monthly (where I was a contributing writer). Eric spoke on October 6 before the Cazenovia Forum on “The Politics of Retribution: An Update on Congress and the 2024 Presidential Election.” The following summarizes his commentary.
Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” (1984) captures a sentiment that contributed to Donald Trump’s political success:
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks.
Foreman says, “These jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back.”
Today’s populism is rooted in Ronald Reagan’s policies — specifically, backing away from antitrust enforcement and repealing the Fairness Doctrine. The former has led to more consolidation and less competition. As Philip Longman and Daniel Block have documented for the Washington Monthly, it has been a driving force of regional inequality, as the few companies left in sector after sector are mostly located in a handful of major cities, while the rest of America has suffered economic devastation. The decimation of unions and the loss of manufacturing jobs have compounded the problem. The latter policy choice created the conditions for the hyper-partisanship of the following decades and the rise of right-wing broadcasting. In the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh became the number one syndicated radio host and Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes created Fox News. The nascent network’s personalities quickly capitalized on widespread conservative resentments and the desire to exact vengeance on those allegedly responsible for many of society’s ills.
By the next decade, Newt Gingrich put those ideas into action. He reversed Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. For him, politics was war by other means. His conservative agenda, dubbed the “Contract with America,” ultimately failed. In 1994, Republicans were elected to a majority of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1953. But after impeaching Bill Clinton, they lost seats in the 1998 election, the first midterm election cycle in more than 60 years wherein the incumbent president's party gained seats in the House. The GOP’s losses were attributed to wide opposition to the impeachment investigations against Clinton and his high popularity numbers. In other words, the Republicans miscalculated and overreached.
Then, in the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration strayed from his party’s three traditional core principles: 1) limited government; 2) fiscal restraint; and 3) strong defense. Bush grew the government, as spending went through the roof and he mired the country in two enervating wars. He ballooned the national debt and committed heresy with the conservative base by supporting amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Having again overreached, the GOP lost in a landslide to Barack Obama.
Sarah Palin’s rise ushered in an era of conservatives playing on fears and resentments, largely based on societal changes and wealth and income inequality. Her pandering to fear and grievance contributed to the rise of the Tea Party, which fed a growing schism between traditional and “paleoconservative” Republicans, creating a new kind of internecine conflict within the GOP. Obama conceded he had suffered a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms when the Republicans regained the House, winning 63 seats. The Democrats’ defeat was attributed mainly to voter backlash against the newly-passed Affordable Care Act, which was years away from implementation.
When Trump became a presidential candidate in 2015, he exploited the populist-infused zeitgeist. He exhibited a much better feel for the growing sense of dispossession among white working class Americans. He was also cunning in playing to the racial grievances of millions of Americans, something that caught many in the political class off-guard. As Cortellessa notes, he benefited from not being a career politician: As the Republican base was exasperated with politics as usual and the conservative politicians who they thought violated their principles, Trump could not be held responsible for the sins of his party’s past.
Trump would go on to win most of the white working class vote, the largest single voting constituency. Conversely, the Democrats, traditionally a bastion of blue collar voters, had been hemorrhaging support among its members for decades. But Trump catapulted the divide to a new level, clinching 62 percent of the white working class in 2016 (30 percent of his total support). But over the course of his presidency, some of those same voters were plainly turned off by the high drama of the Trump years; others were drawn to Joe Biden’s appeal as a son of blue collar Scranton. Biden earned 17 percent more of their support in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
Since then, the Democrats have managed to be more cohesive than in the past, not allowing themselves to be hindered by intra-party disputes. They have focused on scoring important legislative victories, such as the American Rescue Plan, the $1 trillion infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act, modest but broadly popular gun safety legislation, and the CHIPS and Science Act, which is bringing in a $100 billion manufacturing plant and some 50,000 jobs to Central New York.
Moreover, the Democrats deftly managed the House January 6 hearings, which Cortellessa suspects had an “an incalculable effect on the 2022 midterms,” leading to the party holding the Senate and narrowly losing the House. The much bandied “Red Wave” did not happen, a consequence of Trump fatigue and voters’ rejection of candidates affiliated with the former president.
Winning the spotlight have been up-and-coming MAGA firebrands like Arizona’s Kari Lake and Florida’s Anna Paulina Luna. They ride the wave of popular affinity for “apostates,” particularly Lake, who, as a 30-year veteran of broadcast media, denounced mainstream news media as “fake news” in her unsuccessful bid for Arizona governor in 2022.
Luna, at 32, won her Florida congressional seat through vigorous and skilled use of social media, especially Instagram, where she had gained a following as an “influencer.” Once in Congress, she quickly became an influential player. Only six months into the job, she spearheaded the House GOP-led censure of Congressman Adam Schiff over his leading role in Trump’s first impeachment. After forcing a vote on the resolution and coming up short because of 20 Republican defectors, Luna resorted to social media to successfully whip up the MAGA base to cow GOP leaders. A week later, Luna forced a vote again and won over all the holdouts.
Republicans have learned from Luna’s example. They are now more skilled than Democrats in wielding social media as a weapon in their “politics of vengeance.”
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is another young right-wing rebel who has proven skillful in his crusade against non-MAGA Republicans. He not only successfully ousted House Speaker Keven McCarthy, but he’s now fundraising off of his manufactured crisis. Gaetz thrives more than most on media attention. His antics have made him the “most hated man in Washington” but beloved by the Trump-inspired base.
Of course, Americans’ appetite for the “politics of revenge” has clear limits, as seen in previous episodes of Republican overreach. But this clearly is where the party is going. Trump himself, the party standard bearer, offered that promise in June, when he told his supporters: “I am your retribution.” It may take several lost presidential and midterm elections before the Republican Party begins to reform itself and return to some form of moderation. Otherwise, it risks extinction.