What Keeps America Divided?

Gun Rights

How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality

By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

This book makes its appearance in the thick of a golden age of political journalism. Each Oval Office tantrum has been recounted in graphic detail, every booking at the Trump Hotel given close scrutiny. Never have we known more about inner-sanctum happenings in the White House or about the corruption that can pervade power. Yet such a gusher of scoops makes this a good moment to counterprogram with a solid work of political science.

One might expect inside-the-room reportage to be more melodramatic than a careful study of structural forces. But with “Let Them Eat Tweets,” the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson have constructed a portrait of the Trumpian moment that, in the book’s professorial way, is as terrifying as those Page 1 accounts of presidential ravings. They meticulously show how the president isn’t a singular presence, but a thoroughly representative one.

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Hacker and Pierson are two of the most reliable and reliably creative thinkers in their discipline. Over the past 15 years, they have collaborated on a series of important books (especially “Off-Center: The Republican Revolution and Erosion of American Democracy”) that have charted inequality’s distorting influence on politics. (Several of their essays were published in The New Republic when I was editor.) This book reads like a culmination of their work, since the presidency of Donald Trump is the culmination of the trend they have so closely studied.

In essence, “Let Them Eat Tweets” revisits the title question of Thomas Frank’s classic “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Sixteen years after the publication of Frank’s book, the question he raised remains the most important one in American politics: namely, how has the Republican Party achieved so many victories when its economic policies are so unpopular? Or as Frank posed it: How has the Republican Party persuaded so many working-class voters to support a plutocratic agenda that they often don’t especially like, and that often undermines their own livelihoods?

Hacker and Pierson’s answer to this question isn’t revelatory, but it is persuasively and meticulously argued. They begin with a central conundrum of trans-Atlantic politics, what they call the “conservative dilemma.” From their 19th-century inception, political parties of the right have faced an electoral disadvantage since, for the most part, they emerged as vessels for the wealthy, a definitionally small coterie. Their growth seemed further constrained by the fact that they could never match their opponents’ enticing promises of government largess because their wealthy backers steadfastly refused to pay higher taxes.

This state of weakness forced an unpleasant choice on any conservative party: Plutocrats could reconcile themselves to the center by agreeing to tax hikes and governmental expansion. Or they could attempt to win ugly by stoking resentments. According to Hacker and Pierson, the British Tories are an example of a party that has flourished over the centuries by gracefully shifting to the middle (although I doubt the coal miners of the Margaret Thatcher years would agree with this description). And then there were the German aristocrats and industrialists who, in the 1930s, sought to salvage their power by aligning with the darkest of forces.

Wisely, the two authors don’t dwell on any incendiary parallels between the present-day Republican Party and Germanic antecedents, but they demonstrate how the wealthiest Americans have devised an antidemocratic politics that does echo Germany’s grim past. Greed is the root of the problem. Never content with the last tax cut or the last burst of deregulation, American plutocrats keep pushing for more. With each success, their economic agenda becomes more radical and less salable. To compensate for its unpopularity, the Republicans must resort to ever greater doses of toxic emotionalism.

For a long stretch, the wealthy controlled the party. When George W. Bush stared at a well-heeled audience in 2000, he quipped, “Some people call you the elites; I call you my base.” But that elite ultimately owed its smashing policy successes to the handiwork of evangelicals and the National Rifle Association, who were able to mobilize large numbers of voters. And from the start, Hacker and Pierson show, these groups riled their followers with racism. In the late 1970s, evangelicals surged as a political force after the government ordered the desegregation of private Christian academies. Meanwhile, the N.R.A. titillated its membership with images of urban criminals.

This racism often hid behind code words, and Hacker and Pierson admit that their previous books underrated its importance. But with the arrival of Trump, as the Republicans struggled with their diminishing numbers, that racism has emerged in full view. As the authors put it, “The ‘dog whistle’ invoking racialized themes has given way to the bullhorn.”

In the spring of 2016, the moneyed backers of the Republican Party proclaimed their horror at Trump’s emergence as a presidential contender. But whatever genuine anguish they may have felt was quickly suppressed. They had already acclimated themselves to the populist rage that prevailed in their party. This rage would occasionally destroy the careers of their favorite politicians, like the congressional leaders Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. But such ritualistic sacrifices — and a little distasteful rhetoric — were nothing compared with the lucrative rewards that the populists supplied them in the form of tax cuts.

None of this analysis will astound a reader of journalists like Paul Krugman, Jane Mayer or Jonathan Chait. But there’s value in a calm overview that relentlessly traces the biggest themes of the era.

This academic detachment lends credibility to the authors’ grim prophecy. The Republican populists and plutocrats may be defeated at the polls, but that won’t stop their continued success. Everything about the alliance’s tactics — its reliance on voter suppression and gerrymandering; its ability to grind out victories in the Senate and in the courts, which it has so thoroughly stacked — suggests its resilience. When an elite begins to abandon democracy, both in its rhetoric and tactics, Election Day becomes just another box on the calendar.

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