It was, of course, just a coincidence that yesterday marked not only the day of Iowa’s Republican Caucus, but also the 114th birthday of Langston Hughes. But coincidences can still make you think — in this case, of one of Hughes’s most famous poems, which begins: “Let America be America again.” Oddly enough, in this campaign season, Hughes’s line sounds almost like a more lyrical version of the slogan adorning presidential candidate Donald Trump’s signature trucker hat: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
That shouty, brash call to arms, and the candidate attached to it, have dominated the windup to the 2016 campaign. But after the first votes of the election season were cast last night, Trump — for the first time in months — failed to overwhelm his rivals and the media with the gaudy, vulgar brio that has marked his surprisingly durable campaign. At the hands of the victorious Sen. Ted Cruz, and with everyone watching, Donald Trump was made into the thing he hates most: a loser.
If Trump were a contestant on his own reality TV show, this might be the end of the road. And, yes, it’s a tough business that assigns the “loser” label to a political novice who, with a campaign infrastructure that appears to consist mostly of the candidate retweeting white supremacists, still managed to take second place against a highly-organized rival with an extensive presence in the state. But Trump’s second-place finish in Iowa — barely ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio, who he called a “lightweight choker” — will doubtless be seen by many as a failure, a limp performance, maybe even the beginning of the end. That’s the hope of conservatives worried that Trump is ruining the GOP’s image: they took to Twitter to celebrate, doubtlessly hoping that some other candidate will soon steal his thunder.
But even if that happens, they’ll have little reason to celebrate. Trump may have suffered a temporary setback, but Trumpism shows no signs of abating.
One of the biggest stories in American politics today is the slow decay of the Republican Party from a powerful national coalition into an aging, regionally-concentrated bloc of white conservatives fighting a rearguard action against the demographic inevitability of losing majority status in an increasingly diverse and Democratic-leaning nation. Trump’s populist campaign defies some of the party’s core economic commitments — he’s attacked Wall Street and expressed hostility to free trade — but he embodies perfectly the ethno-nationalist fears of many GOP voters, and his blustery temperament convinces them that he’ll protect their country from a range of scary outsiders — not least the Mexican “rapists” who, as he infamously said, are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” into the country.
The intensity of Trump’s support has worried party elites, fueling a desperate hope that some other candidate might displace him at the top of the field. But Cruz is no answer to their prayers: He’s just as loathed by the GOP establishment, and he’s every bit as nasty. And more importantly, the contempt reserved for these two lightning rods should not obscure the fact that, among all the viable Republican candidates, there is no substantive challenge to Trump’s ugly politics. Trump may fade, but the underlying problems highlighted by his candidacy aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll continue to generate spasms of aggressive panic until some nationally prominent conservative politician figures out how to assemble a GOP coalition capable of facing 21st century America.
That America, of course, is not going to look very much like the one they prize — in fact, it never looked like that to begin with. Readers of Hughes’s poem know that, just as they know the quick turn that follows his opening line: “America never was America to me.” By “me,” Hughes meant a whole cast of Americans: “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean” — “the poor white,” “the Negro bearing slavery’s scars,” “the immigrant clutching the hope I seek.” Here, all superficial resemblance to the leading Republican campaigns finally dissolves: Neither the “poor white” nor almost anyone else will gain from Rubio’s $4 trillion tax cut and his promised deregulation of Wall Street. The bearers of “slavery’s scars” probably don’t appreciate Cruz’s declaration that Black Lives Matter is “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.” And is anyone in need of a reminder about Trump and immigration?
These are your GOP frontrunners, at least as chosen by Iowa’s stalwart GOP caucus-goers. For now, Cruz can claim an electoral prize that Trump lacks, but overall, last night did not radically change the political makeup of the top tier or the party as a whole. Do you have faith in any of them to solve the problem of which Trump’s campaign is only a symptom? Besides, Trump himself still holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire and nationally. Nothing was settled tonight.