In trying to comprehend Donald Trump’s appeal, it is helpful to understand that essentially he is not a conservative, but is an Archie Bunker populist who is appealing to disaffected whites.
On the TV show, Archie Bunker was presented as a hard-line, Hoover Republican. This was just a reflection of Norman Lear’s own bias against Republicans, however. In truth, the Archie Bunkers of the late 1960s and early 1970s were by and large Democrats. Keep in mind that the GOP had largely ceased to exist in most parts of the US as a local party by the late 1960s (though it could still elect presidents), and almost no one during this time period was willing to defend Herbert Hoover–even among Republicans. So, the Archie Bunkers of this world were Democrats. Having said that, they weren’t the liberal Democrats so typical of today. Rather, they were New Deal Democrats who idolized Franklin Roosevelt.
This may at first sound like a contradiction, because FDR is a great liberal icon. However, FDR was not at all a liberal in the modern sense. Rather, FDR hailed from a progressive tradition that was shared by his Republican cousin, Teddy, and even by many Republicans of his own day. FDR’s main difference with Republicans was not on whether government action was necessary or desirable to cope with the Great Depression, but on how much government action was needed: the GOP wanted some government action, while FDR wanted more.
Remember that many of FDR’s early policies were actually a continuation of or an expansion of progressive policies put in place by Hoover, and that when FDR ran for president in 1932 he attacked Hoover from the right, rather than from the left–saying that Hoover was overspending and wasting government money. For example, this is what FDR said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1932:
I know something of taxes. For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that Government–Federal and State and local–costs too much. I shall not stop that preaching. As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate unnecessary functions of Government–functions, in fact, that are not definitely essential to the continuance of Government. We must merge, we must consolidate subdivisions of Government, and, like the private citizen, give up luxuries which we can no longer afford.
By our example at Washington itself, we shall have the opportunity of pointing the way of economy to local government, for let us remember well that out of every tax dollar in the average State in this Nation, 40 cents enter the treasury in Washington, D. C., 10 or 12 cents only go to the State capitals, and 48 cents are consumed by the costs of local government in counties and cities and towns.
I propose to you, my friends, and through you, that Government of all kinds, big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his Cabinet.
FDR was much more of a centrist politician than most people today give him credit for. He was not a socialist by a long-shot. Indeed, in many ways, FDR can best be understood as someone wanting to hold the socialists, the communists, and the populist demagogues at bay.
This last point is instructive: the New Deal can and should be described as a populist, and not a progressive program. However, it could not be said that FDR was a populist president. If he had been, his programs would have gone much farther and would have taken on a more radical nature. Rather, FDR did what he could to keep the Huey Longs and Father Coughlins of his world from taking power. FDR was not looking to lead a revolution with his social programs. Rather, he was trying to keep the revolution from occurring in the first place.
One aspect of nearly all New Deal programs was that there was no free lunch–charity and soup kitchens were largely the domain of local governments or private concerns. There were no food stamps. People received unemployment checks only because they first paid into the program. The same was also true of Social Security. FDR’s vision of helping the poor and unemployed were make-work programs, keeping to the biblical injunction that if a person didn’t work, he didn’t eat.
Overall, if one were to describe FDR’s politics in simple terms, he was for a strong national defense and activist foreign policy; he was in favor of a safety net to protect the least fortunate in society, but a safety net that the individual had to help make; and he was in favor of using the government to improve the infrastructure of the US. These were goals that many Republicans by the 1960’s were largely in accord with.
The real battle of the 1960’s was between the Democratic hardhats and the hippies; that is, between Archie and his son-in-law, Meathead. The hardhats loved FDR, but thought that Lyndon Johnson had gone to far with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with his Great Society programs–programs which brought us welfare as we know it in the US today. They were conflicted by the Vietnam War. Though they were largely in support of the troops and in support of an activist foreign policy, they had the feeling that somehow the war was being “lost by the politicians in Washington DC.” They were also in favor of law and order, and were highly distressed by the rioting and protests taking place in the streets of America.
The hippies hated LBJ for entirely different reasons: They thought he had not gone nearly far enough in his Great Society programs and with the Civil Rights Act, and were against the war in Vietnam if for no other reason than they thought the North Vietnamese form of government was somehow superior to that of the US.
Before going any further, it would be good to spell out in detail what the Archie Bunkers were about:
- They were largely white, male, and blue collar, though the impulses that led them sometimes surpassed such narrow boundaries.
- They were largely non-ideological in nature, with their politics guided by sensibility rather than sense. That is, they were populists, and not liberals.
- They were suspicious of politicians in general, with their first and most basic impulse being to “throw the bums out!”
- While highly politically opinionated, they were at the same time poorly informed on current events, and often not really politically engaged except when it came to presidential elections.
- They believed in protecting at all costs the artifacts of the New Deal, such as Social Security, because “after all, I paid for it, dammit!”, but disliked Great Society programs such as food stamps and welfare because these programs supported “lazy” and “worthless” minorities, who should go out and “get a job” rather than rely on the government teat.
- They were basically moral, but only if “moral” meant more-or-less law abiding and hardworking.
- They considered themselves Christians, but not in any meaningful theological sense, and were turned off by people who were religiously pious or who regularly went to church.
- They may or may not have been personally tolerant of other races, but were objectively racist in their views and politics.
- In the same way, they may have treated the women in their life with respect (or perhaps not), but were objectively misogynist in their views and politics.
- Pocketbook issues were much more important to them than any political theories or ideology.
- They inevitably gravitated towards authoritarianism and desired a strong leader in Washington “who could sort things out”.
- Their answer on foreign policy was always simple: “Just bomb the hell out of the bastards!”
- No conspiracy theory was too odd or absurd for them to believe or promote.
During the 1968 election, the Democratic Party was torn to pieces by the feud between the hardhats and the hippies, with many hardhats voting for George Wallace. In 1972, the hippies won this feud and were able to get one of the own–George McGovern–nominated for president. However, in winning the battle, they lost the war. The Archie Bunker populists handed Nixon one of the greatest election victories in US history. In 1976, many Archie Bunkers voted for Jimmy Carter, who ran as a populist, and who pointedly went out of his way–largely through his Playboy interview–to demonstrate that he was not a religious zealot. When Jimmy Carter proved to be a weak leader, a typical left-wing liberal, and a religious zealot to boot, they gravitated to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan loved to point out that, unlike all previous presidents, he was a member of a union. He had also supported FDR and the New Deal in his youth, and made a point of disparaging welfare queens who drove Cadillacs to pick up their government checks. And while Reagan based both his rhetoric and his policies on conservative principles, he made no attempt to roll back government to anything remotely approaching its pre-1932 form. Given his strong leadership qualities, his great communication skills, and the fact that the economy grew leaps and bounds under his policies, the Archie Bunkers of America supported Reagan in droves. A large percent of them began to call themselves Republicans, and a non-insignificant number of those began to think of themselves as conservatives. As later history demonstrates, however, in most cases they were neither Republicans nor conservatives. Rather, they were populists who had switched their allegiance from FDR to Reagan, and who now worshiped at his altar. Indeed, in 1992, many of these Archie Bunker populists jumped ship. A handful supported Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist Democrat, while many supported Ross Perot.
Some commentators reject this analysis, because George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Ross Perot had radically different policies and were very different people. How could someone be able to support all these men? This misunderstands the nature of populism. Populists are not interested in the broad ideological picture. They are not even that interested in the details of policy, nor do they seek any kind of logical consistency. Rather, they are motivated by their prejudices, their fears, their need for emotional satisfaction, feelings of “us against them” (whoever “they” are), and the desire for immediate personal gain without sacrifice. That is, they don’t want politics, politicians, political ideas, or even coherent policies: they want bread and circuses.
There are few people alive today who remember FDR and the New Deal first-hand, and many people are too young to even remember Archie Bunker, so it would be wrong to say that the Archie Bunkers of the late 1960s and early 1970s still exist. At the same time, Archie Bunkerism is still alive and well in the US. Indeed, every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, he is in fact mimicking Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie Bunker from the TV show. The resemblance is so uncanny that it is hard to believe that he is not intentionally behaving this way.
The early support of Donald Trump, especially by people who call themselves Reagan conservatives or members of the Tea Party, raises some uncomfortable questions: Were these people really conservatives or even Republicans to begin with, or were they Archie Bunkers? Were they really motivated to return the country to a constitutional footing, or were they just angry that the hippies had finally succeeded in electing one of their own as president, and angrier still that this man was black? Finally, how much of the current animosity towards Hillary Clinton is a reaction to past scandals, and how much is a reaction to her left-wing past and the fact that she is a woman? (Of course, there is Benghazi and the email sandal; but how often have I heard Trump supporters rail against Hillary, not because of these, but because of Whitewater or the billing records at the Rose Law Firm, which are chicken feed compared to some of the shenanigans Trump has pulled?)
With all of these questions, remember that widespread conservative opposition to the hard left is a comparatively recent phenomenon, as until the Reagan presidency only a small minority of people called themselves “conservative”. The strongest early opposition to the hard left came from the center left and from FDR populists. Or, to put it another way, a distaste for Obama and Hillary Clinton should not be taken as a sure sign of conservatism. Someone like Archie Bunker would despise both people, but Bunker’s politics bear no resemblance to the political views preached by men like Buckley, Goldwater, or Reagan.
Now, I considered myself a part of the Tea Party, and heavily promoted the Tea Party on this blog and on Twitter, so I know for a fact that many (maybe even most) people who carried the Tea Party banner early on were not Archie Bunker types, and were sincere conservatives wanting to make a positive difference in the country. Having said that, there are some questions that bother me, especially in the light of some of what I see on my Twitter stream, which is overwhelmingly made up of people who call themselves patriotic conservatives, and who even now may consider themselves part of the Tea Party.
The first Tea Party protests in early 2009 were in reaction to TARP, which was an initiative put together by George W. Bush in the last days of his presidency. However, the focus of these protests was not Bush, but Obama, even though he had yet to take office. How much of these protests were motivated by a desire to restore the country to fiscal sanity, and how much were motivated by a culturally based hatred of the first openly leftist president, who also happened to be black?
As the Tea Party matured, while most hard-core Tea Party activists remained conservative and many Tea Party activists were in fact minorities, there began a proliferation of groups claiming to carry the Tea Party banner, but which promoted liberal policies, which flirted with racism, or both. Nearly all of these groups were obviously either money-making operations set up by cynical entrepreneurs, or attempts by Democratic operatives to high-jack the Tea Party movement. Most conservatives dismissed such groups at the time. In retrospect, this may have been unwise. In a small handful of cases, these groups were able to hurt conservative or Tea Party candidates, or hurt the image of conservatism by successfully promoting candidates who were at best caricatures of what a liberal might think a conservative is. Could these groups have succeeded in this if their messages had not resonated with more than a few people?
Then there were multiple polls showing that people who self-identified as members of the Tea Party were by-and-large not all that fiscally conservative, or even socially conservative. Rather, their number one issue appeared to be immigration. While immigration was a concern with conservatives and with Tea Party activists and was often discussed by them (contrary to Trump propaganda), it was never considered the number one issue. Yet, there it was in the polls. I seriously doubt that there was a disconnect with conservatives and Tea Party types on the issue of immigration, as they were largely for a border wall while Trump was still promoting amnesty. Rather, the preoccupation with immigration to the exclusion of all else is something Archie Bunker types might share.
Finally, I began noticing a very ugly strain on my Twitter stream, especially among many Tea Party, “true conservative” types. It started with Trayvon Martin and then really metastasized with the Ferguson riots. It was this feeling of “us against them”: essentially, whites against blacks. I am uninterested at the moment in examining the role of the press, the president, and “black” activists (the most prominent of whom isn’t even black) in stirring up animosity, as there were merchants of rage on both sides stoking the fires of hate.
What interests me right now is how easily so many people who claimed to be on the right allowed themselves to become manipulated by events and by others into hard-line positions that would not allow even the suggestion that there might be another side to the story; that it might be unreasonable for an unarmed teen to be shot and killed while on a trip to a convenience store, even if he was wearing a hood or was going to buy drugs; or that while the policeman in Ferguson may have acted correctly in this case, the black community had legitimate grievances with the local police, and the response of the police to what happened only succeeded in fanning the flames. Many people not only refused to even acknowledge the validity of other points of view, but some began spouting openly racist sentiment, and began advocating the killing of unarmed blacks with sniper rifles or helicopter gunships. (The other side accurately pointed out that white protests–such as the armed protests at the Bundys ranch–were acceptable to these “true conservatives”, whereas black protests were not, even though the blacks were by and large unarmed. “True conservatives” responded that the Bundys were “patriots”, whereas the black protestors were not. However, this response merely delegitimized black protests without at all answering the complaint.)
I see a lot of the same kind of rhetoric now among many people who support Trump. This isn’t conservative. This isn’t Tea Party. This isn’t what Buckley stood for, or Goldwater, or Reagan. It is simple prejudice and hate. It is Archy Bunkerism writ large.
How many among us claimed to be conservatives or Tea Party members, but were Archie Bunkers all along?
Certainly, that is who Donald Trump thinks conservatives and Republicans are, hence his rhetoric.
Now, of course, Trump has momentum and is going mainstream. As he does so, many try to legitimize him and say that he is really a Reagan Republican, or when this fails to survive the laugh test, that he is a Rockefeller Republican. Of course, he is nothing of the sort: He is an Archie Bunker. And people who support him now own him, warts and all. They own his crudity, his bigotry, his racism, and his stupidity–they own all of it. While they may have been able to pretend that they were conservatives because they disliked Obama and Hillary Clinton, they have outed themselves for what they are. They are Archie Bunkers as well, reveling in their ignorance and bigotry.