I have often said that Republicans faced a difficult choice after the 2008 election. Their economic policies had given us the Great Recession, while their militaristic foreign policy had given us torture, Guantanamo, and two seemingly endless wars in the Middle East. That led to massive electoral defeats in both the 2006 midterms and the 2008 general election.
The question facing Republican leaders was whether or not to double down on policies that had failed so miserably or go back to the drawing board and re-think their position. They did neither. Instead, they chose to simply obstruct everything Obama and the Democrats attempted to do. In order to justify that position, they inflamed their extremist base—leading to the development of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. When Republicans regained majorities in Congress, it became clear that they couldn’t govern and eventually their leader in the House, Speaker John Boehner, was ejected.
During the 2016 Republican primary, Jeb Bush was the candidate who most clearly embraced the idea of doubling down on the failed policies of the past. He ran on what his father once called “voodoo economics” combined with a militaristic foreign policy and lost spectacularly. Instead, the inflamed extremist base helped nominate Donald Trump. It has often been said that he is non-ideological. Jelani Cobb coined the phrase “resentment agenda” to describe his platform. It appealed to what Robert Jones described as “nostalgia voters.”
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
As I wrote previously, the 1950s aren’t coming back, so that agenda is destined to fail.