“We basically run a coalition government…without the efficiency of a parliamentary system,” ruminates Paul Ryan near the conclusion of Tim Alberta’s inaugural book, American Carnage. As a reporter for Politico, Alberta takes the reader on a journey on how the Trumpist tendencies of the Republican party were born, starting from the final days of the Bush 43 administration mired in the incipient Great Recession to the rise of the Tea Party in the early 2010s to Trump’s election in 2016, and finally making a turn to home in early 2019, which was close to when this book was published. This was a behemoth of a case study, the culmination of over ten years of on the ground political reporting translating into a 600 page political analysis.
I started reading this right around when the January 6th insurrection occurred, looking for answers as to how a political party once embodied by free trade and limited government principles had come to embrace the country’s worst instincts of conspiracies, race wars, and political tribalism. And I think this book addresses how the rise of Donald Trump was a result of many different issues converging at once: the pervasive influence of cable news, the rightward lurch of primary elections for incumbent politicians, the demonization of others, and the allure of social media, among other things. In mathematical terms, there almost is never one single variable that can entirely explain a dependent variable. Multivariable analysis is typically needed to better understand events, like Trump’s rise to power.
However, as the book postulates, one of the bigger issues in the buildup to the 2016 election was that the Republican Party failed to reconcile its humbling losses in the 2012 and 2008 elections properly. An RNC report published in the wake of the 2012 election officially named the Growth and Opportunity Project, more commonly known as the “autopsy”, called for the Republican party to make significant changes in its messaging to remain competitive in the future; this included expanded outreach to women and minorities, comprehensive immigration reform, and smart investment in technology and data analytics. These prescribed policies would be largely set aside, thanks to the intrusion into the party from a cosmopolitan real estate dilettante whose political views vacillated based upon a matter of personal convenience.
America in 2016 was witnessing a cultural and demographic transformation, and Trump was successfully able to identify a receptive and durable audience to his calls to Make America Great Again. Depending on you asked, this message meant different sentimental things, the ultimate sign of an effective marketing campaign. It could be “anti-elitist screed”, based upon the years of failed policies and stagnant wage growth. It could also be a “populist call for government reform”. Either way, Trump’s rise to the presidency is historic in many ways, as he campaigned on a platform of returning America to normalcy, with little nuance as to what “normal” actually meant. He threw out the playbook the RNC had created, relying upon voters of the Rust Belt to deliver him an Electoral College victory.
Alberta does a great job of providing contemporary analysis of the timeline leading up to the 2016 election, and he also provides in-depth reporting of the major events that shook up the first two years of the Trump presidency, including James Comey’s firing, the Charlottesville riots, and the 2018–19 government shutdown. Notably, Alberta was able to get a number of influential political operatives on the record, including Trump, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Karl Rove, and John Boehner. I feel as though these primary sources will be carefully examined by historians in years to come, however, I do wish that Alberta had been able to reach across the aisle to hear more from the Democrats to get their take on their counterparts’ revolution. Otherwise, a book like this can incidentally enhance a politician’s reputation as they can afford to speak in the past about the supposed wins they achieved, even though they were subject to many trying times. Take Andy Bernard’s ironic scene in the final episode of The Office as an example:
Nevertheless, Alberta does his best to keep the politicians honest and provides important context when necessary. However, I am still curious enough on the rise of the Tea Party to read Barack Obama’s autobiography in the future to get his take on what may not be a complete recount of the past.
I think many of us wonder where the future of the Republican party lies after Trump’s fortuitous exit from power. Paul Ryan’s quote at the beginning of this post makes me wonder if there may be a split in the party, as historian Timothy Snyder aptly referred to as the “gamers” and the “takers”. We will see in a matter of time, but this book takes a big stab at what historians, sociologists, and political scientists years from now will try to rationalize: how did a party of family values succumb to a philanderer? And was this power grab a durable one that will forever change the party, or something transitional?
Purchase American Carnage here, or check it out at your local library.