I’ve written two posts about Frank Luntz that I consider to be fairly good, one in 2014 and the other in 2016. Needless to say, I don’t consider him an expert on much of anything beyond the best techniques for selling shitty policies. That’s why it kind of grated on me when Tim Alberta went to him first to discover what the modern Republican Party stands for.
I decided to call Frank Luntz. Perhaps no person alive has spent more time polling Republican voters and counseling Republican politicians than Luntz, the 58-year-old focus group guru. His research on policy and messaging has informed a generation of GOP lawmakers. His ability to translate between D.C. and the provinces—connecting the concerns of everyday people to their representatives in power—has been unsurpassed. If anyone had an answer, it would be Luntz.
This is really aggressive in the way that it misses what Luntz has spent his life doing for the Republican Party. Luntz’s job has never been to figure out what everyday people want. His job is always to convince everyday people to stomach policies that are designed to help people who have a lot of assets or who run businesses and want to avoid regulation, taxation or antitrust enforcement. The Estate Tax becomes a Death Tax. Capital gains taxes become double taxation, etc.
In 2014, Luntz despaired that his techniques were no longer working after the Great Recession.
“You should not expect a handout,” he tells me. “You should not even expect a safety net. When my house burns down, I should not go to the government to rebuild it. I should have the savings, and if I don’t, my neighbors should pitch in for me, because I would do that for them.” The entitlement he now hears from the focus groups he convenes amounts, in his view, to a permanent poisoning of the electorate—one that cannot be undone. “We have now created a sense of dependency and a sense of entitlement that is so great that you had, on the day that he was elected, women thinking that Obama was going to pay their mortgage payment, and that’s why they voted for him,” he says. “And that, to me, is the end of what made this country so great.”
By 2016, he was inconsolable that young people were fuming about the cost of college and housing, and socialism was beginning to look more appealing to them than capitalism. Of course, he blamed college professors for this rather than the objective economic conditions of millennials.
“We have lost. It’s not like we are losing, we have lost that generation. And I don’t care if you are a Democrat, Republican, independent, none of the above. The fact that 58 percent [of millennials] say socialism is the better form of economics, that is the damage of academia,” he said at a breakfast event here.
When Alberta reached him, he was surprised to discover that Luntz could not articulate a single policy or principle that defines the Republican Party:
“You know, I don’t have a history of dodging questions. But I don’t know how to answer that. There is no consistent philosophy,” Luntz responded. “You can’t say it’s about making America great again at a time of Covid and economic distress and social unrest. It’s just not credible.”
Luntz thought for a moment. “I think it’s about promoting—” he stopped suddenly. “But I can’t, I don’t—” he took a pause. “That’s the best I can do.”
When I pressed, Luntz sounded as exasperated as the student whose question I was relaying. “Look, I’m the one guy who’s going to give you a straight answer. I don’t give a shit—I had a stroke in January, so there’s nothing anyone can do to me to make my life suck,” he said. “I’ve tried to give you an answer and I can’t do it. You can ask it any different way. But I don’t know the answer. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the answer.”
Part of this is on Trump. He’s certainly destroyed the idea that Republicans care about deficit spending, although after the performance of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, that idea never should have had much credibility with Luntz’s focus groups. Trump also did away with the argument that Republicans are strong on national defense and for strong global American leadership. He won’t even protect our deployed troops from Russian bounties. As for moral rectitude and traditional family values, Trump somehow made himself a cult leader to white evangelical Christians while living a life filled with sexual hedonism and business fraud.
But Trump hasn’t so much changed the Republicans’ priorities and values as expose that they were ruses all along. The party’s elected officials prefer the retention of power to any of their principles, and the base has been crystal clear that they wanted resentment-based populism more than anything Luntz claimed they wanted (or convinced them that they wanted).
So, now we see the unvarnished truth:
It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator [Mark] Sanford alluded to. If it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.
“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
It’s alarming how far the Republicans can still get with such a limited appeal, and it’s simply not true that no one in the Republican base cares about public health or the environment or education or fiscal restraint or American leadership. This is one reason the Republican base is shrinking. It’s becoming clear that the GOP not only stands for nothing, but they never really stood for anything.
But what none of them will admit is that white nationalism is the organizing principle of Trumpism. It was also an organizing principle of Reaganism, but at least Reagan utilized it in the service of other policies. With Trump, the racism is not a tool but the entire point. Insofar as Trump cares about anything other than himself, he cares about his white nationalist agenda, and that’s the primary reason why he should be considered the leader of a fascist movement.
This is what is new. The old Republican Party had fascist tendencies, but they still operated within the broad confines of a bipartisan consensus on many things, including both written and unwritten rules about how the government should operate. That’s over now, which has eliminated the last few things Luntz might have clung to when trying to identify a principle other than white nationalism that defines the GOP.
[On a side note: many thanks to the generous people who responded to my plea for help by getting subscriptions and making donations. Much of the anticipated programming cost of fixing this site has already been met, and I could not be more grateful! I hope to have someone working on the job as soon as possible].