Unexpected, if not shocking, things are happening in the Republican presidential race. Donald Trump’s victories in a number of primaries and his lead in the race for the presidential nomination has resulted in many in Republican party coming out against him. A kind of intraparty civil war seems to be in the offing, if not already underway.
This phenomenon bears a remarkable resemblance to Pakistan’s current war with terrorist and jihadist organizations, which have operated openly and freely in Pakistan for decades, and which the Pakistani establishment – especially the military— had itself created, funded and nurtured not so long ago.
A short history on Pakistan’s jihadist organizations, which explains the country’s current predicament, is in order.
Starting in the 1980s, the Pakistani establishment, led by the military, funded a relatively small group of jihadist fighters against the USSR and then, later, against India. The support was not just monetary, but also ideological, giving credence to the jihadis’ worldview, at the expense of the more moderate views of the Pakistani establishment and the general Pakistani populace. The strategy was successful in defeating the USSR, and to some extent also successful in the proxy war with India. But by 2005, the same jihadis had become so strong that they were effectively outside state control. It took almost a decade for the Pakistani establishment to realize this. From 2005 to 2014, even as hundreds of the Pakistani military and civilians were being slaughtered by the jihadis, the state remained in denial and confusion. It is only recently, with the arrival of the new army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, that the monster created by the Pakistani establishment has finally been acknowledged as its main enemy. Today, an all-out war is being waged by the military against the jihadis.
It appears that something similar has taken place in the rise of the Tea Party and the current war of words between the establishment and Donald Trump. In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, when the alienation of the electorate with Republican policies became apparent, a reform movement was called for within the Republican Party to learn the lessons of the George Bush era. While some lessons were learnt (Ron and Rand Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy stance comes to mind), the main strategy adopted by the Republicans, to renew momentum and drum up victory in the 2010 Congressional elections, was to embrace and support the ideology of the fringe Tea Party movement.
Even as he resigned, John Boehner didn’t point the finger at the Tea Party
Like the jihadis that Pakistan used to fight against USSR and India, the Tea Party was a small group in proportion to the general population. But it was/is highly motivated, thanks to its extreme right-wing and emotionally charged worldview – one which, while having some common elements, was not the same as the Republican establishment’s worldview. The Tea Party movement was also funded by the establishment (the Koch brothers through their Super PACs, for example) and its views were given credence by almost all of the right-wing media outlets (Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, for example), and almost all of the establishment Republican politicians (such as John McCain and Mitt Romney).
Like the jihadi-supporting military in Pakistan, the strategy of the Tea Party-supporting Republican establishment worked, but only in the short term. The Republicans won back Congress in 2010 and the Senate in 2012, but from 2010 onwards, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Tea Party was in the driver’s seat, and not the Republican establishment. For example, it was the (so-called) Tea Party Republicans in Congress that were driving the government shutdown of 2013, and the figures like John Boehner were reluctant followers. After John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker a few months ago, there was little doubt who was in control of the Republican Congress. As Francis Wilkinson noted, writing for Bloomberg around the time of Boehner’s resignation, “The Republicans are now the terrified captives of the reactionary pet they nurtured.”
But the story and parallels don’t end there. Just like in Pakistan, where the extreme ideology of the jihadis also spread through the country to average — once moderate —citizens, the Tea Party ideas are no longer restricted to a fringe but have spread through the base. “What used to be the Tea Party is now the GOP,” according to Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and co-author of a new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
Let’s look deeper into one of the main response patterns of the establishment – confusion and denial – as things begin to spiral out of control (as they are now for the Republican Party). After 9/11 until about the time Gen (r) Raheel Sharif took over, Pakistan played a double game with the US, saying that they were against the jihadis while secretly supporting them. This double game reflected several things, including a strategic miscalculation on the part of the Pakistan military. But the confusion also stemmed from a couple of other causes. One, it is hard to make a U-turn after decades of following a certain policy, and to admit one’s mistake. Two, after decades of supporting jihadist ideology, large swathes of the military itself — from the officers to the rank and file – had come to believe in the worldview of the jihadis as well.
Something similar has taken place in the Republican Party. From 2010 till recently, the rise of the Tea Party was mostly denied by the Republicans. At other times, there was confusion as to what to do – to disavow or to own. For example, John Boehner, even as he resigned a few months ago, didn’t point the finger at the real culprits – the Tea Party Republicans. The Republican presidential candidates also seem to be playing a double game, uncertain how to react to Trump. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio called Trump a “fraud” and “con-man” only to declare a few minutes later in the same presidential debate that if he was to become the nominee, Trump would have their support. Although many in the establishment have already come out strongly against Trump – everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Mitt Romney to the Koch Brothers (through their support of anti-Trump Super PACs) – the true test will come at the contested Republican Convention. Will those that denounce Trump today do so tomorrow? Or will the double game continue?
One final, key similarity between the rise of the jihadi culture in Pakistan and the rise of the Trump GOP base is their emotional and intellectual worldviews. In Pakistan’s case, the establishment had to resort to creating false narratives to maintain the emotionally charged worldview of the jihadis. It was not that the narratives of the jihadis had no truth in them. The USSR was an aggressor against the jihadis. And India has indeed done terrible things in Kashmir and to Pakistan. But these are not the only realities. India, for example, shares a millennia-old history and culture with Pakistan. Millions of people have family and friends on the other side of the border. But all these other realities had to be sidelined to fan the jihadist zeal for action. In other words, a distorted and myopic nationalist narrative — grounded in conspiracy theories, half-truths and irrational conclusions — had to be developed in order to support the emotional world view of the jihadis.
Similarly, while there is higher unemployment in US blue-collar males without a university degree, and they have suffered some loss of economic security due to globalization and other reasons over the last eight years, this is not the only reality of the Trump supporter. Things like technology and innovation have improved standards of living – something that the Republics love to point out in relation to the poor. They argue that the underprivileged are not so bad off as liberals would have one believe, but they neglect to recognize that despairing of the current condition of their own Caucasian, blue-collar base. Thus, the Republican establishment, in its need to propagate the emotionally charged Tea Party rhetoric, had to sell the extreme narrative, namely that the Obama administration has been an unmitigated disaster. A greater percentage of people with health insurance, a shrinking national deficit, and the American economy adding millions of jobs — all of this was sold as a complete disaster. Today, America’s economy is the envy of the world — but you wouldn’t know it from talking to a Trump supporter. Having been fed false narratives since 2008 to keep the base charged-up emotionally, it makes sense that when Trump tells his followers (as he has done several times, including after his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary) that he ‘has heard’ that the unemployment rate is ‘closer to 42%,’ they don’t blink an eye. The unemployment rate at the height of the Great Depression was 25%.
Interestingly, and by now perhaps not surprisingly, the emotional quality that makes the Tea Party (now the GOP base) and the jihadi mindset powerful – and which is harnessed to make them politically useful – are also similar. They are: anxiety (against India, and infidels), nostalgia (for the Caliphate), and mistrust (of America, and the West). These three terms are also the title of the report of the 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which studied attitudes within the Tea Party movement.
In fact, Trump’s genius was to understand the implications of these emotional drivers in the GOP base. He understood that what the Republican establishment had started – fanning the flames of anxiety, nostalgia and mistrust in the base – had pushed the GOP base not further towards the right, and not towards being more philosophically ideological, but towards a platform based on emotionality. Trump’s platform is not in fact Republican, but populist and nationalistic.
Some claim that Trump is leading because he is anti-establishment. While partly true, I don’t think this the most important reason, since this doesn’t explain why the other anti-establishment figure, Ted Cruz, is also losing to Donald Trump. The reason Trump is leading is that unlike Cruz, he has understood his base as a new breed of Republicans altogether and is unconstrained by traditional right-wing ideology. His speeches are essentially fact-free zones, full of emotional bluster, as well as being uncouth and uncivilized. Where else do we see such leaders and hear such speeches? From the long-bearded jihadi leaders and maulvis of Pakistan.