Everyone is talking about President Trump’s first 100 days, but what it’s really time to assess is the Republicans’ last seven years.
In the 2010 election, the GOP began a massive push against President Obama, the coalition of liberals and minorities who elected him and the issues he championed.
Why the GOP succeeded didn’t make sense then. It makes less now. Maybe that’s because there was something profoundly irrational about what drove the 2010 outcome – angry thinking that gave us a mean-spirited and destructive legislature in North Carolina and now an unqualified and dangerous president in Washington.
Midterm elections tend to go against the president’s party, but that doesn’t explain the huge scale of the Republicans’ triumph in 2010. Something else came into play, or came into bigger play. And that’s what got us where we are today. It’s not that voters were foolish. It’s that too many were manipulated into becoming angry about the wrong things and for solutions they turned to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver.
In 2008, most voters opted for change after eight years of a president who started two wars and was in charge when the financial crisis triggered the Great Recession. But they also voted with faith not just in Barack Obama, but in the American system. In America, anyone can grow up to become president, even an African-American with little experience and a foreign-sounding name. Times were tough, but the American promise was true.
The first signs of trouble came in the summer of 2009. People from a new group – mostly white, mostly older, calling themselves the Tea Party – began disrupting the town hall meetings of Democratic House members. They said they were upset about deficit spending and the bailout of the banks and the auto industry, though an economic stimulus was clearly needed and the recession would have become a depression without emergency government support of the financial system. They also were mad about the Affordable Care Act, though most didn’t know what was in it or how it would work. And finally, they went to the polls in 2010 upset about high unemployment.
The winners were Republicans who promised to cut spending, repeal what they called “Obamacare” and bring back jobs. It was a wave election. Republicans gained 680 state legislative seats – the biggest swing since the post-Watergate election of 1974. They took control of the House and Senate in North Carolina for the first time in more than a century. In the U.S. House, the GOP picked up 63 seats, the largest midterm change since 1938, and added six Senate seats, though they fell short of winning control.
Then came spending restraints imposed by Congress that slowed the recovery, limits on the Affordable Care Act – most notably the rejection of Medicaid expansion in mostly Republican-controlled states – and a denial of anything President Obama proposed, including a massive jobs program.
Obama won re-election, but lost the Congress. Gridlock tightened. Public frustration grew.
There was a disconnect between the dire circumstances right-wing Republicans talked about under Obama – “the worst president ever” – and what was really happening. Under Obama, deficits decreased and the Affordable Care Act mostly worked (it has a 55 percent approval rating today). The stock market set record highs and unemployment fell to under 5 percent. Inflation and interest rates were low and corporate profits were high. “The worst president ever” left office with a 59 percent approval rating.
And yet, in 2016, voters elected a president who said the U.S. was in an economic free fall, being invaded by immigrants and ripped off by foreign countries. There were a lot of reasons Donald Trump won. Globalization. Robots. Social media. Fear of immigrants. Fox News. “The Apprentice.” Resistance to gay rights. Russian hacking. Hillary Clinton. And the issue that is always with us, abortion and the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the biggest reason seemed to be the same one that turned the nation so abruptly in 2010: Deception exploiting anxiety. The Tea Party was a phony movement funded by the super rich, mostly the Koch brothers. “Fox News” made fake news its staple, beginning with its slogan: “Fair and balanced.” Republicans had no plan to replace the ACA, despite many House votes to repeal or change it. North Carolina Republicans did nothing to create jobs and instead stymied jobs with meager state spending and drove jobs away with HB2.
Now, here we are. The Republican Party, for so long focused on bashing and obstructing Obama, is incoherent without him. President Trump’s list of “accomplishments” at the 100-day mark consists mostly of undoing Obama’s efforts to protect the environment or promote health, education and civil rights.
Otherwise, the big winners of 2010 seem to have no ideas beyond their old one – cut taxes on the rich. Republican insurgents took over state and national halls of power and locked the door behind them with gerrymandering. But now that it’s time to lead, they can’t because cynicism offers no inspiration and deception no true direction.