Where Do We Go From Here?
After Trump’s stunning win, Texas’s Republican leaders still face a critical choice.
The historic upset of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton will be dissected by pundits for months, if not years, to come. In a contest that pitted two of the most disliked presidential candidates in history, voters hung on every shocking tweet, hacked email, Russian intrigue, FBI announcement, foul comment, and misogynistic boast. In the end, Texans proved that they loved Trump. Turnout in the general election approached nine million, smashing the previous record, and Trump won more votes than any other Republican presidential nominee in state history. Everyone wanted the campaign season to end, it seems, but not before each of us had our say.
It is also true, given the unease a wide swath of voters felt about Clinton, that had Republicans nominated nearly anyone else, they would likely have won the White House regardless. But like a runaway train, the party, having chosen a catastrophically flawed vice-presidential candidate in 2008, doubled down and selected a catastrophically flawed presidential candidate in 2016, presenting an outsider and a showman as the only person who could reclaim Washington for the average American. Donald Trump was correct to speak to the anxiety of voters who believe the system long ago stopped caring about their interests. And his dangerous and insulting rhetoric—combined with his lack of self-restraint—never overwhelmed the anger that many Americans felt toward the nation’s political establishment. The message survived the messenger.
Most Texas Republicans, of course, fell in line behind Trump, fearful of angering a base they could no longer control. It’s hard to believe that only sixteen years ago George W. Bush, then the governor, won his first term in the White House by running a campaign based on a message of “compassionate conservatism.” In a display of bipartisanship after the contentious Florida recount and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that propelled him to victory, Bush asked Pete Laney, the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, to introduce him to the country from the House chamber in Austin. Yet it was the revolt by the grassroots during Bush’s second term—particularly over spending increases for measures like the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the bailout of the Wall Street banks—that helped fuel the rise of the tea party. Just four short years after the end of the Bush administration, Governor Rick Perry, whose retail political skills had long been shortchanged, sensed the coming populist wave and tried to catch it during the 2012 cycle. For a time, he appeared poised to break through and become the Republican nominee, and had he been a more sophisticated candidate—people will forever remember what he forgot at a debate in Michigan—Perry might well have pulled it off. In 2016 another Texan burst onto the stage. This time it was freshman U.S. senator Ted Cruz, who had moved even farther to the right than Perry. Cruz’s fundamentalist view of government and the Constitution proved popular with Republican voters, and Cruz came close to capturing the nomination. In the end, only Trump could stop him. It is telling that a Republican senator who embraced the fringes within his own party made it so deep into the primary season.
That transformation of the Republican party’s identity started on the fringes of AM talk radio decades ago but found a home with a wider audience in the nineties with commentators like Rush Limbaugh. The cottage industry of political fire-breathers unleashed a level of anger and resentment that overtook the party. By the time that conversation went fully prime time on cable channels like Fox News, the rage was uncontrollable, wiping out an entire group of politicians who were deemed insufficiently conservative. These right-leaning broadcast and online outlets were mainly concerned with ratings and clicks, and fomenting anger and fear was good business. This cross between entertainment and politics opened the door for Trump, and he gladly jumped through it.
That fever leaves no room for moderation or nuance. So if you want to preserve your political career, what do you do if Trump insults your dad and your uncle? If you’re land commissioner George P. Bush, you become the GOP’s 2016 victory chairman and support him in Texas. What do you do if Trump knocks off your chosen candidate during the primary? If you’re Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, you hustle off of Ted Cruz’s stage as quickly as you can and rebrand yourself Trump’s state chairman in Texas. What do you do if Trump accuses your father of somehow being complicit in the Kennedy assassination or implies that your wife is ugly? If you’re Cruz, you head-fake in one direction at the Republican National Convention by telling your party to “vote your conscience,” but then you eventually toe the line because of the backlash. The quality of the candidate is of no concern, because the base doesn’t want to hear about that. Instead, the attack pivoted to Clinton, demonizing her to the point of farce.
The farce continued even after a video surfaced in which Trump boasted about groping women. As agriculture commissioner Sid Miller said, “If Donald Trump asked me to charge hell with him with water pistols, he wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder. Trump on his worst day—and that was a very bad day—is still better than Hillary Clinton on her best day.” Hyperbole becomes a politician’s best friend, because it means you never have to think about what you’re saying.
Not even Billy Lee Brammer could have imagined a figure as cartoonish as Miller, who brought the campaign to a new low on November 1 when his official Twitter account posted poll numbers that read, “TRUMP 44 C— 43.” Miller’s office swiftly announced that its social media account had been hacked (maybe by the Russians?) only to clarify later that a staffer had made a mistake. This is what being a statewide elected official has come to.
Such an inexcusable tweet wasn’t an isolated incident. All the name-calling, all the personal attacks, all the angry rants have taken a toll on our discourse. Political campaigns have always been laced with invective, but 2016 showed that many felt that a race to the bottom was the best way to win. The mistake is to believe that any angry electorate can’t be inspired by a thoughtful, measured leader.
Now that the votes have been counted, it’s clear that Texas remains a solidly red state. Of the 36 U.S. House races, only 1 was truly competitive, and it was won by the Republican incumbent. And despite slightly higher than usual turnout, especially among Latino voters, the Democrats remain in disarray, desperately in need of top-level candidates and a compelling message that is distinct from the national party. One only need recall what Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September: she would consider running against Cruz in 2018 only if Democratic turnout was high enough this year. That’s perhaps the least confident statement a pol could make, and the lack of commitment suggests it would be better for the party to move in a new direction entirely. Even if the Democrats were handed a gift, they would barely know how to unwrap it.
And that makes it easy for Republicans to continue down their path of narrow governance. There’s no reason to ignore the base when the greatest threat comes in a primary, not a general election. Our state’s officials have rarely had the courage to lead when it counts. Though there was promising unified support for addressing egregious problems in the Department of Family and Protective Services—nearly one thousand children in imminent danger of abuse were not seen by a caseworker for six months between March and September—the truth is that the system has long been neglected. Perhaps if our leaders were less interested in protecting their right flank, they could have spent more time protecting our most vulnerable residents. But that work is complex; it requires compromise, and it demands new revenue. It’s so much easier to rail against government overreach—or, when it suits them, rush toward new, unnecessary restrictions, such as voter ID. Of course the base responds. What did Governor Greg Abbott do in late October when things were looking particularly bad for Trump? He trotted out an attack on same-sex couples, encouraging an end to benefits provided by the City of Houston to its employees.
With the 2017 legislative session about a month away, one early test will be if the state’s leaders continue to promote wedge issues in an effort to solidify their standing with the base. Patrick, one of the highest-profile Trump supporters, will be emboldened by Trump’s victory and has said that one of his priorities is the so-called bathroom bill, in which he insists the state is in grave danger of predators hiding out in women’s restrooms. Public safety is one thing, but Patrick has used this issue to tap into fears among some voters of transgender Texans. In an effort to make the proposal more palatable, he has rebranded it as the “Women’s Privacy Act,” a bit of marketing hocus-pocus that is designed to distract voters from what is really happening. It’s the same trick Republicans tried in 2013 by ramming severe abortion restrictions through a special session under the guise of protecting women’s health, a willful misdirection because the provisions purported to solve a problem that didn’t exist. Earlier this year, the courts agreed and struck down key parts of the law.
Though Patrick is making a political calculation designed to burnish his own credentials, the business community has pushed back hard, fearful of causing further damage to Texas’s reputation and creating the kind of unfriendly climate that has stung Indiana and North Carolina after they passed similar measures. Patrick has softened his language, but he insists he’s going to push forward when the Lege convenes.
Of course, there’s one way to derail this effort and refocus lawmakers on issues that matter to all Texans, such as school finance: Abbott could declare that if a bathroom bill lands on his desk, he will veto it without exception. Not only would he keep lawmakers from wasting time, he would assert his leadership in a way that he has been hesitant to do thus far.
With Trump in the White House, Texas Republicans may well be tempted to push too far to the right. The longstanding conventional wisdom in Austin is that the best way for Democrats here to find a pulse will be to have a Republican in the White House. Trump is unpredictable, and he has taken hard stands on issues like immigration and trade that many Texans find uncomfortable. If Trump decides to mess with Texas, will Abbott or Patrick fall in line—or stand on principle? Do they fight against overreach if Trump slides closer to authoritarianism with the judiciary or the press? In that case, we hope Texas Republicans continue their long-running feud with Washington, D.C.—in the name of conservatism.