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An "inside the Beltway" account of a party in crisis

American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump - Tim Alberta

Though the title is taken from Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address, this book is about more than just the 45th president of the United States and his impact on the Republican Party. Instead what Tim Alberta provides is a Washington-eye view of the evolution of the national GOP from the 2008 election to the midway point of Trump’s presidency. A longtime political reporter, Alberta draws upon a wealth of interviews with many of the key Republicans in Congress, featuring them as they key figures in their party’s evolution from the pro-immigration supporters of free trade and fiscal restraint into the more nativist, protectionist, and xenophobic party they have become since 2016.


As Alberta demonstrates, the factors that led to this transformation were present well before Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency. By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency Congressional Republicans faced a lot of internal discontent with their deficit spending habits and the costs of two interminable wars in the Middle East, to which was added the onset of a severe recession. With Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008, Republican leaders feared they might be politically marginalized for the next generation. Even in the afterglow of Obama’s victory, though, his team recognized that they would likely face a backlash because of the dismal economic conditions and the hard choices before them.


That backlash was the Tea Party movement. Its energy translated into Republican victories up and down the ballot in the midterm election. Yet even as Republicans benefited electorally from public dissatisfaction with Obama’s administration, Alberta notes the emerging tension between the party leadership and the new members of the caucus, many of whom rode to victory on the basis of this dissatisfaction. The new House Speaker, John Boehner, bore the brunt of this conflict, as the more radicalized members of his majority often pressed for actions that Boehner (who at one time was considered on the extreme wing of the House Republican caucus) resisted as pointless. Such extremism proved counter-productive in the Senate races that year, as Alberta notes how the selection of the more radical candidates cost the Republicans winnable races that would have given them unified control of Congress.


This tension only grew over the next six years, inspiring ambitious Republicans and frustrating legislative achievements. With Obama’s reelection victory in 2012, many within the party worried that they were on an electorally unsustainable course that would prove disastrous. Three years later the Republicans had a primary field notable for its considerable diversity, yet in the end what the base desired most was not ideological extremism or detailed conservative proposals, but someone who tapped into their cultural anxieties. Enter Donald Trump, whose often outrageous rhetoric and media savvy combined to win the nomination over a number of prominent party figures. Though many Republican officeholders blanched at his statements, his unexpected victory cuffed them to a mercurial figure who demanded total loyalty and who was even willing to sacrifice political power to get it.


Drawing as he does from conversations with many of the key individuals involved, Alberta offers an insider’s account of a decade’s worth of American politics. As perceptive of much of his analysis is, though, Alberta’s book suffers from some unfortunate limitations. These are a consequence of his “inside the Beltway” focus, with little consideration of developments at the state and the local level. With only a marginal effort made to unpack the dynamics that often drove many of the events he describes, the Congressional maneuvering and political infighting he describes can assume a greater importance than it might otherwise possess. A more expansive coverage might have made for a stronger book, albeit perhaps a less readable one. For with its mixture of reporting and retrospective commentary, Alberta’s book serves as a compulsively readable record of an important moment in the history of the Republican Party, one the consequences of which continue to ripple outward.