In the summer of 2016, when it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to annihilate Donald Trump, there were a lot of think-pieces about the bleak future of the Republican Party. Many of them asked if November would be the end of the GOP altogether, how it could possibly reinvent itself for an America whose demographics were evolving against it, or even asserted that it might never be able to put up a credible presidential contender again.
Also, that Hillbilly Elegy was going to be a great movie.
As we know, reports of the elephant’s death proved Mark Twain-esque in their exaggeration. Instead of getting obliterated, the Republican Party took the White House, both houses of Congress, and tightened its stranglehold on the federal judiciary (the Supreme Court above all), not to mention governorships and statehouses nationwide. It was the Democrats who were cast into the wilderness, left to wring their hands and gnash their teeth over what went wrong.
But as it turns out, that election may have destroyed the Republican Party after all….not because of Trump’s defeat, but because of his victory.
THE VERY SILLY PARTY
The damage Donald Trump has done to the GOP over the last four years—with its eager cooperation, I hasten to note—has been far worse than what would have been wrought by a simple electoral defeat in 2016.
First, of course, there is the record of what Trump has done to the country, which is akin to what a baby does to a diaper. We need not recount that here; you can get a sense just by listening to the wail of the ambulances, by observing the breadlines, and by drinking in the poison of right wing cable news, while waiting for historians to produce their withering, encyclopedia-length surveys on the subject.
But political parties routinely recover from periods of terrible leadership, even historically abysmal ones. What is likely to be more enduring is how he has transformed the GOP itself.
Since securing the Republican nomination in the summer of 2016, Trump has vastly remade the party in his own image. It is now undeniably the Trump Party in all but name, one committed to no principles whatsoever except what Donald Trump wants. No kidding: that was literally its platform at the 2020 Republican National Convention. (“The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.”) Its historical positions on deficits, on Russia, on trade, on the projection of military power? Shitcanned.
Don’t get me wrong: the Republican Party was not exactly the picture of health four years ago. No party that nominated Donald J. Trump in the first place could possibly claim to be. The GOP itself willingly sowed the seeds for the ascent of this cretin over many many years of increasing extremism, and I say that ruefully as a former registered Republican, circa 1984. (Not proud of that.)
The Republican Party has promoted a regressive economic policy since the days of Coolidge and Hoover. It has an ugly history of nativism going back at least to the Twenties (the previous Twenties—and they’re back!). It has been the world leader in red-baiting since the days of the New Deal, reaching its apotheosis with McCarthy. It swooped into the vacuum created by LBJ with the Civil Rights and Voting Acts to craft the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” that turned Dixie bright red, a color scheme only now beginning to alter. It gave us the plutocratic cruelty of the Reagan Revolution and the hoax of supply side economics, and proudly led the way on an aggressive, neo-imperialist foreign policy with a special interest in bombing the shit out of yellow and brown people.
So Trump’s rise was not a hostile takeover, no matter how much “moderate” Republicans would like us to believe that it was. Rather, it was the logical destination of a path down which the party had been heading for quite some time, and I do mean down. (For my money it was the ascendance of Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s that really put the GOP on the road to Trump’s gilded door, but that’s a tale for another day.)
Still, Trump’s, er, leadership steeply accelerated that decline, delivering the GOP to a state of moral turpitude unseen in modern times. This is a party that has become fully committed to a openly racist, white nationalist, proto-authoritarian, kleptocratic far right agenda pursued through a scorched earth policy of lies, disinformation, and demagoguery.
Now, with Don’s imminent eviction from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Grand Old Party stands at a crossroads. Trumpism has been angrily, definitively repudiated by a majority of the American people. Even so, its followers—his followers, to be precise—remain a potent force in our politics, albeit a nihilistic one with a severely limited long term future. Surveying that landscape, will the GOP stick with its current configuration as a neo-fascist cult-of-personality, or will it change course?
In other words, as the post-Trump era begins, the Republican Party is going to have to decide whether that era is really going to be “post-Trump” or not.
A NEW KIND OF EX-PRESIDENT
Many observers believe it’s not even a question. The GOP doesn’t seem capable of quitting Trump, even if it wanted to, and it’s not at all clear that it does.
Leading the pessimists is the Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last, and he’s pretty convincing:
Raise your hand if you think (Donald Trump) will retire to Mar-a-Lago and delete his Twitter account.
It seems much more likely—maybe inevitable—that once he leaves office, Trump will continue to tweet and call in to cable news shows. Perhaps he will even attend political rallies, which is the part of the job he seems to enjoy most.
There is no reason to think—none at all—that he will discontinue his penchant for weighing in on American politics on an hourly basis. There is every reason to think that he will vigorously attack any Republican who was disloyal to him during his administration. Or retroactively criticizes his tenure. Or runs in opposition to one of his preferred candidates. Or jeopardizes any of his many and varied interests.
Trump is not a caretaker of the Republican party. He is the owner.
Heather Cox Richardson tends to agree:
While a losing incumbent president usually loses influence in the party, Trump intends to continue to call the shots. He wants to run again in 2024, or at least to anoint a successor, rather than letting the Republican National Committee pick a presidential candidate. There is a struggle going on to control the RNC and, as well, to figure out who gets control of the lists of supporters Trump has compiled. Trump also controls a lot of the party’s money, since he has been out front as its fundraiser without a break since he decided to run for office. He was the first president ever to file for reelection on the day of his inauguration, permitting him to hold “rallies” and to raise money throughout his presidency.
So Republican lawmakers are willing to swear loyalty to him, either because they want to attract his voters in future elections, or because they want access to the cash he can raise, or both. They no longer defend traditional policy positions; they defend Trump.
This transformation of the Republican Party will long outlive Donald, with his cheeseburgers-and-Diet-Cokes diet. Even more than Trump himself, the Republican Party now seems committed to Trumpism. Even as he is kicked to the curb by the mass of the American people, his fellow Republicans are holding fast to that paradigm—for now—even when they have strong practical reasons not to.
Jonathan Last goes on, arguing against the view of “(h)ard-headed Trump-skeptical Republicans” who “like to talk about how it’s important to preserve some room to maneuver so that when Trump eventually leaves the stage, the hard work of rebuilding the Republican party can begin.”
But that view is predicated on the realities of politics as they existed in 2015.
Until Trump’s election, the working model for American politics was that parties were ideological organizations, not personality cults…..
The post-Trump future may be different: A world where the former president calls into cable shows while tweeting 150 times a day, settling scores, attacking members of his party who he deems insufficiently loyal and paving the way for his son to inherit the office.
(W)hat’s remarkable is that the old system lasted for as long as it did.
The Republican party is now a family-controlled syndicate which will run the business until either a rival gang takes them down or the feds catch up with them. Whichever view you choose, the arrangement will continue as long as Donald Trump has thumbs and a smartphone.
Last thinks the answer to the question posed by this essay is settled. “The election is over. Trump lost. But the battle for the soul of the Republican party is over, too. And Trump won.”
TIANANMEN ON THE POTOMAC?
Everything JVL says is true, though as I wrote two weeks ago (“The Ghost of Grover Cleveland”), it is far from a sure thing that Trump will be able to maintain and enforce that sort of fealty while in exile. Maybe, maybe not. We shall see.
But in a separate piece, Last has argued that this matter of fealty, and not the putative goal of retaining the White House, is the primary purpose of Trump’s ongoing attempts at a coup. (That and fleecing his suckers).
(F)or Trump, the lawsuits, the posturing, the couping—yes, it would be nice if he wound up as president on January 21. But that’s the secondary objective. The primary objective was to stop the Republican party from leaving him and, if possible, tighten his grasp on it.
Now, owning a major political party isn’t as useful as being president. But it’s not nothing, either. In a two-party system, you can exert a great deal of power by being the head of a party. You have businesses and foreign governments that will pay tribute to you. You have capos spread across the country, ready to do your bidding. You have an audience of something like 40 million partisans who can be mined for contributions and mobilized as a flash mob whenever you need them.
And while everyone laughs at how incompetent Trump’s Elite Strike Force has been as a matter of law, they miss how effective it’s been as a matter of politics.
Pragmatically speaking, it’s true that this has been the net effect of Trump’s appalling attempt to overturn the election. But in terms of intentionality, I dunno if everybody on Team MAGA got the memo, given that this past weekend, egged on by retired general and convicted felon Mike Flynn, Trump openly contemplated declaring martial law.
As is often the case, the media is giving Donald credit for playing twelve-dimensional chess when in reality, per Maya Angelou, he has told us what he’s doing and is just as simplistic as he appears. If only for reasons of sheer ego, he is apoplectic at the idea of losing the presidency, terrified of his criminal exposure on the practical front, and willing to entertain any ploy—even trying to put tanks in the streets— to avoid that fate. He may or may not consciously understand that even a failed coup d’etat will serve to cement his chokehold on the party, though I’m sure he understands that it is a license to print money. But I don’t think he’s winking when he says he intends to defy the will of the people and stay in power.
Even after his is driven from office, Trump will certainly try to hang onto control of the GOP, whether it wants him to or not. Whether he will succeed is another matter. Because by yoking itself to the flaming clown car that is Trumpism, the Republican Party would be willingly consigning itself to a disastrous long term fate…..and its top strategists and leaders know that (at least those without the surnames Trump or Kushner), despite the complications of a divorce.
Sure, in the short term this scorched earth kind of White Power politics is effective, as we’ve seen. That’s the whole problem. But it’s not sustainable in the long run. The GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Even though it has gamed the Electoral College in order remain competitive, it’s not a winning approach for the future.
Racism and fascism will always be with us, but do Republicans really want to be a fringe party of violence-ready White grievance, rather than a mainstream conservative party that can attract a majority of a changing electorate going forward? Just in practical terms, not even moral ones, which incarnation serve its ambition for power better?
(Let’s leave aside the possibility that they succeed in establishing their Gilead.)
This takes us back to the question, oft heard during the Trump years, of why Republicans didn’t ever stand up to this tyrant. As I’ve said ad nauseam, it’s the wrong question from top to bottom. They didn’t want to stand up, because Trump was delivering them a Santa’s sled full of Christmas goodies, from Supreme Court justices to tax cuts for the rich to massive deregulation and stripping of environmental protections. And all they had to do kneel down and fellate him and thank him for the privilege.
But now that bargain is off the table, and they are in a pickle as a result of that shameful service to Satan.
A REFORMATION THAT WOULD DAUNT MARTIN LUTHER
So how do Republicans reform, assuming they want to?
It’s a very tall order. Like, Manute Bol tall.
How will they—or can they—rehabilitate a party that has so thoroughly debased itself through its embrace of this despicable con man? It’s a process that would first require an overt repudiation of their defeated ruler, and the eviction—and head-shaving—of all his collaborators. It’s also a process that requires sober recognition that the party’s systemic problems pre-date Trump, and in fact gave rise to him, not the other way around.
So far, very little signs from Party Central that either of those qualifiers are remotely being met.
As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes, “The message is to move on, but it’s hard for Republicans to hear when they’re hunkered down—still intimidated by Trump and frightened by an angry base that seems to have lost the ability to separate election fact from fiction.”
Might they just be able to ghost their way out?
Last says that there will be “no way for a Trump-skeptical Republican to simply wait out the Trump years. There will be no ‘life after Trump’ because Trump is going to be the head boss of Republican politics for the rest of his days.” Again: maybe, maybe not. But I’ll offer another reason why Republicans can’t just “wait out the Trump years.” Because their party cannot be taken seriously again as a potential steward of the public welfare until they renounce Trump, burn their organization down to the ground, and start anew. Just “waiting it out,” ain’t an option.
So the odds are not good that the GOP is gonna respond to Donald’s first post-presidency call with a text reading, “New phone—who dis?”
The GOP leadership is far more likely to try to incite mass amnesia among the American people, acting like they are reasonable politicians who didn’t just spend four years abetting and defending a openly racist, openly criminal, wannabe dictator…..while at the same time still kissing the ass of his openly racist, criminality-tolerating, dictatorship-curious base.
Speaking for progressive America (I’m authorized to do that, right?), we are not going to let them get away with that.
Already that effort has begun, with Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin opposing COVID relief on the risible grounds of concerns about the deficit, after supporting Trump’s deficit-busting 2017 tax cut for the rich, his border “wall,” and his lavish military spending. Then there was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, collapsing on his fainting couch over Biden staffer Jen O’Malley Dillon using the word “fuckers,” after supporting the most publicly vulgar president in US history, not to mention standing by silently while his fellow Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) “a fucking bitch” to her face in halls of Congress. IOKIYAR, right?
So to cop a phrase from Ms. O’Malley Dillon, we are not going to let these fuckers forget what they did and who they’ve been.
If the Republican Party wants to be anything other than the amoral gang of quasi-brownshirts that it currently is, it’s going to have to engage in the kind of soul-searching and commitment to reform that thus far it has shows zero signs of undertaking.
WE’RE ALL DEVO NOW
Though some have a vested interest in pretending otherwise, political parties do evolve (or devolve) over time. Or at least they can.
Most pertinently in the US of A, the Republican and Democratic parties have more or less reversed polarity since the 1850s. Republicans never tire of reminding us that they are the alleged “party of Lincoln,” of abolitionism, and of integration, while it was 19th and early 20th century Democrats who were the defenders of slavery, foes of Reconstruction, and the dominant party in the South violently in opposition to the Civil Rights movement, at least until the Kennedy administration.
Now, of course, the opposite is true.
Even as it wants to claim the moral high ground, the contemporary Republican Party stands proudly for the exact same retrograde ideals its forebear opposed. Is anybody fooled by this except the willfully dishonest? How the two reversed like that is a tome in itself. But how the members of the Grand Old Party of 2020 can simultaneously—proudly—fly the flag of racism and xenophobia while slanderously excoriating Democrats for their ancient history on that count says a lot about the Orwellian nature of the modern GOP.
It’s possible that, if a Republican reformation ever takes pace, it will require decades, and entail the eventual retirement (or mortal demise) of all those current members who sided with Trump. That will be a generational change. Only a handful of current GOP officeholders can lay plausible claim to any kind of integrity, and very few at the national level.
However it might emerge, the presence of a sane conservative party in American politics would be a healthy thing, if only in the interest of balance, especially if we continue with our current two-party system. Or perhaps now, at long last, it’s time for that system to break, with the creation of a party that genuinely represents reasonable right-of-center views, a Lincoln Project/Bulwark party—call them the capital C Conservatives—consigning the old GOP brand to the far right fringe where it has unaccountably taken up residence.
The former Republican congressman David Jolly of Florida, an eloquent critic of his erstwhile colleagues and a frequent presence on MSNBC, thinks there is indeed room for a true Conservative Party. “Mr X.,” the pseudonymous Democratic consultant whose interviews have appeared in these pages, believes that the two-party system is just too entrenched. I don’t know who’s right, but I do think that if ever there was an opening for a viable third party, this moment is a candidate.
In some ways I think the rise of a Conservative Party is more plausible than reform of the Republican Party.
PAGING MR. YEATS
Some might say that we already do have a sane conservative party—the Democratic Party.
Since the Clinton years, the Democrats have occupied a position more analogous to the centrist (or even center-right) parties in many Western democracies. We can feel that phenomenon in the intramural battles between the Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings, battles that shaped last year’s primaries and continue to roil the transition period as Biden picks his Cabinet and lays out his policies for the coming term.
AOC famously noted that, in most countries, she and Joe Biden would not even be in the same party.
For thirty years the moderates have controlled the Democratic Party. (Forever, really, if you don’t count McGovern and Carter.) But the demographic future, as well as the enthusiasm, and the best and boldest new ideas, are largely with the left-of-center faction….so much so that Biden has made significant shifts in that direction, fulfilling Naomi Klein’s exhortation to “move the center.” (Which the reliably McCarthyite GOP is keen to highlight, even amid continued grumbling from Bernie Bro Nation that Joe hasn’t done enough.)
So is it possible that the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, will be, or ought to be, the ones who should split?
It’s a bold idea. But there would really be no point, as the Democrats’ progressive and moderate wings would always need to form an alliance anyway in order to win elections and form a government, as party coalitions do in various parliamentary systems in Europe and elsewhere. In essence, the Democratic Party is already a standing coalition of discrete factions, permanently allied under one big blue umbrella.
Germany has long had the “traffic light coalition” of Social Democrats (in their signature red—confusingly, as they are solidly centrist, not Marxist), Free Democrats (yellow), and Greens. In the ‘90s, the country saw the emergence of the Jamaica coalition (also known as the Schwampel, or “black traffic light,” coalition), with the conservative Christian Democrats, in their trademark schwarz, replacing the SDP.
I don’t love the CDU/CSU but you gotta love a mainstream political party with the huevos to fly the black flag. But I guess reactionaries and anarchists do have some DNA in common, if only in their belief that government is useless.
Rather than splitting, it seems to me that the Democrats would be better served by never forgetting the monstrousness of their foe, and remembering that we have a common, urgent interest in keeping these cretins out of power.
BATTLE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT
In closing, by way of handicapping Republican prospects for reformation, let’s circle back to the issue of how much damage Trump has done.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, and especially after he won but before he took office, Republicans contemptuously assured us that Democrats were “hysterical” in their warnings about how bad he would be. Trump Derangement Syndrome, they howled! He’ll pivot! You won’t believe how presidential he’ll be!
Turns out, he was infinitely worse by almost any metric you care to choose.
Yet even now so-called “moderate” conservatives (there’s that word again) like the New York Times’ preternaturally smug Bret Stephens would have us believe that Trump didn’t do that much damage, that the “system worked” to thwart him, that COVID hasn’t been as bad as some say, Putin doesn’t call the shots, etc etc. In his defense, he does go on to record how Trump corroded trust and destroyed truth as a commonly accepted standard. But the downplaying of Trump’s sins is truly blinkered and will not age well. Don’t look for it in Bret’s Greatest Hits.
Per above, this is the template for how the GOP will likely move forward: not fully repudiating Trump and burning the party to the ground, but disingenuously trying to make us believe It Was All Just a Dream and that they are reasonable, trustworthy public servants after all.
Good luck with that, assholes.
As I write this, the United States has just suffered the worst intelligence failure since 9/11, an operation by the Russian Federation that penetrated the very heart of our most sensitive national security institutions. Whether it was “merely” a stunningly successful espionage operation or a proper cyberattack—that is, an outright act of war—or is still being debated. Either way, it doesn’t matter because Donald Trump isn’t doing anything about it, staying meekly silent on the topic even as the attack continues. It’s Putin’s sadistic parting shot as Donald leaves office, a victory lap reminding us how he made the President of the United States his poodle for the last four years.
(Wait—that can’t be! Right, Bret?)
At the same time, our country is suffering upward of 3000 deaths a day due to COVID-19—a 9/11 every 24 hours—with total casualties topping 300,000 and rising fast, even as the White House’s main focus in that arena seems to be sabotaging the vaccine rollout in order to hinder the incoming Biden administration. Meanwhile, reports have begun to leak over just how criminally homicidal the Trump presidency’s non-response to the pandemic has been over the past eighteen months. Look for even more of that to emerge, and to horrify us.
Also in the news, the Republican-controlled Senate continues to block desperately needed economic relief for suffering Americans citizens, we still can’t account for all the children kidnapped and caged at the border, and we’re now told that Jared Kushner siphoned off some $617 million dollars—more than half the GOP war chest for the presidential campaign—and funneled it straight into the Trump family pockets, with no semblance of accountability.
And what is Trump doing amid this avalanche of crises? Tweeting nonstop in an attempt to undermine the very foundations of American democracy, foment violence, and steal an election he soundly lost. Oh, and also: preparing to pardon himself, his family, and all his cronies on his way out the door.
Gee, why wouldn’t the GOP want to sign up for twenty more years of that?
Photo: The Milwaukee Independent