The Right Side of the Dial: Part I

Will November 8, 2016 really be a day of reckoning for the Republican Party?

There’s a certain logic to the argument that former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett (who was infamously chased out of the conservative movement a decade ago for daring to tell the truth about President George W. Bush’s economic recklessness) made recently in Politico about Donald Trump’s presidential prospects:

As a moderate Republican who voted for [President] Obama, I should be Donald Trump’s natural enemy. Instead, I’m rooting for him.

The Republican establishment foresees a defeat of Barry Goldwater proportions in the unlikely event Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination. As Trump’s lead in the polls grows, so too does their panic. Yet, for moderate Republicans, a Trump nomination is not something to be feared but welcomed. It is only after a landslide loss by Trump that the GOP can win the White House again.

Trump’s nomination would give what’s left of the sane wing of the GOP a chance to reassert control in the wake of his inevitable defeat, because it would prove beyond doubt that the existing conservative coalition cannot win the presidency. A historic thrashing of the know-nothings would verify that compromise and reform are essential to recapture the White House and attract new voters, such as Latinos, who are now alienated from the Republican Party…

The Trump phenomenon perfectly represents the culmination of populism and anti-intellectualism that became dominant in the Republican Party with the rise of the Tea Party. I think many Republican leaders have had deep misgivings about the Tea Party since the beginning, but the short-term benefits were too great to resist. A Trump rout is Republican moderates’ best chance to take back the GOP.

For those who would prefer to have two rational political parties in the United States, it would be nice to see the Republican Party so thoroughly humiliated in a third consecutive presidential election that the GOP would finally make a serious effort to finally rid itself of the kooks that were welcomed into the party in the mid-to-late 1960s. Bartlett observes:

In many ways, the rise of the Tea Party was as much a reaction to Bush’s infidelities to conservative principles as it was to the election of Barack Obama.

Since extremists of all types tend to flock together, the Tea Party, well financed by Charles and David Koch and other multimillionaire conservatives, welcomed groups formerly excluded from the political mainstream. These included xenophobes, racists, neoconfederates, anti-Semites, gun nuts, secessionists, conspiracy theorists, homophobic bigots, religious kooks, gold bugs and many others. What held this diverse coalition together was hatred of all things vaguely associated with liberalism and the prospect of political power, which was achieved after the Tea Party’s victories in the 2010 election.

With the Tea Party now in control of the Republican nominating process, where only a small number of activists participate, it became the tail wagging the GOP dog. No matter how dumb or demented Tea Party demands were, the Republican leadership had to accommodate them—there’s always time in the crowded legislative schedule for yet another vote to repeal Obamacare. Ideas such as shutting down the government or repudiating the national debt that were previously considered beyond the pale became standard Republican policy.

Frighteningly, fringe ideas began to become dogma even among GOP elites. For example, they came to believe that all reputable polls were biased against Republicans in 2012 and instead followed a crackpot who arbitrarily adjusted the polls to show them winning. All the scientific research showing global warming is denied as a liberal conspiracy even as sea levels have steadily risen. Every mass shooting becomes proof that more guns are necessary for average people to protect themselves.

These and other nutty ideas became staples of Fox News programming, which is the primary source of information for most conservatives, according to numerous polls by Pew and others. Among the critical roles played by Fox is to validate extremism and its proponents as mainstream conservative spokesmen. Whether motivated by ratings or ideology—the effect is the same—Fox encouraged the right-wing fringe and gave it a huge megaphone. No commentator appears too extreme to be banned from Fox and its anchors will almost never voice even a hint of criticism no matter what they say on air; all conservative views are legitimate on Fox, no matter how unhinged…

Republicans have been delusional in thinking that control of Congress made them the governing party in the U.S. Without the White House, they control nothing. Conservatives’ own expansive theory of presidential power, sometimes called the “unitary executive,” confirms this fact. The American people may be willing to elect of few cranks and nutcases to Congress, where they are generally harmless, but they will not elect such people to be president because the stakes are so much higher.

Suffering a historic defeat in 2016, as it did in 1964, is a price the GOP must pay so that moderates can say to the extremists, “We gave you your chance and you blew it. Now it’s time to put the adults back in charge.” Nominating Trump is the best way to accomplish this goal.

Sound in theory…but would it work in fact? Wouldn’t the GOP become even more radical in the wake of a third consecutive loss? Isn’t the march to insanity and irrationality infinite on the right?

P. M. Carpenter notes that the freakshow forces within the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement are simply impervious to political pain:

The Republican Party’s primordial muck is too deep; that sucking sound we hear is the pseudoconservative swamp ruthlessly engorging the party body and soul.

As I see it, the cardinal flaw in Bartlett’s analysis — an error I myself have committed for approximately a decade now — resides in his proposition that a Trump- or Trump-like implosion would “prove beyond doubt” that yahooism is a loser. But prove to whom? The yahoos? Nothing of any sanity has ever proved anything “beyond doubt” to that crowd. That’s what makes them yahoos. Instill them with reason and logic and some rudimentary human intelligence and, presto, one un-yahoos them. That, however, is an act reserved only for divine intervention, and miracles have been somewhat short of late.

Prove, perhaps, to Bartlett & Co. that the “existing conservative coalition” can’t retake the presidency? The moderate Bartletts — the sane crowd — already know that. Prove to non-Republicans and anti-Republicans that the coalition is doomed? They, of course, are of less influence on the GOP than GOP moderates are. Prove electoral catastrophe, maybe, to the right-wing noise machine? — prove it to the Fox Newsers and Limbaughs and Savages? Their profits rely on attack, not defense; hence those profits are far more secure with a Democrat in the White House. Better to cheer on a sure, yahoo-exciting loser than be stuck with defending another President Bush.

Another flaw in Bartlett’s analysis is almost equally rude. Today’s conservative coalition can’t win the White House with the yahoos, but it also can’t win without them. It can’t win without the yahoo-infiltrated militarists, libertarians, holy rollers and racists, and it can’t even win without the pure yahoos of no particular ideological bent (except that of unmitigated rage). The yahoos are an electorally indispensable element of the conservative coalition. And when one faction is indispensable, it’s invulnerable. It must be pampered — see, e.g., Reince Priebus’ rediscovered respect for Donald Trump…

The only way to vanquish Trumpism in the long run? Embrace it for now, as Bruce Bartlett has done. Hand it the keys to the party, which the yahoos have already done. Then, four or eight years hence, perhaps launch another party — a genuinely conservative party? Because this pseudoconservative one lies in the lethal, inextricable grip of the mucked yahoos.

Is there any force that can de-radicalize the Republican Party? Is there any force that can de-radicalize Republican media entities, for that matter?

(Next: Republicans and the right-wing noise machine.)

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.