How the Republican Party Will Die

Gabriel Sherman has done some outstanding reporting and gotten some major scoops, but when he says he has a source who claims that Steve Bannon predicted that Trump has only a thirty percent chance of completing his term, I’m not sure if I can take that to the bank. I do know that Bannon is worried about it, because he’s said that on the record. Either way, Frank Rich may be correct that it doesn’t matter all that much because the Republican Party has been destroyed.

The idea that the pre-Trump GOP will make a post-Trump comeback to vanquish these forces is laughable. Old-line Establishment Republicans in the Senate and the House, even very conservative ones like [Sen. Jeff] Flake, are engaging in self-deportation, as Mitt Romney might say, rather than face a firing squad in the primaries. The Trumpists will with time expunge the rest, including Paul Ryan (whom Bannon has dismissed as “a limp-dick motherfucker who was born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation,” according to Joshua Green in The Devil’s Bargain). It’s a replay of the purge of the 1960s, when the reinvented GOP shaped by Goldwater, Nixon, and the “southern strategy” shoved aside the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. Given that 89 percent of Republicans voted for Trump in November and that 80 percent of today’s GOP voters reliably give Trump favorable approval ratings no matter what he has said or done since, that means only a fifth of those Americans identifying as Republicans are (possibly) “Never Trumpers.”

If Rich is right about all that, then he’s probably right about this, as well:

The remains of Establishment Republicanism are at best a Potemkin village. It’s too little, too late for “the Republican renovation project” floated in October by the former George W. Bush speechwriter and passionate “Never Trumper” Michael Gerson, who imagined that John Kasich, Flake, Ben Sasse, and the like would dream up “a compelling alternative to the Bannon appeal.” History will show that feckless Establishment Republicans repeatedly missed their chance to take back or renovate their party by being too cowardly, too cynical, or too inept to confront Trumpism as it fanned the flames of racial backlash under Palin, the tea party, and finally Trump during the Obama years…

…By illuminating a pathway to power that no one had thought possible, and demolishing the civic guardrails that we assumed protected us from autocrats, Trump has paved the way for far slicker opportunists to gain access to the national stage. Imagine a presidential candidate with Trump’s views and ambitions who does not arrive with Trump’s personal baggage, his undisciplined penchant for self-incrimination, and his unsurpassed vulgarity.

What Trump has done was always possible. What stood in the way more than anything else was the lack of someone with the basic lack of decency to give it a try. And, yes, perhaps George Wallace came too early, before Reaganism, automation, consolidation, and globalization had a chance to weaken small-town and rural America to the point where they’d stop believing anything told by anyone with a modicum of responsibility for their plight. Or, perhaps, Wallace was only lacking ostentatious wealth and a hit reality show that could make him look competent.

What matters now is that Trump won. And, by winning, he showed the way for others to succeed. Whether or not anyone else can repeat his success in an open question, but future Republican candidates will be expected to try.

All the things that Trump exploited and continues to exploit were always options on the table. They went largely untouched because people were unwilling to use them. In particular, no one was willing to attack our institutions like Trump. The media is the most important of these, if only because its been discredited in the eyes of Trump’s supporters to the point that they can’t hold him accountable. That makes it possible for Trump to get away with attacking everything else, from prisoners of war and Gold Star families and the Pope, to our intelligence agencies and the congressional leadership of his own party.

It’s absolutely true that the groundwork for this was laid over decades by the conservative movement and eventually the Republicans’ top strategists who chipped away at the media in every way they could devise. When science and expert advice didn’t align with their goals, they invented their own science and expert advice. When the media reported their lies, they created their own media.

Trump and Trumpism are monsters of their own creation who have now turned against them, and that makes what has been lost irretrievable. But it feels like more of an end game than the start of a new path. This seems like the culmination of many sins rather than something permanent that we’ll have to live with forever more.

In other words, it’s probably true that the Republican Party can’t be reanimated, but that means it could be about to die for good.

In truth, I don’t see that happening overnight, although it’s death might come more suddenly and shockingly than Trump’s rise to power. I expect there to be some kind of third party force, probably in the form of a Teddy Roosevelt or more effective Ross Perot character who splits their support and renders them something less than a full member of the two-party system. The Democrats will be the immediate beneficiaries of this, but it won’t necessarily add much to their overall level of support. It’s not unlikely that once the disruption to the system settles out a little that the Democratic Party will be next on the chopping block.

In the interim, we’d see more regionalism and more of a suburban/exurban split in political alliances. Our system isn’t really set up for more than two parties, especially in Congress where new members must choose one side or the other in order to get any committee assignments. We could begin to see strange things, like protracted negotiations involving parliamentary-style haggling in order for the House to settle on a Speaker or the Senate to settle on a Majority Leader. The conservatives could see themselves shunted to the corner as a new center right party with relatively few members finds common cause with center left Democrats to choose a congressional leadership committed to paying our bills on time.

If these things happen, they will come more from necessity than from any new ideology. Monied interests are going to conclude that the GOP can no longer serve their purposes. That’s already happening, which is why you see so many Republicans openly admitting that their donors have had it and will not continue to fund their social conservatism unless they get their corporate tax cuts. For our coastal elites, the cultural humiliation of being aligned with Trumpism is already getting too great to bear, but the GOP’s inability to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of basic governance will take things over the edge.

So far, what’s lacking by way of a solution is mainly imagination. Secondarily, people are looking for quick and easy solutions that can work in the short-term, which is why you still hear the near-mystical talk about retaking control of the Republican Party from the Trumpist hordes. Frank Rich is correct that this is not going to happen. Any solution will be outside the Republican Party, and it will be protracted and messy.

The first step is for the money to walk away from the Republican Party. Once they decide that the conservative movement has gone far past its expiration date and curdled in the box, they’ll get about building something new. Maybe they’ll build it first in California and New England and the Mid-Atlantic. But whenever they make the move, the first step will be to accept the fact that a precondition for success is to be willing to accept that splitting the right will lead to a period of progressive ascendancy.

How much these things are actually thought through, and how much they just follow inexorably from laws defined by imposed constraints is a great question. Eventually, the power structure behind the Democratic Party determined that they were at a dead end with southern segregationism. It was wrong and it was killing us in the global battle of ideas for support in the Third World. They could have continued on knowing that change would break them in the short-term. But they pressed ahead because their self-interest included enough respect for basic decency and right and wrong that they were willing to make the sacrifice.

In this case, we’re going to have to hope for a repeat. But the choice is going to be made for them. The choice is being made for them. The GOP is Trump’s now. It belongs to the fascists and demagogues. That means that our elites have to walk away and find some other vehicle to advance their interests. And they’ll do it when they realize that they’re out of alternatives.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.