The Role of Center-Right Conservatives in Saving Democracy

For years now, conservative voters have been subjected to increasingly apocalyptic predictions about what will happen if Democrats prevail in elections. For example, at a campaign kickoff rally in Orlando, Trump told those in attendance that “our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.”

From the court evangelicals, the message has been sent that those who oppose Trump are engaged with “demonic powers,” and that if the Democratic nominee wins in November, it will mean the end of “religious liberty” in this country. Right-wing media personalities like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham warn that Democrats favor “open borders,” going on to suggest that immigrants will soon overturn our American way of life. The attorney general got in on the action during his speech to the Federalist Society when he warned that progressives are waging a “holy war.”

In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion.  Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection.  Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursing a deific end.  They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications.  They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.

Those are the trumped-up fears that are animating the Republican base these days. Yoni Appelbaum is right to suggest that they will persist, even if Trump loses in November.

The president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

Appelbaum is also right when he says that extremism on the left only exacerbates the problem, creating a vicious cycle.

The more [Trump] radicalizes his opponents against his agenda, the more he gives his own supporters to fear. The excesses of the left bind his supporters more tightly to him, even as the excesses of the right make it harder for the Republican Party to command majority support, validating the fear that the party is passing into eclipse, in a vicious cycle.

In an otherwise excellent analysis of the current state of the Republican Party, this might be the most important part of Appelbaum’s analysis (emphasis mine).

In his recent study of the emergence of democracy in Western Europe, the political scientist Daniel Ziblatt zeroes in on a decisive factor distinguishing the states that achieved democratic stability from those that fell prey to authoritarian impulses: The key variable was not the strength or character of the political left, or of the forces pushing for greater democratization, so much as the viability of the center-right. A strong center-right party could wall off more extreme right-wing movements, shutting out the radicals who attacked the political system itself…

Where the center-right flourishes, it can defend the interests of its adherents, starving more radical movements of support.

As the Republican Party becomes an increasing threat to democracy, the research of Ziblatt points to a strong center-right as the bulwark against that threat. It is, therefore, no coincidence that a center-right publication called “The Bulwark” has arisen during the Trump administration.

It is, however, worth noting what some of the most public voices on the center-right are saying right now. Jennifer Rubin wrote this about “the 2020 choice for ex-Republicans.”

So what is a pro-human-rights, pro-legal-immigration, pro-rule-of-law, pro-free-trade former Republican—who understands that conservatism means to conserve what is good and reject what is unnecessary, appreciates the law of unintended consequences and believes compromise and gradualism are worthy of celebration—to do in the 2020 elections? The first and only goal must be to support a moderate Democratic nominee with the best chance to beat Trump. A second Trump term would be disastrous…

The same approach applies to Senate seats…A Republican Senate under the auspices of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a lawless, amoral and destructive body. It has made clear that fairness, truth and the Constitution are subordinate to the exercise of raw power and the population of the judiciary with unqualified and partisan judges.

While not commenting on his plans in 2020, Max Boot makes his intentions perfectly clear when it comes to the Republican Party.

I was recently asked if I would ever rejoin the Republican Party after having registered as an independent the day after President Trump’s election in 2016. The answer is an emphatic no. Trump will leave office some day (I hope!), but he will leave behind a quasi-authoritarian party that is as corrupt as he is…

I want nothing to do with a party led by the deluded and the dishonest. I fervently hope our democracy survives this debacle. I fervently hope the Republican Party does not.

Perhaps the least specific, but most poignant comment came from Bill Kristol, who tweeted:

Not presumably forever; not perhaps for a day after Nov. 3, 2020; not on every issue or in every way until then. But for the time being one has to say: We are all Democrats now.

When it comes to beating Trump in November, Amanda Carpenter is right to suggest that these anti-Trump conservatives might not be a silent majority, but they could be silent majority-makers.

Remember, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a total of just under 80,000 votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump got a shade under 63 million votes in 2016, which means that if he loses one tenth of one percent of those people, his margin is gone. Yes, yes. Spare me the pedantry about how, depending on the distribution, he could stand to lose as much as half of one percent of his 2016 voters and—if the stars align and Jupiter is in it’s seventh house and Ivanka eats Sweetgreen on Election Day—could still, maybe, get to 270 in the Electoral College. If that’s your plan for winning reelection as an incumbent president when the economy is humming and unemployment is under 4 percent . . . well. Schedule lots of time for self-care November 4, 2020.

Which explains why the president is constantly hate tweeting about the human scum NeverTrumpers, who he describes as being simultaneously both woefully ineffective and dangerously powerful. Their presence is a constant reminder of the intra-party turmoil.

Democrats who chafe at making common cause with conservatives should remember that, even with the obvious disagreements, there is one thing we all share in common. Here is how Adam Gopnick articulated it back in 2017.

What’s needed against Trump now is…not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.

As Appelbaum pointed out, however, defeating Trump is a necessary, but insufficient step in solving the problem. At some point, these center-right conservatives must articulate a policy agenda that is distinct from the ethnonationalism that currently fuels the Republican Party. To do so they will have to acknowledge the problem and come to grips with their own role in creating and exploiting it in the first place, which could be the most difficult step. Once articulated, they would have to find a way to garner support for that agenda that doesn’t simply exploit white grievance.

That’s a tall order and, at this point, I think the odds are stacked against them. But I, for one, would welcome the possibility of settling differences by debate and argument in an atmosphere where the truth actually matters, because that is pretty much the definition of democracy.

This is a companion piece to “How the Republican Party Became a Threat to Democracy.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.