What Republicans Must Do to Reform Their Party

They will have to finally drop the racist playbook.

The presidential race’s national polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics has Biden leading Trump by 8.6 points. The former vice president’s lead has grown by almost four points since mid-March. Similarly, FiveThirtyEight’s average on the congressional ballot gives Democrats an 8.2 edge over Republicans.

But perhaps even more importantly, the fact that Trump has demoted his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, indicates that the president knows he is in trouble heading into November’s election. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Mitch McConnell has been signaling for a while now that he knows his Senate majority is seriously threatened.

All of that means that, unless something drastically changes between now and election day, we’re going to be hearing a lot of pontificating about what happens to the Republican Party once Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office. William Kristol weighed in on that recently with more questions than answers.

In these cases, often the best one can do is to stop planning for a triple-bankshot inside-straight at some point in the unspecified future, and instead simply to fight for an outcome that is right and just in the short term. While at the same time keeping an open mind for the medium and long term.

I have to admit though, that I’m somewhat puzzled by the language he used to begin his piece.

Is the Republican Party a lost cause?

Let me be definitive and unequivocal: I don’t know.

While I don’t agree with Kristol on most of his policy agenda, the fact is that he is a pretty intelligent man. He has to know what it means to use a term like “lost cause” when contemplating the future of the Republican Party—especially during a time when the country is wrestling with what to do with all of the monuments that attempt to honor the leaders of the Confederacy.

A principal goal of the Lost Cause was to reintegrate Confederate soldiers into the honorable traditions of the very American military they had once fought against. Members of the Lost Cause movement had lobbied to have newly built military bases named after Confederate generals several times without success. But during Woodrow Wilson’s second term as president, they found a more hospitable reception. Thanks to Wilson, the Lost Cause ideology came fully into the mainstream, reaching the apex of its influence as America entered the First World War.

But whether he meant to or not, Kristol alludes to the so-called “elephant in the room” of the modern GOP: racism. That is the point of an article by Francis Wilkerson titled “Trump’s Party Cannot Survive in a Multiracial Democracy.” He documents all of the times over the last three decades that Republicans were offered an “exit ramp” to move away from their racist underpinnings, but refused to do so.

In propping up Trump’s corrupt and derelict administration, the GOP has grown increasingly authoritarian. Having repeatedly failed to take an exit ramp from white nationalism, the party finds an exit from democracy itself beckons as the only sure means to stave off further electoral decline. The next four months may be a very dangerous patch of road.

In reviewing Steve Benen’s book, The Imposters, for the latest edition of the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore makes a similar point.

Over the last several decades, the Republican Party has been conquered by the Christian right and the overwhelmingly white Tea Party movement. The former has a theocratic vision for America. The latter militantly opposes economic redistribution. These movements converged with a realization that demographic trends were unfriendly to their party’s older base, generating a white identity politics that found its natural expression in the intensely divisive and intermittently racist stylings of Trump.

I would take it a step further and suggest that the Christian right has a long history of being on the wrong side of this country’s struggles with racism and that the Tea Party’s opposition to economic redistribution was cover for their outrage at the election of our first African American president.

As an example of a group attempting to define the GOP post-Trump, the Pepperdine School of Public Policy launched something called “The American Project.” They developed a white paper laying out their analysis of a way forward for conservatives. We’ll have to leave a critique of their proposals for another time, but in outlining their view of how we got here, they zero in on blaming radical individualism and alienation as the root of our problems. The authors go on to suggest how progressives responded.

Some American progressives also observed it, and responded by defining “community” through the creation of identity politics, elevating ethnic, racial and sexual qualities to the point where the self is seen as fully determined by these characteristics. Though promising a communitarian fix, it created a paradoxically exclusionary politics, limiting membership to those possessing very particular identities, and confining individuals into immoveable categories of those with and without “privilege.”

Nowhere do they mention that what they call “identity politics” actually arose from Republican initiatives like Nixon’s Southern Strategy, or Reagan’s dog whistle of launching his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, or George H.W. Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ad, or George W. Bush’s efforts to turn the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice into a unit to investigate so-called “voter fraud” (read: voter suppression). Those are just a few examples of how Republicans go to the well of racism again and again to maintain their power. As that happens, progressives, of course, organize to stop them. For doing so, they are maligned for engaging in identity politics.

No one really knows what will happen to the Republican Party once Trump is gone. But I can tell you one thing for sure: in a changing America, their only hope of being a party that is taken seriously when it comes to actual governing will be if they can reckon with their racist past and begin the process of eradicating racism from their playbook.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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