How Many Enemies Can Trump Make and Survive?

The list of powerful figures Trump has alienated, injured, and offended is growing.  Paradoxically, many of them are members of his own, rather than the opposing, party.  How many such enemies can Trump make and survive?

For more than a year, the GOP establishment has presented a “business-as-usual” facade.  Having tolerated the rise of candidate Trump, who vowed to wage war against the Washington establishment, leading Republicans have mainly tried to make lemonade out of lemons, sucking up to President Trump once he was installed.  House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prostituted themselves, claiming that the president and the GOP-controlled Congress shared the same values and political agenda.  Papering over their differences with Trump for the sake of personal and political gain, they collaborated instead of organizing a principled opposition to him on Capitol Hill.

Individually, some Republicans have spoken out against Trump: Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, and Lindsay Graham come to mind.  Their criticisms, though brave, fall short of organized opposition.  As for Trumps’ former rivals for the presidential nomination—remember the legion of GOP candidates that included congressman Rand Paul and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz?—: despite Trump’s shameful treatment of them, these “leaders” have blended into the woodwork of the Capitol, as if to avoid further personal injury.  Republicans on the Hill who have followed the path of least resistance to Trump will go down in history as spineless, feckless cowards.

Belatedly, Republicans are beginning to reckon the costs of this unbecoming position.  Speaker Paul Ryan’s abrupt decision to leave Congress with no plan other than to spend time with his three teenage children in Janesville, Wisconsin, smacks of the political wilderness.  He joins some 36 House Republicans and 3 Senate Republicans fleeing the Hill.  The Republicans have not seen this level of quitting, according to Frontline, since World War II.

The question is, what will become of the free-floating political capital that these phalanxes of displaced and disaffected Republicans embody?  How long will it be before Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, and their ilk find a new party model, or a new means of influencing a politics grown ever more chaotic and uncertain?   How long will it be before moderates of all stripes realize that it is very much in their interests to unite?  The GOP is becoming a Trump casualty.  Will its survivors stand against their destroyer now?

The GOP’s marriage of convenience turns sour

Back in the spring of 2012, I wrote a post, Is the Republican Party Dying?, in which I surmised that the GOP, despite its already apparent fissures, was unlikely to collapse any time soon, because of the broad popularity it continued to enjoy at the state level in many parts of the country.  Now, in the wake of last week’s House vote on a bill to reopen the government, we have fresh evidence with which to assess the current condition of the party.

The GOP’s troubles appear to be growing, for, with the House vote that ended the government shutdown, the relative strength of the GOP’s intransigent right wing is clear to see.

Here is the vote count and its geographic distribution as depicted in a New York Times interactive graphic on October 17.  The yes vote (totaling 235 votes) was composed of 198 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  The no vote (totaling 144 votes) was composed entirely of Republicans unwilling to compromise, or to adhere to the advice of the moderate leadership of the party, as embodied in the House Speaker, John Boehner.

The size of the “no vote” is significant and startling, establishing that the more radical “Tea Party” element in the GOP, far from being a minority tendency as often depicted, comprises a MAJORITY of all House Republicans.  Far from being a “tail” that is “wagging the dog,” the Tea Partiers have morphed into the dog itself.  The only wonder is that they have not yet used their power to depose John Boehner–a miracle that has probably astonished the Speaker himself.

Regarding the “upcountry” character of these more radical Republican characters, the NYT map illuminates how difficult it will be to dislodge them, and why this faction so consistently overestimates its prospects for influencing the mass of the American population.  In many states where the suicide caucus lives, it enjoys a virtual monopoly.  In 12 states—including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and Arizona—all the Republican representatives are of the intransigent kind.

These blinkered souls believe, despite the mounting evidence of public opinion polls, that their views command the assent of the American mainstream, and they are confidently planning to extend their geographical sweep into more moderate Republican territory.  In the meantime, moderates, alarmed at the immoderation of their right wing, have begun planning to challenge them in the primaries.  The battle for control of the GOP will be hard-fought.

But for now, the rest of us have seen how dangerous and desperate political actors can be when trying to hold together a party that’s imploding.  Should we condemn John Boehner for accommodating the radicals, or be relieved that no more radical obstructionist is replacing him?  The GOP truly is a grand old party, and should its literally elephantine organization collapse, the attendant damage would be catastrophic, not just for the party, but, as we have seen, for the nation too.

Looking back on this period, historians will puzzle over the decision of the GOP to welcome this radical fringe into their party.  Even now, the traditional Republicans could recover their dominance by unceremoniously cutting the Tea Party loose.  Without the GOP’s support and legitimation, the radicals’ spell would be broken, and their national influence would evaporate overnight.

Moderate Republicans who believe that such destructive zealots are necessary to their party have forgotten about the massive bloc of disaffected voters in the center of the political spectrum, waiting for forward-looking parties and personalities to appeal to them.

Is the Republican Party Dying?

The question is in the air, so why not ask it?

I think the answer is no.  But the question is out there because the Republican party is badly divided, in a way that many of us have never seen.  As a historian, I think that maybe this is what a party looks like when it’s beginning to go.  Like long ago when the once all-powerful Federalists petered out and ceased to matter nationally (circa 1820); or when the high-minded Whig Party gave up the ghost, startlingly soon after getting Zachary Taylor into the White House (circa 1850).  Or when the Democratic Party split in two on the eve of the Civil War, its members suddenly riven over slavery.

Parties do die, of course; but no major party has died in a very long time.  Our 20th-century parties are much hardier and more redoubtable institutions than were their counterparts 150 years ago.  That, in itself, is an argument against the Republican Party disappearing.

The GOP has a big problem, though.  Its conservative wing is weakening the party, in the sense of compromising its appeal to moderates.  This is something I’ve written about several times.  Over the past five years, the GOP establishment made a couple of costly mistakes, as when John McCain chose his “game-changing” running-mate, or when the Republican leadership decided to embrace the uncompromising Tea Partiers rather than cut them loose.  Had the Tea Party been treated as a distinct third party, the limits of its appeal would have become evident, and by now it would have been dead.  Instead, in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed that there was no difference between themselves and the Tea Party, with the consequence that the Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

It’s a problem the party itself could solve, and perhaps it will.  It could enforce some kind of ideological discipline through the instrument of the party platform or disavow some of its members who, in their fervor, have assailed some of the country’s most sacred national principles, such as the separation of church and state or the independence of the judiciary.  These are not creations of a particular party; they are features of our Constitution that the Founding Fathers labored to establish and that we have a duty to take seriously, and even revere.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that spatial and social segregation is a factor perpetuating the moderate-conservative divide.  Remember those maps Richard Florida did a few years ago, showing that people of higher education and means were becoming geographically concentrated in particular areas of the US, along the coasts, and near cities?  This type of migration, along with increased social stratification, has produced a country where people of different types no longer live together or interact as they did formerly.  The social relationships so fostered were politically moderating.  Instead, we see the demographic divide being replicated in the results of recent Republican primaries, resulting in a protracted struggle between Mitt Romney and his conservative-backed rivals.

Going forward, this balkanization will assure the conservatives of continued strength in Congressional races, governorships, and state legislatures.  Whether this mix of conditions will serve the Republican Party as a whole well in the years ahead remains to be seen.

RELATED AND NEWER:
Susan Barsy, The Incredible Shrinking GOP, Our Polity, November 2012.
Ryan Lizza, “Can The GOP Save Itself?“, The New Yorker, March 2012.

2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II)

This is the conclusion of a two-part article.  For Part One, click here.

Looking back on it, what’s striking about the 2008 election is the shallowness of Obama’s victory.  It was a great victory for a man and a race, but not a great victory–a transforming event–for the Democratic Party or the party system more generally.  This lackluster outcome surprised me, because, going into it, I had expected that a lot more would happen.  The departure of George W. Bush from the presidency without any obvious successor had thrown the door wide open to real newness.  I had firmly expected to see, not just new candidates, but real ideological innovation on one or both sides.

Bush’s departure not only created an opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to rise; it also invited the introduction of new political paradigms that would reinvigorate or replace the tired ideas on which both parties have been coasting.  The country hasn’t had a critical election since Reagan’s in 1980.  Yet, since then, our circumstances have greatly changed.  Issues that have since become important include the rise of China, disturbing changes in finance and American industrialism, growing commodity scarcity, green issues, immigration, the diminishing power of nation states in the face of globalism, and changes in the quality and character of life for American citizens.

For Republicans, the challenge is to refashion the worn-out elements of Reaganism on which the party still relies.  As the election cycle of 2008 made plain, the Republicans face two central difficulties.  The first is that of continuing to integrate the various blocs of voters that have sustained Republican party power since Reagan’s ascendancy.  The religious and socially conservative bloc of the party tends to pull the party in a different direction than the purely economic one, and that direction is not in accordance with the American mainstream.  Now that the party has become so thoroughly associated with conservatism, its second difficulty is articulating an ideology palatable to an America that is increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan.

The triumph of McCain over competitors like the evangelist Mike Huckabee demonstrated that the power of the Republicans continues to rest principally with the more moderate elements of the party.  But the phenomenal popularity of his running mate, the provincial and anti-modern Alaskan Sarah Palin, and her polarizing effect on the electorate point up how problematic the more extreme yet energized elements within the Republican Party can be.  How can it move itself away from reliance on this base in order to maximize its appeal to the mainstream?  No one emerged in 2008 who was capable of weaving together the right combination of themes.

As for the Democrats, let’s face it: the old ideas that have galvanized the Democratic Party are frightfully tired; they’re used up, exhausted, and have been for decades.  The Democratic Party has not had a redefining era since the late 1930s, and by now we’ve gotten all the mileage we can out of New Deal Democracy and Keynesianism.  Forgive me, Paul Krugman.

Bill Clinton realized this back in the eighties when he began moving the Democratic Party toward the center.  His campaign and presidency marked a departure from the kind of ideological high-mindedness that the ineffectual Jimmy Carter had embodied.  Clinton, though not chiefly an ideologue,  recognized that the traditional New Deal beliefs of the Democratic party boxed him in.  So he practiced a kind of pragmatism that enabled him to capture the votes of more people in the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder old-style liberals hated him: in many ways, he was indifferent to their core beliefs.

Tone-deaf as an ideologue, Clinton was an outstandingly effective problem-solver.  His great political skills and grasp of presidential power enabled him to accomplish a great deal even in a fractious political environment.  Because Clinton was pragmatic, he was comfortable following through on and appropriating several landmark initiatives–including NAFTA and welfare reform–that his Republican predecessors had initiated.  He likewise eagerly backed legislation to liberalize the banking industry, making it easier for more Americans to qualify for mortgages and buy homes.  These measures helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis, but at the time they were popular and contributed to the great economic boom associated with Clinton’s presidency.

Clinton supplied his party with a winning style of leadership that continues to influence Democrats today.  Within the party, a general stance of moderation, coupled with a benign, can-do mentality, is more important than any principle or ideal.  This was evident in 2008, in the narrow contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential nomination.  Both were highly educated, attractive, moderate candidates who are good problem-solvers.

In the end, the contest hinged on tactics and personality, not ideas.  Shrewd tactics on the part of the Obama camp enabled him to win a few crucial primaries, and he beat the Clintons at their own game by winning former Clinton supporters, notably Caroline Kennedy, to his side.  In the debates, Obama excelled at hewing closely to Hillary’s positions while qualifying them.  His style in the debates was responsive and has remained so ever afterward.  In the end, Obama’s nimble campaigning captivated voters, swaying them with vague slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Change You Can Believe In.”  Sadly, this contest never amounted to a struggle for the soul of the party.

Isn’t it strange to look at a political scene full of people constantly opinionating and editorializing, that reels with up-to-the minute coverage, “political action,” and political advertising, where voters are constantly being appealed to dramatically–only to realize that nothing’s happening?  Particularly in the Democratic Party, ideological work that needs to be done simply isn’t getting done for some reason.  In the meantime, popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy express the discontent and frustration that many citizens feel.