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The Problem isn’t the Party; it’s the People
Can Trump’s candidacy create new political alignments? Is a New Republican Party possible?
Seán Patrick Donlan

I recently traced conservative resistance to Donald Trump. Republicans must, I argued,

find ways to defend their principles without capitulation to a vulgarian seemingly without principles of any sort. Trump deserves more than defeat by [the Democratic] party. He and his enthusiasts and enablers must be publicly, popularly shamed by all citizens who see him as a political cancer.

Obviously, such a call assumes reasonable conservative principles and conservatives of principles. Indeed, for many Republicans, the chaos of Trump’s campaign is placing considerable stress on their desire to govern – if only to deny Democrats – and their wider values. Many have convinced themselves that Trump isn’t as bad as he seems. Others believe he can be managed by a Cheney-esque running mate, experienced advisors, or a conservative Congress. But Trump’s recent attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an American judge of Mexican ancestry, have confirmed, for those somehow too careless to notice before, that he is a simpleton and a bigot, relying on the simplicity and bigotry of too many Americans.

Even among Republican leadership, obvious cracks have begun to appear. Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, a sort of poster-boy for conservative principle who seems to have only grudgingly endorsed Trump, has acknowledged his comments as ‘racist’. While Ryan continues to support Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham called on conservatives to un-endorse him for his McCarthy-ite comments. ‘There’ll come a time’, Graham said, ‘when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary’. Senator Mark Kirk has already withdrawn his support. And last weekend’s Experts and Enthusiasts Summit, hosted by Mitt Romney, the GOP standard-bearer in 2012 and nominal resistance leader, had ‘anti-Trump Republicans in exile ponder[ing] their party’s future.’ Others who are #NeverTrump, #RepublicansforHillary, or even #ExGOP may follow.

Trump’s response to the tragedy in Orlando may have weakened him further. It was vulgar even by his low standards. His first impulse was to seek credit for the profound prognostication that terrorists might attack Americans. His remarks were a jumble of paranoid word games, conspiratorial fantasy, and ill-informed jingoism; they were the latest suggestion that bipartisan foreign policy is a thing of the past. Trump even called on the President to resign. Indeed, with the insinuations that have characterized his past public comments and short political career, he suggested that the sitting American President might, in some unspecified way, side with the terrorists. As Simon Molloy noted, even this is standard fare for Republicans, including the leading lights of the anti-Trump resistance. But other some policy Republicans have objected. Indeed, ‘his reaction to the massacre showed few initial signs of winning over Republican foreign-policy figures who have spurned the New York mogul.’

As a result of Bernie Sanders’ insurgency and intransigence, there’s been considerable talk of a possible progressive realignment. But individual actors, whether poets or politicians, speak or channel the national mood more than they create it. The Senator tapped into something. Only time will tell whether it will result in political reform or revolution or if Sanders’ personal and political limitations endanger his legacy, the fledgling movement, and even the general election. And writing in the Washington Post, Christopher H Achen and Larry Bartels suggest that ‘support for Sanders hinged less on ideology and issues, and more on social identities and group attachments, than common wisdom has suggested.’ For now, it’s unclear whether the Senator’s successes reflect a meaningful move towards social democracy.

But what about realignment on the Right? Writing from a liberal position, Manny Schewitz has suggested that ‘[this] “election can hammer the final nails in the coffin of the Republican Party, but only if independents and liberals get their act together and vote blue down the ballot.’ But surely this is too neat. Killing off the Republican Party would remove a symptom, not the disease. Conservatives and conservatism – principled and unprincipled – won’t simply wither away. The Right and the poorly-informed will always be with us.

More important than winning a single campaign would be a movement within conservatism that abandoned its congested fringes for the Center. In the New York Times, Thomas L Friedman argued last week that a ‘Grand New Party’, a more moderate and rational strain of Republicanism was possible. A ‘thoughtful conservative’, he writes

has got to start the NRP — New Republican Party — a center-right party liberated from all the Trump birthers, the Sarah Palins, the Grover Norquists, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs, the gun lobby, the oil lobby and every other narrow-interest group, a party that redefines a principled conservatism…

This is a time for America to be at its best, defending its best values, which are now under assault in so many places — pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies. Trump will never be a credible messenger, or a messenger at all, for those values. A New Republican Party can be.

If you build it, they will come.

This is stirring stuff. If it were to succeed, it would be a positive development for all Americans. But even acknowledging that there are conservatives of principle, it’s difficult to see where sufficient recruits will be drawn from for the NRP to thrive.

Trump didn’t create the birthers, though he was a notable spokesperson for that nonsense. He bears no responsibility for the Palins, Norquists, Hannitys, and Limbaughs. He didn’t establish the gun and oil lobbies and other narrow-interest groups. For the record, he didn’t create climate change denial, nativism and racism, religious fundamentalism, misogyny and sexism, or supply side economics. Trump didn’t create these demons, but conjured them, setting loose the existing biases of large swathes of Rightwing opinion.

The prejudices of reactionary conservatism have long been stoked and just barely-contained by the Republican Party for its political gain. In the present context, it’s wildly optimistic to think that even half of conservatives would qualify for Friedman’s purified New Republican Party. They simply aren’t interested in ‘pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies’ in the manner he suggests. Even if the NRP were to exist, unless it proved willing to work with centrist Democrats, it could never reach a governing majority without violating its modest, moderate principles. It would necessarily turn to allies further to the Right. All of this has happened before, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Political realignments in this cycle are very unlikely to favor Republicans. The Libertarian Party might benefit briefly in the presidential contest, but they’ll remain a fringe party with little to offer moderates. For principled centrists of the sort that Friedman images, Trump’s candidacy finally lifts the mask and casts aside the coded language of Republican rhetoric. It may remove rationalizations that moderates have told themselves to deny that many conservatives really mean the outlandish things they say or imply. Instead, over the course of the presidential campaign, many may see that their beliefs and interests are better expressed, however imperfectly, by Hillary Clinton and the Center-Left.

If such a shift to the Center were to happen, it would be important, but incremental. Ultimately, the obstacle to a more rational and plural public discourse isn’t the Republican Party, but large pockets of the American people. Trump and Republicans before him have profited from long-standing public prejudices and paranoia. But they’re mere flotsam and jetsam on a sea of slack-jawed nativists, middle-class racists, pro-gun anti-gubberment types, predatory capitalists, and bellicose Bible-thumpers. No Grand New Party will appeal to them.

That said, there may be a conservative lesson here. Outside of a few great transformative moments, politicians and parties shape us much less than we imagine. Or hope. Our democracy can stand the present test; but how do we create, or inspire, a Grand New People?

A native of Louisiana and longtime resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law.

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  • Joe Cochran

    There would be many that are now Democrats that would be interested in the NRP as described in this article. I for one would be interested. I feel that there is really very little difference between the far left and the far right other than their hatred of each other. I don’t get into hatred.

    • dduck

      JC. hate your attitude, it is so sane. 🙂

    • KP

      x2

      • An NRP would never survive off election years. just sayin…

        • Slamfu

          No third party would do well for at least a half dozen election cycles I would imagine. Plus they would be utterly reviled by the party and supporters of whichever of the two major parties would be getting screwed in the meantime. It would be ugly, but in the end, probably healthy for the country.

    • JSpencer

      “I feel that there is really very little difference between the far left and the far right other than their hatred of each other.”

      That hatred exists is indisputable, but to accept the meme of “little difference” shows a willingness to shrug off the history that has led to the hatred. Without an understanding and acknowledgement of cause and effect, we will only be condemned to more of the same.

      • Joe Cochran

        The far right and far left are the same in that each absolutely think that they have all the answers and will listen to no-one else.

        • Brownies girl

          Joe, you wrote in an earlier post above: “I feel that there is really very little difference between the far left and the far right other than their hatred of each other.”

          I’m curious — what do you think are their “little difference(s)” and when and WHY did they begin hating each other so much? We are talking about these folks, they’re all Americans with the right to vote — why do they *hate* each other so much? Back in Eisenhower’s day, (and I’m old enough to remember that), and even JFK’s day, politicians in both houses worked across the aisle. They worked to find agreements. For the betterment of your country. They don’t do that anymore. Why? — when did all this hatred happen and why did it happen? I wish someone would answer this for me. I know a lot about American politics but don’t know the answer to this one. Thanks.

          • SteveK

            Hi Brownies girl… How are you? Good question, some of us ‘yanks’ are wondering that too… Lets hope Joe gets back with you on it. I still smile thinking of George H. W. and Tip O’Neill enjoying each others company at
            Reagan’s State of the Unions. http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/vice-president-george-bush-and-speaker-of-the-house-tip-oneill-engage-picture-id595040095

            And as Joe thinks “far right and far left are the same” I’d be curious if he had an example… A name or two of who he think currently make up the ‘far left.’ In my book there’s a pretty long list of those currently occupying the ‘far right’ but today’s ‘far left’ seems to be a term without a team.

          • Brownies girl

            Hi there Steve — I’m great, thanks for asking. Today’s my birthday, friends and family had a fab BBQ out back and it’s hotter than hell here. Glad I got my new “judy dench” haircut last week, (hair white as snow now almost) — but short hair helps with the humidity. Hope you’re well too! You’re in Arizona I think – not much humidity down there — I envy you!

            That pic of GHW Bush and Tip is a keeper. Heartwarming to say the least. I’m curious too, about what Joe Cochran wrote, that the far left and far right are about the same. This puzzles me. I wish somebody would put out a list with the names of pols who have been designated as far left – and one containing the names of far right — and what each of them believes in (at least for a week or so, since they ALL – both sides of the fence, change attitudes with the rapidity of chameleons.) If we had a list, it might be something to go on.

            But this vicious hatred of each other — puts me back into high school when we studied the American Civil War. It could happen again I think, sometimes. You got all the makings you had then: people of colour, anger everywhere, rich people guarding their own stuff, and worst of all, you got more powerful guns now than were ever available back in the early 1860’s. Not a good recipe.

            Be well Steve — will await Mr. Cochran’s response, if there is one.
            BG

          • BG: it seems to have started with Newt Gingrich. It continued with a vengeance during the GWB years (including such infantile antics as Republican lawmakers not requiring Big Tobacco execs to swear in and turning off the microphones and leaving committee meetings when Democrats still have witnesses to question).

            It does not take two sides to start a war–it only takes one side to decide that it does not tolerate the other. The Republican Party (in 2009) decided that obstruction would be their only purpose. They have continued that meme (for the most part) ever since.

          • Brownies girl

            RPC writes: “It does not take two sides to start a war–it only takes one side to decide that it does not tolerate the other. The Republican Party (in 2009) decided that obstruction would be their only purpose. They have continued that meme (for the most part) ever since.”

            Yup, you’re right about that. It reminds me of that fabulous PBS Frontline episode I watched a few years ago. It still stands up. Gingrich played a huge part in this, as did Cantor, Ryan and a whole host of other slime bags.
            http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/inside-obamas-presidency/

            At the same time, while I know that there’s been a growing divide in the US between the Dems and the Repubs for several decades – I somehow can’t help feeling that it’s gotten worse these past few years – 7 and a half to be exact — and that was when a black American won the Presidency, TWICE. Wish I was wrong, it’s just my gut tells me, a lot of it has to do with race. Seething anger at the *other*, be they Latinos, gays, Planned Parenthood supporters — and women. Just friggin’ makes me sad, ya know? All best to you — BG

    • Slamfu

      I feel that there is really very little difference between the far left and the far right other than their hatred of each other.

      Depends on what/who you consider far left/right I would imagine. On the left, some consider Bernie Sanders far left because he doesn’t shy away from the word socialism in connection to his agenda. Me, I think everything Sanders proposes is pretty much in line with what FDR accomplished in the 30’s and 40’s, so I don’t really think its all the far left. Code Pink and PETA on the other hand, are loons on the left, but they don’t get any real airtime. But, assuming Sanders is “far left” here’s the comparison as I see it:

      Left wants:
      1) Regulation of Wall St that has teeth – Good idea
      2) Break up the banks – Great idea, even if it is tough, but the tougher it will be to do indicates to me the level of importance in doing so
      3) Progressive taxation that leans heavily on the higher income brackets – Great idea, and one that worked for decades to help control income inequality and balance the budget
      4) Free or massively subsidized college education – Again, something that was done before and worked well
      5) Single payer or some similar healthcare syste – Great idea, and one that works well in just about every other industrialized nation to control costs and provide for the people

      The Right wants:
      1) Greatly reduced taxes and/or a “Flat Tax” – Terrible idea that only increases income inequality whenever it’s been tried. Again, we don’t have to guess, it’s been done, some nations do it now, and it sucks, every time.
      2) Deregulate just about everything – Terrible idea, did this before, called the Gilded Age, and results in massive misery for the people. There are countless examples of deregulation leading to disasters, and in fact the last 30 years every time they did a massive deregulation, some sort of catastrophe followed shortly thereafter as a direct result
      3) Voter ID – Clearly a non-solution worse than the problem it cures. While only a handful of actual voter fraud cases can be documented, hundreds of thousands of people in the last few election cycles have had their right as a citizen to vote suspended for no cause. Naked attempt to take the right to vote away from countless Americans for political purposes.
      4) Penny wise, pound foolish spending policies that slash infrastructure and education in this country, two things that are the backbone of our society, of any society these days. Cut a dollar here even if it costs us $10 tomorrow. Please see, Kansas, Wisconsin, and any number of other states run by Republicans as an example of how well this works out.
      5) A certain obliviousness to the consequences of actions like not raising the debt ceiling or funding the govt that needlessly hurt our country. This is still a mystery to me, unless I just assume systemic stupidity or political self interest over the good of the nation at the heart of the GOP. Which considering how many times it’s come up with them, seems hard not to do.

      So to me, there are considerable differences in the far right and far left that matter to the average American past their hatred of one another, assuming that we are talking about the same thing when we say the far right, and the far left. The truly far left, the ones that show little or no connection to reality, do not have any real clout in the liberal political world. The same can not be said on the Right, as they seem to have the GOP by the short hairs, and are giving Paul Ryan a few more grey ones on an almost daily basis it would seem.

      • SteveK

        Thank you Slamfu… * * * * *

        You covered most if not all the bases that concern Americas the most. And like you I don’t understand why the differences you point out so simply aren’t obvious to all.

        • SteveK

          Americas… Americans. Good grief.

          One wouldn’t think providing an edit function would be an 8 MONTH project.

      • JSpencer

        Another thanks Slam. All these people who still don’t understand the very stark differences (you’ve outlined them well) just confound me. Not sure if it’s laziness, lack of attention, or some other agenda, but there isn’t really any good excuse for it.

  • This is a time for America to be at its best, defending its best values, which are now under assault in so many places — pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies. Trump will never be a credible messenger, or a messenger at all, for those values. A New Republican Party can be.
    If you build it, they will come.

    Um…I missed something. When did the DNC oppose these things? Reason I ask: Friedman suggests that these should be the objectives of his NRP. Why not just switch to Democrat?

    • Kenneth Almquist

      Friedman has a second paragraph devoted to what this NRP would stand for. It begins: “America needs a healthy two-party system. America needs a healthy center-right party to ensure that the Democrats remain a healthy center-left party.” It goes on to suggest that the NRP would offer:

      1) “market-based solutions to issues like climate change”

      Like the Democrats.

      2) “common-sense gun laws”

      Like the Democrats, depending on how you define “common-sense.”

      3) “common-sense fiscal policy”

      I don’t know what “common-sense” means in this context, but it could be what the Democrats are doing.

      4) “support both free trade and aid to workers impacted by it”

      Like the Democrats, except that aid to workers has been pretty limited.

      5) “appreciates how much more complicated foreign policy is today, when you have to manage weak and collapsing nations, not just muscle strong ones.”

      No policy difference with Democrats here because this doesn’t articulate a policy.

      In short, it looks like Friedman wants to replace the Republican Party with a clone of the Democratic Party. At least he doesn’t articulate any way in which the NRP would differ from the Democratic Party policy-wise.

      • JSpencer

        Well said Kenneth. Apparently some folks want to establish a party that already exists, they only want to rebrand it.

  • Kenneth Almquist

    “Ultimately, the obstacle to a more rational and plural public discourse isn’t the Republican Party, but large pockets of the American people.”

    It’s the conservative movement. What holds these “large pockets of the American people” together and keeps them in an ideological bubble are things like Fox News, conservative talk radio, right wing think tanks, and the like. Conservatives have taken over the Republican Party, but the conservative movement is broader than the Party.

  • reflectionephemeral

    No, there’s no particular appetite among Republican voters for compromise, or for sensible rhetoric or substance. But there never has been. It’s the choices of Republican elites that have gotten us to this point.

    A plurality of GOP voters has always favored increasing the minimum wage, and they’ve been closely divided on higher taxes on the wealthiest. But it never much mattered– those policies were never possible, because they weren’t what the GOP’s politicians and most engaged constituencies wanted.

    The GOP decided to pursue a massive resistance strategy, in substance and rhetoric, vs. the president, on or before the day he was sworn in.

    That meant portraying the ACA– particularly the individual mandate, which had been favored by leading party members like Sen. Grassley for decades, right up until June 2009– as not merely wrongheaded or misapplied, but as unconstitutional tyranny.

    Well, once you unleash that, it’s tough to put it back in a bottle. Folks like Angle, Akin, Mourdock, and O’Donnell, began winning primaries. They played to longstanding weaknesses of the Republican mind, sure; but the party elites had forfeited the rhetorical and ability, and institutional willingness, to push them off.

    Mourdock ran ads criticizing Lugar for having cooperated with Obama… on reducing loose nuclear material! But substance didn’t matter, prudence & stability & established institutions didn’t matter. It was all emotion and tribalism. That was the decision that GOP elites had made– remember John Boehner tearfully barking “HELL NO!” on the House floor over the ACA?

    So you can say “the peasants are revolting” if you want, but the fact is that Republican elites chose to embrace, articulate, and embody the worst of their base’s predilections. Things don’t always come to their logical conclusion, of course; but Trump is the logical conclusion of Palin, Cruz, and McConnell.

    • Bob Munck

      So you can say “the peasants are revolting” if you want, but the fact is that Republican elites chose to embrace, articulate, and embody the worst of their base’s predilections.

      You said it; they stink on ice.

    • JSpencer

      Bingo. Many republicans want to believe Trump is an anomaly in their party, but people who have been watching the devolution of the GOP for any length of time know better.

  • dduck
  • KP

    I have a hard time resisting saying things that aggravate Canadians and Euros that are always negative on the USA. It is so easy to play them like a gee-tar.

    Hee-Haw 🙂

    • Brownies girl

      Try harder.

      • KP

        Back at you.

      • KP

        John Diefenbaker

        Joe Clark

        Brian Mulroney

        Stephen Harper

        The pendulum swings …

        • Brownies girl

          Yep — and ??????? What’s your point? I have no idea, honestly.