The Problem isn’t the Party; it’s the People (Guest Voice)
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 Senator Mark Kirk has already withdrawn his support.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.