The Party's over
Earlier today I blogged on an article by Mona Charon in the National Review which basically expressed the same deep and serious doubts I've had for some time about Donald Trump's personal and psychological fitness for the presidency. I've been told that I was overreacting to The Donald's character flaws. But it seems that a political columnist I respect sees them pretty much the way I do.
And now, Jonah Goldberg has written a second NR article which makes a point I've made before, and also told was an overreaction: what we're watching is nothing more or less than the unraveling of the Republican party. What was started at Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 will effectively end in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016.
The Donald Trump phenomenon has done more than make it inevitable that a critical election which the Republicans by rights should have won will be lost instead, and be lost badly. It has revealed that the GOP has become a coalition of groups which simply have so little in common- in fact, which oppose and contradict each other's philosophies and basic beliefs so completely- that they are working at cross-purposes. Libertarians just don't have all that much in common with traditional conservatives, or traditional conservatives with Trumpian populists, for the Party to remain a viable coalition.
It's time to recognize that what the supporters of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have seen as a failure of leadership or character or something on the part of those who have been running the party is something deeper: a basic incompatibility of philosophy. The GOP is in fact, at least, four parties-the Orthodox Conservatives, the Pragmatic Conservatives, the Libertarians, and the Populists- and maybe more. For years the Pragmatic Conservatives- the sub-party sneered at so this year much as "the Establishment-" has been dominant, not least because although it is probably the smallest of the three groups, it's the only one attractive enough to those outside the smaller of our two major parties to have any real chance under normal circumstances of winning a national election. But now, the Orthodox Conservatives (also known as the Tea Party) have rebelled, lining up behind Ted Cruz, the Populists have at last found a voice with Donald Trump, the Libertarians tried (and failed) to coalesce the more pragmatic son of their hero, Ron Paul, and the Pragmatic Conservatives split between Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and- surprisingly- Marco Rubio.
And now, the Party faces a reckoning. If it nominates Trump, the Centrists will stay home on Election Day or even vote for Hillary Clinton. If it nominates Cruz- or anyone else, should both Trump and Cruz fail to win the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination before the convention begins- the Trump supporters (somehow dressing up the notion that they, as the largest minority in the party, have the right to prevail over the majority in the righteously democratic garb of "the will of the people") will stay home, or become violent, or both. As things stand, the second possibility seems marginally more likely. Either way, the Republican party's symbol is going to cease to be the elephant and become Humpty Dumpty.
I and many others have been kidding ourselves, that if Cruz is nominated and leads the party to the inevitable defeat that would follow the party could be put back together,much as it was after the Goldwater debacle in 1964. It probably can't be. Yes,the argument the Democrats are having right now is between the more and less extreme wings of a party much further to the Left than any major party in American history has ever been. But the difference between the followers of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is ultimately one of degree, not of kind. The conflict between the sub-groupings of the GOP at this point is a flat out case of ideological incompatibility. Goldberg is right: the Republican party as we know it simply isn't going to survive Cleveland. There is no good outcome there. It will fracture not simply because of the divisive figure of Donald Trump- he is only the occasion of the crisis, not the cause- but because it is a coalition of groups which are philosophically in conflict with one another and which can no longer find common ground.
Feelings run so strong among Trump supporters and opponents that reconciliation just isn't going to happen. A large number of Pragmatists are already coalescing with the Orthodox behind Ted Cruz; others are sticking with John Kasich or hoping for some messianic figure to manifest out of a brokered convention in Cleveland. As things stand, the Pragmatists seem to have abandoned the idea of running an independent ticket in the Fall if Trump is nominated, and the time for getting such a ticket on the ballot in any appreciable percentage of the States is getting short in any case. Although many Trump supporters don't seem to realize it, if someone other than Trump is nominated it's going to be too late for him to run as an independent, except perhaps as a write-in candidate.
But Goldberg is right: there is no good outcome here. I continue to believe that nominating Trump would, at least in the short term, do more damage to the Republicans than having his supporters bolt the party. On the other hand, denying Trump the nomination would permanently alienate his followers. I'm not sure that's an entirely bad idea; I am sufficiently creeped out by the coalition of racists, conspiracy theorists, nativists and just plain unthinking follower-types who make up the Trump faction that I'm not exactly comfortable being in the same party with them in any case. But on the other hand, if Trump is nominated, it is barely possible, I suppose, that they would be sufficiently chastened by the cataclysmic defeat he would suffer at the hands of even a wounded Hillary Clinton that the movement they represent would evaporate. I doubt it, but I suppose it could happen.
Realistically, he party is going to split. It may happen at Cleveland, or it may not happen until 2020, but I see no way that it can be avoided. Despite the looseness and freedom with which some in the Orthodox Conservative camp toss about the term "RINO" ("Republican in Name Only") to describe anybody who thinks for himself or herself about anything, and with whom they agree on 90% of the issues, it might remain possible for the Orthodox, Pragmatists, and even the Libertarians to re-establish the coalition which has defined the Party until now. But even though I personally see the Trumpite faction as a cancer better eradicated from the Party, in any event, I have a strong feeling that the divisions exposed this year are too serious to be more than temporarily papered over.
Whether somebody runs an independent campaign this year or not, I have a hunch that 2016 is the end of the road for the party of Lincon and Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and for the two-party system. The coalition which has opposed the ideologically unified Democrats will, I'm afraid, break at least in two. The result will be that the Democrats- exhausted of ideas and ideologically bankrupt as they are- governing the nation for a generation. Cynicism among average Americans will increase as governmental dysfunction multiplies. And nothing will ever be the same again.
Jonah Goldberg, I fear, is right: however the drama at Cleveland ends, it will end in tears.
Photo by Bernard Dupont