Donald Trump and the death of the Republican party

I don't agree with everything in this FiveThirtyEight article by Claire Malone, Harry Enten, and David Wield. For one thing, the GOP's principled stand in support of the Western ethical  tradition in the face of the tsunami of moral nihilism from the cultural barbarians is one of the most attractive things about it to me, and not, as the article implies, some sort of failing. But in general- sadly- it's a pretty good analysis of the death throes of a great American political party- the party of my forebears and, until Cleveland, my own.

Yet even in my one point of dissent, I have to acknowledge the truth in what the article says. If, as I believe, we are living in a society that is coming apart at the seams, the side of reason and common sense and sanity is surely the side I want to be on. But after all, the whole problem is that the tide is moving in the opposite direction- toward radical, unaccountable individuality, moral license, and the breakdown of pretty much everything by which our ancestors defined themselves as civilized people. The side of the angels may be the side to be on if such things matter to you. But they matter to relatively few people these days. The winds are blowing from hotter climes. This is the hour of moral and social chaos in the Western world.

To be blunt, this is a time when those of us who want to stand on the side of what is right and decent are in the minority. We are backing the wrong horse if winning politically and culturally is the objective. On what are generally called "social issues," like abortion and sexuality, standards are not crumbling; they've pretty much already crumbled. And on that different set of social issues- the one in which arguably things may actually getting better- we are faced with a tidal wave from the opposite direction, and from within our own party.

Donald Trump has ridden that wave to the Republican presidential nomination this year. It is the wave of intolerance, of fear, of narrow-mindedness, of hate- and yes, frankly, of ignorance. And it is the wave of the future in the Republican party,  just as moral relativism and ethical chaos own the Democratic future.

Ben Howe, who is quoted in the FiveThirtyEight article, follows me on Twitter and I follow him. We've had some exchanges on this matter. Howe is one of the few conservatives I know who actually wants Hillary Clinton to win. While I don't agree with him, I do see his logic.

It goes like this: The Republican party will never win another national election as long as the Klan, the Nazis, the nativists, the Know-Nothings, and the Alt-Right core of the Trump movement remain influential in it. While I have tended (probably naively) to see this election as a kind of analogy to 1964, Howe thinks otherwise.

In 1964,  chaos in the ranks of Establishment Republicans resulted in a failure to mount a united challenge to Barry Goldwater. Nelson Rockefeller, who had been looked upon ever since the previous election as Goldwater's chief rival for the Republican nomination, decided not to run. A write-in campaign for the 1960 Republican vice-presidential nominee and U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, actually won the New Hampshire primary. But Lodge, too, decided to play Hamlet. As a result, nobody stepped forward to bear the standard of centrist Republicanism until Pennsylvania Gov. William W. Scranton did just before the convention- when it was too late.

Now, it in one sense it's absurd to even compare Barry Goldwater with Donald Trump. Goldwater was an intelligent, thoughtful, decent man who not only was a consistent conservative but virtually defined the concept; Trump is none of those things. But he did share Trump's penchant for off-the-cuff remarks that would come back to haunt him (so did Ronald Reagan, though in his case by the time he was nominated to run against the walking disaster named Jimmy Carter, nobody cared anymore). At a time when the main "knock" against him was that he was too extreme, Goldwater blundered by embracing that label rather than seeking to disprove it. "Let me remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he said in his acceptance speech in San Francisco, "and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

It's not so much that the election was over once he spoke those words; no Republican was going to defeat John F. Kennedy's Democratic successor less than a year after his assassination. But Goldwater's refusal to trim his sails and appeal to the Center, where the votes were, meant that the defeat would be of catastrophic proportions. Lyndon Johnson carried 44 states, and the Democrats turned their majority in both houses of Congress into strangleholds.

My father, Robert McKinley Waters, found Goldwater too much to handle. For the only time in his life, he voted Democratic. Large numbers of other Republicans did the same. And in the aftermath of the disaster, the obvious question arose: how to pick up the pieces so as to win next time?

There was no question of the Goldwater movement retaining control of the party after such a disaster. Yet that did not mean that it was purged or necessarily even repudiated. More centrist Republicans stepped into positions of party leadership but were smart enough to remember that political parties are by their very nature coalitions. They worked to forge a common front for Scranton and Goldwater Republicans that could win in 1968. And when that year came, the Republicans nominated a candidate acceptable to both wings, Richard Nixon. And win they did.

I have never doubted that Donald Trump would lose this year. Throughout the primaries, the polls showed that he was the only candidate among the sixteen Republicans running for the nomination who could not beat Hillary Clinton. Fanatics have a tendency to see reality as a conspiracy against them, of course, and the core of Donald Trump's supporters have always scoffed at the polls. Now, let it be clearly understood that Donald Trump did not sweep to the Republican nomination on his own. He won the nomination only because the opposition was so badly divided. Until very late in the primaries, Trump was having trouble breaking the 33% threshold. As was the case with Scranton in 1964, so it was with Ted Cruz in 2016: by the time the opposition united behind a single alternative, it was too late.

I've always assumed that Trump would lose decisively- perhaps by as big a margin as Goldwater- and the Trump people ousted from positions of power in much the same way the Goldwater people were in 1964. Goldwater, too, had attracted support from racist and otherwise despicable quarters. They were in no way legitimized by the work of RNC Chairman Ray Bliss to integrate decent Goldwater and anti-Goldwater Republicans, and responsible Goldwater supporters were not blacklisted. But the lunatic fringe was excluded.

I' always expected much the same thing to happen in 2017. I'd imagined that chastened, respectable Trump supporters would be welcomed into the rebuilt version of the party, and integrated into a coalition careful to establish common ground between the warring Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Bush factions in preparation to unite behind a candidate acceptable to all of them in what would surely be a successful challenge to Hillary Clinton's re-election in 2020.

But as FiveThirtyEight points out, that's unlikely. The divisions run too deep. The infection of bigotry and ignorance that was superficial enough to be excised from the Goldwater movement of 1964 forms the core of the Trump movement of 2016,  and while individual Trump supporters might well find a place in a new and viable GOP, the movement itself would have to be decisively and emphatically repudiated and cast out. But that isn't going to happen.The Democrats didn't nominate a legendary political master who had succeeded a popular, martyred president this year. They nominated the second-least-popular candidate any major American political party has ever nominated. Only Donald Trump himself is less popular.

As a result, the election probably won't be the landslide it should have been. True, Hillary Clinton is, all things considered, less potentially frightening to the average American voter than the ignorant and unstable Trump. But this is a year when, unlike 1964, a generic Democrat would have been expected to lose to a generic Republican. I still think Clinton will win. But it will not be by a margin anything like Johnson's in 1964.

As a result, the campaign for the 2020 Republican nomination will likely be a civil war. One might hope that no dark figure would emerge who is able to put the Trump coalition back together. But the toxic elements Trump brought into the party will still be there. The Cruz wing will continue to make the bizarre argument that Republicans lose because they're not conservative enough;  that the more extreme a Republican nominee is, the better a centrist electorate will like it, and the more obstructionist and partisan the party is, the better it will appeal to an electorate furious precisely at obstructionism and partisanism. The "Establishment" wing- the traditional Republicans- will continue to try to inject an element of  rationality and strategic thinking and point out that the GOP has to reach out to new elements in a changing national demographic or go the way of the Whigs. Nobody will listen.

The result will be a free-for-all in 2020 resulting once again in a divided party. It still ought to beat President Hillary, but that is very far from a foregone conclusion.

Howe's argument is simply that a Clinton landslide is the best possible outcome not only for the conservative movement and sane Republicanism but for the prospect of a Republican future. The more closely the result this year resembles the result in 1964, he argues, the easier it will be for the party to purge itself of the Nazis and Klansmen and modern day Know-Nothings and the tinfoil-hat Alt-Right crowd. He has a point. Hillary is going to win in any case; the margin is the only real issue. Moreover, a powerful case can be made that even four years of Hillary would be preferable to a return to the Great Recession which would inevitably follow for years of Trump protectionism, the international chaos and compromise of America's vital interests abroad that would result in four years of Trump's isolationism, the instability of four years with an emotionally immature and unstable Trump at the helm of government, and the likely result: that no Republican would ever again be elected president and that the Republicans would never again have enough members in Congress to even  be much of a check on the Democrats.

And that's just it: to elect Donald Trump to the White House would probably be to put the Democrats and the liberals thereafter in permanent control of both the presidency and the Congress, with no effective opposition whatsoever. The American people might forget that George W. Bush was president when the Great Recession of 2008 took place. But the party simply would not survive Donald Trump being president when a new one happens so soon thereafter.

But the Democratic party of 2016 is not the Democratic party of 1964, Hillary Clinton is not Lyndon Johnson. The post-McGovern Democratic party is not the party of JFK and LBJ and Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson. I cannot support Hillary. I don't see how any reasonable, morally sane person could. McMullin is my only option; Trump would be a greater disaster than Hillary would be, not least for the future of the Republican party itself.

So what happens if the election is close? Best-case scenario: the newfound good feeling among elements of the NeverTrump movement who supported Cruz on one hand and Rubio and Bush on the other will continue. Don't underestimate it. There are many people who previously regarded Cruz as only a step above Trump but who have a newfound respect for him after that non-endorsement speech at Cleveland. And the chastening of the Trump debacle might well influence the Tea Party wing to seek at least some common ground with their erstwhile arch-enemies in the Establishment. The Nixon formula- a 2020 nominee equally acceptable to the Cruz and Rubio and Bush factions of the party- cannot be excluded. Shared adversity has a way of sobering excessive rivalry. Perhaps Cruz himself might emerge as the nominee, but a wiser Cruz more inclined to unite rather than to divide. Or maybe somebody like Rubio or Ben Sasse might give everybody an option they can get behind.

If the Tea Party and Establishment wings of the party can to any meaningful degree unite against a decapitated Trump movement, the Republican party might still have a future. But only then.

I am afraid that the FiveThirtyEight forecast is more realistic. As crazy as it would be for those responsible for losing the election by getting an unelectable candidate nominated to blame a close defeat on fellow Republicans who simply could not in conscience support him, it's going to happen. That insane argument is already being made. Howe is right in one respect: a landslide for Clinton would purge the Republican party and clear the air. But a close Clinton victory would only muddy the waters and exacerbate the bitterness of the divisions within it.

When I left the County Republican Central Committee the last time, I changed my registration from Republican to Independent. Nothing- with the possible exception of an Iowa Democrat- is quite as crazy as an Iowa Republicans. The extremes, for some reason, thrive in this state, and I could no longer deal with sharing a party with people with whom my differences were at least as serious as my differences with the Democrats.

And that's the thing the Trump people (and, I fear, the Cruz people too) just don't get. Political parties- at least the ones who win, or who have any chance of winning- are by their very definition coalitions. Coalitions, by their very definition, are composed of more than one element! The more purist a political party becomes, the less likely it is to win. And to nominate a candidate large segments of one's own  party simply cannot support is in itself to be responsible for that party's defeat.

A coalition between the Tea Party and the Establishment behind candidates acceptable to both is simply the only possibility of a viable future of any kind for the Republican party. Even then, it's going to be tough going. The Republican coalition is already in danger of going the way of the Whig coalition, finding itself composed of factions each making up a shrinking percentage of the population and therefore no longer in a position to win a national election. It seems to me quite likely that it will now take the final step to oblivion, disintegrating into quarreling factions eternally at war with one another and simply unable to form a common electoral front.

In 1856, the result was the emergence of a new coalition embodying elements of the old one, but able to compromise and unite behind a common agenda while reaching out to elements hitherto outside of its constituent parts. It called itself the Republican party, and four years later it won the White House,

The night of the Iowa Caucuses, I made a mistake. Before going into the room to caucus for Marco Rubio,  I filled out a form changing my registration back to Republican. But I forgot to sign it.

Many weeks later, at a time when Donald Trump's nomination already seemed likely, I got it back in the mail. The Republican Party of Iowa wanted me to sign it and forward it to the County Clerk. Instead, I hung onto it. And on the night when Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, it went into the garbage.

Whether it goes by the name of "Republican" or by some other name, a new coalition will emerge to provide the Democrats with their opposition in future years. I will almost certainly be a part of that coalition. It will include people with whom I disagree on many issues, and I will be good with that. I will understand that while many Republicans regard "compromise" as a dirty word, it's the only way a coalition can be built, and the only way anybody can win an election.

And here's the overwhelming, dominating lesson of 2016, which ought to be clear to Tea Partier and Establishmentarian alike: it's the only way to prevent Donald Trump from happening again.

I will not rejoin a Republican party which still contains the Alt-Right and the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists and the Klansmen and the Nazis or even those who sympathize with them. This year, I'm with Evan McMullin, and proud to support him. What I do in four years depends on whether the Republican party decides to be the part of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan,  or the party of Donald Trump- because it can't be both, and it can't include supporters of both visions.

A new coalition will emerge. It might not happen in 2020, But it will happen. It must.

And that coalition will exclude the Alt-Right, the conspiracy nuts, the Know-Nothings, the bigots, and the rest of those who form the core of Donald Trump's constituency.


Donald Trump has driven the party to the point where the fatal flaws within it have been exposed. It has to decide whether it will be true to itself or become the very thing the Democrats have been slandering it as being for years- and which this year, it has actually become.

Even that may not be enough.  Ours is a culture on its way to hell in a handbasket. It may no longer be possible to put together a coalition in support of decency large enough to halt or even slow its progress.  But the only way it can be of value to anybody is to realize that one does not slow a society's descent into hell by making deals with the devil- or even by accepting his support.

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