After the Capitol Hill riot, the divide between reality and fantasy may become too wide to bridge.
For a long time, people have predicted the crackup of American conservatism, the end of a Republican Party dominated by the conservative movement as one of the major powers in our politics. Demographic trends were supposed to permanently marginalize the right. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was supposed to signal conservatism’s eclipse. The rise of Donald Trump was supposed to shatter Republican politics the way that slavery once broke the Whigs.
Conservatism survived all these prophecies, always clawing back to claim a share of power, maintaining unity and loyalty by offering a bulwark against liberal ambition even as its own agenda became more and more threadbare.
So it would be a foolhardy prophet indeed who looked at the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and assumed that this time, under this pressure, the conservative coalition will finally break apart, sending the Republican Party deep into the wilderness and reshaping American ideological debates along new lines.
But breaking points do come, and the violent endgame of the Trump presidency has exposed a new divide in the conservative coalition — not a normal ideological division or an argument about strategy or tactics, but a split between reality and fantasy that may be uniquely hard for either self-interest or statesmanship to bridge.
At the same time, it has cast the key weakness of conservatism into even sharper relief: the growing distance between right-wing politics and almost every nonpolitical power center in America, from the media and culture industries to the old-line corporate suites to the communications empires of Silicon Valley.
But the implicit bargain of the Trump era required traditional Republicans — from upper-middle-class suburbanites to the elites of the Federalist Society — to live with a lot of craziness from their leader, and a lot of even crazier ideas from the very-online portions of his base, in return for denying Democrats the White House. And it’s not clear that this bargain can survive the irruption of all that crazy into the halls of the Capitol, and the QAnon-ification of the right that made the riot possible.
Even before Jan. 6, the difficulty of balancing normal Republican politics with an insistence that Mike Pence could magically overturn a clear election outcome helped cost the party two Senate seats in Georgia. Even before the riot, finding post-Trump leaders who could bridge the internal divide, bringing along his base but also broadening the party, was going to be an extraordinary challenge.
But the Republican Party that lost Georgia a week ago still looked competitive enough to count on holding, say, 47 Senate seats even in a tough election cycle. A week later, it seems the party could easily break harder, and fall further.
Here’s how it could happen. First, the party’s non-Trumpist faction — embodied by senators like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, various purple- and blue-state governors and most of the remaining Acela corridor conservatives, from lawyers and judges to lobbyists and staffers — pushes for a full repudiation of Trump and all his works, extending beyond impeachment to encompass support for social-media bans, F.B.I. surveillance of the MAGA universe and more.
At the same time, precisely those measures further radicalize portions of the party’s base, offering apparent proof that Trump was right — that the system isn’t merely consolidating against but actively persecuting them. With this sense of persecution in the background and the Trump family posturing as party leaders, the voter-fraud mythology becomes a litmus test in many congressional elections, and baroque conspiracy theories pervade primary campaigns.
In this scenario, what remains of the center-right suburban vote and the G.O.P. establishment becomes at least as NeverTrump as Romney, if not the Lincoln Project; meanwhile, the core of Trump’s support becomes as paranoid as Q devotees. Maybe this leads to more empty acts of violence, further radicalizing the center right against the right, or maybe it just leads to Republican primaries producing a lot more candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, to the point where a big chunk of the House G.O.P. occupies not just a different tactical reality from the party’s elite but a completely different universe.
Either way, under these conditions that party could really collapse or really break. The collapse would happen if Trumpists with a dolchstoss narrative and a strong Q vibe start winning nominations for Senate seats and governorships in states that right now only lean Republican. A party made insane and radioactive by conspiracy theories could keep on winning deep-red districts, but if its corporate support bailed, its remaining technocrats jumped ship and suburban professionals regarded it as the party of insurrection, it could easily become a consistent loser in 30 states or more.
Alternatively, a party dominated by the Trump family at the grassroots level, with Greene-like figures as its foot soldiers, could become genuinely untenable as a home for centrist and non-Trumpist politicians. So after the renomination of Trump himself or the nomination of Don Jr. in 2024, a cluster of figures (senators like Romney and Susan Collins, blue-state governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan) might simply jump ship to form an independent mini-party, leaving the G.O.P. as a 35 percent proposition, a heartland rump.
None of this is a prediction. In American politics, reversion to the gridlocked mean has been a safe bet for many years — in which case you’d expect the MAGA extremes to return to their fantasy world, the threat of violence to ebb, Trump to fade without his Twitter feed and the combination of Biden-administration liberalism and Big Tech overreach to bring the right’s blocking coalition back together in time for 2022.
But if Biden governs carefully, if Trump doesn’t go quietly, if MAGA fantasies become right-wing orthodoxies, then the stresses on the Republican Party and conservatism could become too great to bear.
I woke up last Wednesday thinking that the G.O.P. had survived the Trump era, its power reduced but relatively stable, with some faint chance to redeem itself — by carefully shepherding it supporters back toward reality, while integrating elements of populism into the reality-based conservatism that our misgoverned country needs.
A week later, that hope seems like as much of a fantasy as QAnon. Instead, it feels as if the Republican Party survived Trump’s presidency, but maybe not his disastrous and deadly leaving of it.
Where did Donald Trump come from? Where is the GOP going? Should the whole thing be burned down? A lot had to go wrong before we got a President Trump. This fact, once broadly acknowledged, has gotten lost, as if a lot of people want it forgotten.
Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.
He came from the growing realization of on-the-ground Americans that neither party seemed to feel any particular affiliation with or loyalty to them, that both considered them lumpen bases to be managed and manipulated. He came from the great and increasing social and cultural distance between the movers and talkers of the national GOP, its strategists, operatives, thinkers, pundits and party professionals, and the party’s base. He came from algorithms that deliberately excite, divide and addict, and from lawmakers who came to see that all they had to do to endure was talk, not legislate, because legislating involves compromise and, in an era grown polar and primitive, compromise is for quislings.
He came from a spirit of frustration among a sizable segment of the electorate that, in time, became something like a spirit of nihilism. It will be a long time repairing that, and no one is sure how to.
And here, in that perfect storm, was Mr. Trump’s simple, momentary genius. He declared for president as a branding exercise and went out and said applause lines, and when the crowd cheered, he decided “This is my program,” and when it didn’t cheer, he thought, “Huh, that is not my program.” Some of it was from his gut, but most of it was that casual. After the election a former high official told me he observed it all from the side of the stage. This week the official said that after a rally, on the plane home, all Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner would talk about was the reaction. “Did you see how they responded to that?”
The base, with its cheers, said they weren’t for cutting entitlement benefits. They were still suffering from the effects of 2008, and other things. They weren’t for open borders or for more foreign fighting. They were for the guy who said he hated the elites as much as they did.
The past four years have produced a different kind of disaster, one often described in this space. The past six months Mr. Trump came up against his own perfect storm, one he could neither exploit nor talk his way past: a pandemic, an economic contraction that will likely produce a lengthy recession, and prolonged, sometimes violent national street protests. If the polls can be trusted, he is on the verge of losing the presidency.
Now various of his foes, in or formerly of his party, want to burn the whole thing down—level the party, salt the earth where it stood, remove Republican senators, replace them with Democrats.
This strikes me as another form of nihilism. It’s bloody-minded and not fully responsible for three reasons.
First, it’s true that the two-party system is a mess and a great daily frustration. But in the end, together and in spite of themselves, both parties still function as a force for unity in that when an election comes, whatever your disparate stands, you have to choose whether you align more with Party A or Party B. This encourages coalitions and compromise. It won’t work if there are four parties or six; things will splinter, the system buckle. The Democratic Party needs the Republican Party, needs it to restrain its excesses and repair what it does that proves injurious. The Republicans need the Democrats, too, for the same reasons.
Second, if the Republicans lose the presidency, the House and the Senate in November, the rising progressives of the Democratic Party will be emboldened and present a bill for collection. They’ll push hard for what they want. This will create a runaway train that will encourage bad policy that will damage the nation. Republicans and conservatives used to worry about that kind of thing.
Third, Donald Trump is burning himself down. Has no one noticed?
When the Trump experience is over, the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt. It will have to begin with tens of millions of voters who previously supported Mr. Trump. It will have to decide where it stands, its reason for being. It won’t be enough to repeat old mantras or formulations from 1970 to 2000. It’s 2020. We’re a different country.
A lot is going to have to be rethought. Simple human persuasion will be key.
Rebuilding doesn’t start with fires, purges and lists of those you want ejected from the party.
Many if not most of those calling for burning the whole thing down are labeled “Never Trump,” and a lot of them are characterologically quick to point the finger of blame. They’re aiming at Trump supporters in Congress. Some of those lawmakers have abandoned long-held principles to show obeisance to the president and his supporters. Some, as you know if you watched the supposed grilling of tech titans this week, are just idiots.
But Never Trumpers never seem to judge themselves. Many of them, when they were profiting through past identities as Republicans or conservatives, supported or gave strategic cover to the wars that were such a calamity, and attacked those who dissented. Many showed no respect to those anxious about illegal immigration and privately, sometimes publicly, denounced them as bigots. Never Trumpers eloquently decry the vulgarization of politics and say the presidency is lowered by a man like Mr. Trump, and it is. But they invented Sarah Palin and unrelentingly attacked her critics. They often did it in the name of party loyalty.
Some Never Trumpers helped create the conditions that created President Trump. What would be helpful from them now is not pyromaniac fantasies but constructive modesty, even humility.
The party’s national leaders and strategists don’t have a lot to be proud of the past few decades. The future of the party will probably bubble up from the states.
But it matters that the past six months Mr. Trump has been very publicly doing himself in, mismanaging his crises—setting himself on fire. As long as that’s clear, his supporters won’t be able to say, if he loses, that he was a champion of the people who was betrayed by the party elites, the Never Trumpers and the deep state: “He didn’t lose, he was the victim of treachery.”
Both parties have weaknesses. Liberals enjoy claiming progress that can somehow never quite be quantified. Conservatives like the theme of betrayal.
It will be unhelpful for Republicans, and bad for the country, if that’s the background music of the party the next 10 years.
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, commissioned an internal party study to examine why the party had won the popular vote only once since 1988.
The results of that so-called autopsy were fairly obvious: The party needed to appeal to more people of color, reach out to younger voters, become more welcoming to women. Those conclusions were presented as not only a political necessity but also a moral mandate if the Republican Party were to be a governing party in a rapidly changing America.
Then Donald Trump emerged and the party threw all those conclusions out the window with an almost audible sigh of relief: Thank God we can win without pretending we really care about this stuff. That reaction was sadly predictable.
I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn’t hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today’s Republican Party.
I saw the warning signs but ignored them and chose to believe what I wanted to believe: The party wasn’t just a white grievance party; there was still a big tent; the others guys were worse. Many of us in the party saw this dark side and told ourselves it was a recessive gene. We were wrong. It turned out to be the dominant gene.
What is most telling is that the Republican Party actively embraced, supported, defended and now enthusiastically identifies with a man who eagerly exploits the nation’s racial tensions. In our system, political parties should serve a circuit breaker function. The Republican Party never pulled the switch.
Racism is the original sin of the modern Republican Party. While many Republicans today like to mourn the absence of an intellectual voice like William Buckley, it is often overlooked that Mr. Buckley began his career as a racist defending segregation.
In the Richard Nixon White House, Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips wrote a re-election campaign memo headed “Dividing the Democrats” in which they outlined what would come to be known as the Southern Strategy. It assumes there is little Republicans can do to attract Black Americans and details a two-pronged strategy: Utilize Black support of Democrats to alienate white voters while trying to decrease that support by sowing dissension within the Democratic Party.
That strategy has worked so well that it was copied by the Russians in their 2016 efforts to help elect Mr. Trump.
In the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, on which I worked, we acknowledged the failures of Republicans to attract significant nonwhite support. When Mr. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative,” some on the right attacked him, calling it an admission that conservatism had not been compassionate. That was true; it had not been. Many of us believed we could steer the party to that “kinder, gentler” place his father described. We were wrong.
Reading Mr. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention now is like stumbling across a document from a lost civilization, with its calls for humility, service and compassion. That message couldn’t attract 20 percent in a Republican presidential primary today. If there really was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, we lost.
There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.
How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced. I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought they were actually beating the market.
Mr. Trump has served a useful purpose by exposing the deep flaws of a major American political party. Like a heavy truck driven over a bridge on the edge of failure, he has made it impossible to ignore the long-developing fault lines of the Republican Party. A party rooted in decency and values does not embrace the anger that Mr. Trump peddles as patriotism.
This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics. The closest parallel is the demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, when the dissonance between what the party said it stood for and what citizens actually experienced was so great that it was unsustainable.
This election should signal a day of reckoning for the party and all who claim it as a political identity. Will it? I’ve given up hope that there are any lines of decency or normalcy that once crossed would move Republican leaders to act as if they took their oath of office more seriously than their allegiance to party. Only fear will motivate the party to change — the cold fear only defeat can bring.
That defeat is looming. Will it bring desperately needed change to the Republican Party? I’d like to say I’m hopeful. But that would be a lie and there have been too many lies for too long.