There’s a popular fantasy amongst rational Republicans that a good thumping of Donald Trump can cleanse the party of its toxins and set the GOP up for success in the future.
The scammers, entertainers, anti-intellectuals, and alt-right bigots who have “taken over” the party will be ushered out by the undeniable reality that their brand of “nationalist conservative populism” doesn’t work, and honest, principled conservatives will take over. It’s a nice vision. It reminds me of the idea (expressed more on the left) that Romney’s loss in 2012 would break the GOP’s “fever.” The problem is it won’t happen.
In the first place, the cancer of the Trumpist alt-right won’t be easily dislodged from the host. Voters have the freedom to choose, at the end of the day, and those voters who nominated Trump because they agreed with his proposals to build a wall, ban Muslims, and with his core nativism won’t be convinced to suddenly become tolerant just because Jeb Bush and members of the “Illuminati” tell them to. The entertainment faction, led by Sean Hannity, is already building the groundwork for the excuse that it is the “establishment,” not the Trumpists, who are to blame for not voting for Trump. Nevermind that Hannity’s critique is anti-democratic or that Jonah Goldberg has much less influence over the votes of the educated suburban whites who are abandoning Trump than Hannity gives him credit for; the fact that this argument is illogical will not prevent it from influencing the views and actions of a significant proportion of the GOP electorate going forward.
Even if Trumpism could somehow be successfully purged from the Republican Party, the Republicans and the conservative movement would still be far from solving their problems. Recall that the Republican Party faced major problems even before Trump came along. The Republicans had lost 5 of the last 6 presidential popular votes. Mitt Romney’s performance with minorities was abysmal even by GOP standards–so much so that Trump blamed Romney’s rhetoric on illegal immigration being too harsh. When four Republican Senators took Reince Priebus’s post-2012 advice and tried to pass an immigration reform bill, the bill didn’t get a vote in the House, and Marco Rubio was scared into apologizing to the Tea Party.
Shrek once said that ogres are like onions–they have layers. The GOP is a rotten onion. When you tear off one putrid layer you are confronted with another.
To reveal just how rotten the GOP is, try a thought experiment: What will happen if Trump does lose very badly? Who will rise to the top? Granted, it is impossible to see now, because that post-Trump future will be decided in part by events that have not yet happened, but it is easy to think of some possibilities.
If and when Trump fails, one of the people who will almost certainly try to get to the top is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz, having refused to endorse Trump, having said to Trump’s uncomfortable face at the convention that Republicans should “vote their conscience,” will present himself as vindicated.
Of course Cruz failed to take down Trump when he was (along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich) the last challenger left of the 16. Why did many otherwise anti-Trump Republicans oppose Cruz at the end? Because he is a political showman who cravenly used his position as a senator to set up his campaign for the presidency since day one. Principled conservatives who wanted to actually see Obamacare repealed or weakened cringed when Cruz channeled what little political capital the GOP had in the minority towards a stunt that culminated in the government shutting down after Cruz filibustered a spending bill for the C-SPAN cameras to capture.
An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Cruz must have known that 43 Republican senators couldn’t have gotten a bill passed in the Senate and that a more realistic strategy that went for a smaller goal would have had a better chance of succeeding. But doing so wouldn’t have put Cruz in the headlines and ingratiated him with hardline conservatives.
Before Trump was able to tell the base falsehoods about everything, Cruz was able to convince the base that a transparently impossible strategy of “fighting” would work if not for establishment surrender. Loud, angry Republicans prefer yelling and getting on cable news or YouTube (“fighting!”) to actually getting conservative policies enacted. Each of their failures is only further proof of establishment treachery.
Each faction in the GOP has some sins to atone for. That there were 16 candidates in this season’s primary and no consensus around any of them is illustrative of the problems. Marco Rubio arguably showed that the media consultants who craft handsome, manicured candidates are too disconnected from the voters. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and the social conservatives who emphasize banning abortion and gay marriage in all cases are alienating millennials, moderates, and women.
When Trump is gone, conservatives will move onto the next fight, and they will still have a dogmatic Tea Party, a tin foil hat troop, and an aggrieved group of lower-middle class white men to deal with. Trump didn’t create the nativist, paranoid mania in the GOP. He capitalized on it and refined it to its purest form.
Feature image by Bernard Dupont, used with Creative Commons license 2.0. Free to share.