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How the Republican Party We’ll See This Week Became Donald Trump’s

And what would a post-Trump GOP even look like?
August 24, 2020
How the Republican Party We’ll See This Week Became Donald Trump’s
JULY 21, 2016: A scene from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

As Donald Trump heads into his virtual convention gravely wounded, hopeful souls envision salvaging something finer from a post-Trump GOP.

Well they might. The party’s current incarnation is intellectually and morally bankrupt—inimical to democracy; contemptuous of reason; and corrosive to our comity and capacity to govern. But the idealists err in imagining these pathologies transient, for they are woven into the party’s DNA.

The GOP’s squalor is not the product of a single man. It stems from a compound of anger, greed, myopia, and myth which has been metastasizing for years, nurtured in a fever swamp where disinformation and hysteria proliferate unimpeded. Trump is the result, not the cause.

Start with the pre-existing gulf between the now-enfeebled Republican establishment and its modern base: evangelicals resentful of secular elites; moderately educated whites threatened by globalism and economic marginalization; zealots distrustful of government and fearful of the cultural and racial other. Feeling themselves besieged by hostile forces, they found refuge in identity, not ideas—including the nostrums of traditional Republicanism.

Until 2016, the party’s establishment lived within its own smugness, certain that it could unite its restive primary electorate behind the most “electable conservative” congenial to donors, officeholders, and party professionals. To propitiate the base, Republican leaders and candidates increasingly pandered to racial, religious, and ethno-nationalist grievance rather than addressing the economic interests of ordinary people beset by accelerating income disparity.

Central to this cynical stratagem was the devolution of the GOP’s governing classes from guardians of party principle into servants of the wealthy. Beginning in the 1980s, the GOP was captured by a “free-market” agenda laser-focused on diminishing regulation, reducing taxes, gelding unions, slashing employee benefits, promoting corporate consolidation, gutting antitrust law, and maximizing shareholder value by offshoring jobs, suppressing wages, and firing workers.

Once tax cuts and cosseting corporations became the GOP’s raison d’être, to preserve its electoral viability the establishment increasingly jettisoned the party’s traditional agenda to accommodate fundamentalism, economic nationalism, xenophobia, white identity politics, cultural resentment, anti-elitism and an undifferentiated loathing of government. Slowly but inexorably its longtime stalwarts—the internationalists; the free traders; the deficit hawks; the social moderates; the pro-immigration reformers; the advocates of compromise and prudent stewardship—were marginalized to placate the ever-more-volatile base. Instead of looking forward, the party marinated in visceral nostalgia for an imaginary white folks’ paradise.

Soon enough, the GOP was germinating a race-based birtherism directed at our first black president, giving Trump a political foothold. It trafficked in conspiracy theories. It embraced Tea Party dead-enders who believed that shutting down the government was a substitute for governance. It promoted climate denial and shunned scientific expertise. It swapped reason for hysteria; fact for disinformation; ideology for the incitements of talk radio; civility for the charlatanism of Fox News.

Yet the party’s myopic mandarins foolishly imagined that they could yet maintain control. What they failed to perceive was that Trump, their Frankenstein monster, would escape the lab to sweep Republican primaries and capture the party. The base had overcome them.

Of the former governing class, only the donors—like overstuffed termites—preserved their primacy by bankrolling Trump in exchange for fiscally calamitous tax cuts. The party pros and officeholders simply chose survival.

So here it is, Trump’s GOP. Instead of honoring the law enforcement and intelligence agencies the party once revered, it attacks them. Instead of upholding the international agreements it once crafted, it demeans them. Instead of protecting limited government and upholding checks and balances, it countenances an unprecedented expansion of executive power unaccountable to Congress or the courts.

Its business is selling public policy, not renewing it; its message is not unity, but reprisal. Its officeholders bray approval of an ignorant and unstable demagogue, or cower in fear of his wrath.

Those who imagine recapturing some pre-Trump state of grace misapprehend its descent. This is the Republican party its donors pay for—and its base voters crave.

But perhaps the greatest casualty is respect for constitutional democracy itself. Increasingly, the GOP relies on voters who prize authority over diversity or dissent. For them, Trump’s wall is not merely a thing, but a metaphor.

This is central to understanding Trump’s hold on the base. In 2016, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst, Matthew McWilliams, asked a survey group of Republicans four questions about which traits were most important in child raising: independence or respect for elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; being considerate or being well behaved. His purpose was to identify those inclined to favor hierarchy and direction from the top, characterized by psychologists as “authoritarians.”

The results were striking. Half the Republicans who chose the authoritarian answer to each question supported Trump. The shorthand explanation is that Trump’s persona meets a deep need for authority which is particularly strong among evangelicals and others who feel economically and socially threatened—especially white Republicans of limited education.

These folks respond to promises of direct action to impose clear and simple solutions. Authoritarian by psychology and instinct, Trump salves their anxieties by promising to repel their enemies and restore their primacy by whatever means, whoever these enemies may be—or Trump chooses them to be.

In 2016, journalist Amanda Taub captured this aspect of Trump’s appeal:

Trump’s specific policies aren’t the thing that most sets him apart. . . . Rather, it’s his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage. . . . And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening.

This mindset licenses not only undemocratic abuses of executive power but also systematic attacks on the conduct of free and fair elections. Writes Ezra Klein: “The fear that [Trump] would entrench himself as an individual strongman has distracted from the reality that his party is insulating itself from democracy.”

Republicans, Klein argues, have become “minoritarian authoritarians.” He quotes Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in Winner-Take-All-Politics:

As their goals have become more extreme, Republicans and their organized allies have increasingly exploited long-standing but worsening vulnerabilities in our political system to lock in narrow priorities, even in the face of majority opposition. The specter we face is not just a strongman bending a party and our political institutions to his will; it is also a minority faction entrenching itself in power, beyond the ambitions and careers of any individual leader.

“How,” Klein asks, “does a party that represents the interests of moneyed elites win elections in a democracy?” Hacker and Pierson offer three potential answers:

You can cease being a party built around tax cuts for the rich and try to develop an economic agenda that will appeal to the middle class. You can try to change the political topic, centering politics on racial, religious, and nationalist grievance. Or you can try to undermine democracy itself.

Well before Trump, Republicans chose options two and three. The party’s addiction to white identity politics that appeal to a demographic minority explains the lynchpin of its war on democracy: stringent voter ID laws which disproportionately disenfranchise people of color. There is no statistically significant evidence of in-person voter fraud to justify these laws. Nevertheless, immediately after the five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices in 2013 gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, 14 states—all but one governed by Republicans—enacted strict voter ID laws which have been consistently shown to depress minority voting.

That’s how the GOP can turn its overwhelmingly white base voters from a minority to a majority in crucial states and districts—democracy be damned. As Klein writes, “this is a point of true convergence between the identitarians and the plutocrats: Both have lost confidence that they can win elections democratically, so they have sought to rewrite the rules in their favor.”

Another Republican method for thwarting democratic elections is gerrymandering. Historically, this is a bipartisan phenomenon. But in the last two decades, the GOP has perfected the art of crafting congressional and legislative districts to disproportionately elect Republicans and, thereby, effectively disenfranchise Democrats.

Hacker and Pierson cite “the leading Republican architect of extreme partisan gerrymanders, Thomas Hofeller”:

Hofeller liked to describe gerrymandering as “the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States.” He once told an audience of state legislators, “redistricting is like an election in reverse. It’s a great event. Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.”

Last year, another 5-4 majority of Republican appointees to the Supreme Court placed its thumb on the scales of representative democracy. While reaffirming prior decisions that deemed that partisan gerrymandering was “incompatible with democratic principles,” Chief Justice Roberts held in Rucho v. Common Cause that determining when it became too egregious was beyond the capacity of federal courts—another win for minoritarian authoritarianism.

A party for which rigging elections becomes a demographic imperative can only double down. In 2020, despite the public health risks of the pandemic the GOP opposes voting by mail—which, Trump states openly, would “LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.” Hence the efforts of Trump and his postmaster general to underfund the postal service, and otherwise hamstring the prompt delivery of mail-in ballots, creating the likelihood that millions of votes received after Election Day will be deemed invalid.

The problem for Republicans is that a passion for suppressing votes which heretofore chiefly affected minorities is now impacting voters at large. By attacking the postal service, the GOP has exposed its aversion to democracy itself.

Can a party dedicated to shrinking the electorate reverse course? That would require abandoning the divisive themes which arouse the passions of the base. As Mitt Romney’s former campaign strategist Stuart Stevens told the Guardian: “Trumpism itself has been deeply unleashed in the party and I think history tells us, darkly, that when a major party legitimizes hate, which the Republican party has, it’s very difficult to get it undone. . . . It takes time, often a lot of blood.”

Indeed, as a former aide to John Boehner, Michael Steel, recently argued, the people most likely to suffer from defeat are anti-Trump Republicans. Trump supporters, he opined, “need to be able to blame anyone and anything other than President Trump himself, so they are creating a straw man argument that he is being stabbed in the back by a fifth column of disloyal Republicans rather than by his own words and actions.”

Worse, political scientist Thomas Patterson suggested to the Guardian, “even if [Republicans] take a real beating in 2020, I think it’s probably going to take two or three of those beatings. They can talk all they want about reinvention but, as long as the primary nominating process keeps coughing up these conservatives, it’s going to be really hard for them to make the change.”

Instead, the leading prospects for 2024 are faux Trumps—or actual Trumps. The Guardian offers this disheartening observation:

The end of Trump would not necessarily mean the end of Trumpism. Nine in 10 Republicans still approve of the job he is doing as president, according to Gallup. A SurveyMonkey poll for Axios last December showed Republican voters’ favourite picks for 2024 led by Mike Pence, with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr in second place, followed by Nikki Haley, Ivanka Trump, Marco Rubio and Mike Pompeo.

So let’s review the obvious contenders. Start with the leftovers of 2016. Ted Cruz is a malicious, fundamentalist, climate-denying, demagogic reactionary. Mike Pence is a craven sycophant who embodies his party’s obeisance to Trump. Marco Rubio is a human wind sock: When the wind stops blowing, the sock is empty. There was no Rubio constituency save wealthy donors, it turned out in 2016, because there is no real Rubio.

David Brooks finds hope in three relative newcomers: Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ben Sasse. Salon captured Cotton in a nutshell: “Ted Cruz with a war record, Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree, Chris Christie with a Southern accent.” In other words, the beau ideal of the Republican base.

Hawley, Brooks writes, believes that “middle-class Americans have been betrayed by elites on every level—political elites, cultural elites, financial elites.” Which sounds a lot like Trump warmed over.

As for Sasse, he told Brooks that “I think politicians are arsonists. . . . The main thing the G.O.P. does is try to light the Democrats on fire, and the main thing the Democrats do is light the Republicans on fire. That’s why there’s so little trust in politics.”

Then why did he say so little about Trump’s pyromania when it mattered? Because he couldn’t, and hope to survive.

In the end, Brooks expresses little hope that these aspirants can materially change the party’s Trumpian cast. But Max Boot renders his own unsparing verdict:

Brooks’s column accurately reflects what these senators are saying. But, I’m sorry, I can’t take any of their high-minded blather seriously. Not when they have spent the past four years acting as enablers for the worst president in U.S. history.

Ditto for Pompeo and Haley. In short, the leading aspirants bowed to the same primary voters who will pick the party’s nominee in 2024, wishing it could still be Donald Trump.

That brings us to QAnon, newly insinuated in the Republican base. In the New York Times, Kevin Roose does his damnedest to explain sheer lunacy:

QAnon, which draws its beliefs from the cryptic message board posts of an anonymous writer claiming to have access to high-level government intelligence . . . lacks realistic goals or anything resembling a coherent policy agenda. Its followers are Internet vigilantes gripped by paranoid and violent revenge fantasies, not lower-my-taxes conservatives or opponents of the Affordable Care Act. . . .

QAnon adherents believe that Hillary Clinton and George Soros are drinking the blood of innocent children. While Tea Party supporters generally sought to oust their political opponents at the ballot box, QAnon supporters cheer for top Democrats to be either imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay or rounded up and executed.

QAnon is rapidly proliferating through Facebook. Now Republican primary voters in a bright-red Georgia congressional district have elected QAnon adherent Marjorie Taylor Greene to be their next Congresswoman. Here’s a sampling of her worldview:

Upon her victory, Trump tweeted his support:

Certainly, Greene does not represent the Republican base. But she may come closer than any of the idealists who imagine reforming the GOP from within. As Max Boot observes: “Under Trump, the GOP has become a party of white nationalists and conspiracy-mongers. . . . The Republican Party . . . isn’t just catering to extremists—it’s led by one.”

Who’s also a stone-cold racist. Replicating his birther slur, Trump tried to give oxygen to fresh idiocy popular among the base: that as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Kamala Harris is ineligible to become vice president. InfoWars and QAnon recycled the preposterous Pizzagate conspiracy, asserting that Harris is linked to a child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. Ever the equal-opportunity bigot, Trump asserted that Biden’s supposed plan to despoil the suburbs with low-income housing would be run by Cory Booker.

From Republican officeholders, crickets.

Despite all this, David Brooks cracks open the door of hope:

To have any shot of surviving as a major party, the G.O.P. has to build a cross-racial alliance among working-class whites, working-class Hispanics and some working-class Blacks. . . . None of this works unless Republicans can deracialize their appeal—by which I mean they must stop pandering to the racists in the party and stop presenting themselves and seeing themselves as the party of white people.

Good luck with that.

No doubt America needs a responsible center-right party that addresses our real problems. But it won’t be this GOP. As a force for reason, or even for democracy, it’s finished.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.