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The Fire Rises

Can the current version of the Republican party be reformed? Or is this the "reformed" version already?
August 18, 2020
The Fire Rises
CAMARILLO, CA - MAY 3: A man on a rooftop looks at approaching flames as the Springs fire continues to grow on May 3, 2013 near Camarillo, California. The wildfire has spread to more than 18,000 acres on day two and is 20 percent contained. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Guhl gives Bruce Wayne a lecture about why Gotham needs to be burnt to the ground: “When a forrest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”

So here is the question about the Republican party today:

Is what we are seeing the wild growth that needs to be burned away with a purging fire?

Or is today’s GOP the result of a purging fire that was lit five years ago?

That’s the central question in American politics right now, because the Republican party isn’t going away. It might shrink—you could see the GOP turning into a regional rump party. Or it might remain the type of national force that basically has a 50-50 shot at winning the presidency every four years.

And so the character of the Republican party matters, to all of us, because either way it’s going to exert a pull on the rest of America.

Which is why it would be helpful to know which of those scenarios we’re dealing with.

It would be nice if it were the first: If the current configuration of the party was the wild decadence that needed to be purged in order for the party to rebuild in such a way as to make it a responsible political actor.

And there are plenty—okay, not actually “plenty,” but “more than a few”—Republicans and conservatives who have positioned themselves at the ready so that, when the Trump Show ends, they can pop up and reform the party. Their plan goes something like this:

We’ll take the good parts of Trumpist populism and the good parts of traditional conservatism and blend them into a new fusionism that addresses the Real-World Concerns of Everyday Americans and blah blah blah.

I wish those people well. I hope they succeed.

But I doubt they can. For starters, because even if that first view is correct—that we are on the verge of a giant reformation—I don’t see many of those people out doing any actual burning away of the bad parts of Trumpism.

They lament how gross and stupid Trump is, but didn’t do anything about changing the leadership of the Republican party when they were given the chance with impeachment. And they aren’t doing anything about it now.

Nor do they seem particularly concerned about the non-Trump elements which have attached themselves to the party and Conservatism Inc.

Oh sure, they’re “against” QAnon now—just like they were “against Trump.” But once it becomes clear that toleration of QAnon is the cover charge for Republican politics, they’ll find a way to make their peace with it, somehow. Maybe they’ll ignore it. Maybe they’ll view it ironically. Maybe they’ll celebrate it for how much it triggers the libs.

Probably some combination of all three.

And that all assumes that there is actually space for a big reformation, full of ideological ferment, just around the corner.

Because the other possibility is that we just had the reformation and what we’re looking at is the new topography following the purging fire.

And if that’s the case, let me ask you this: Where do you think the more robust green shoots are sprouting? At think tanks in Washington and New York? Or on Facebook?

Because it sure looks to me like QAnon and “looting starts, shooting starts” and “maybe Kamala Harris isn’t eligible to be president” have a bigger constituency than ideas about tax cuts or regulating Silicon Valley.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.