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To Save Democracy, Principled Conservatives Must Ally with Democrats

The impulse to start a new anti-Trump conservative party or GOP splinter is admirable—but the present crisis demands a different response.
February 19, 2021
To Save Democracy, Principled Conservatives Must Ally with Democrats
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and President Donald Trump in 2019. (Photo by Alex Wong / Getty)

Appalled by the GOP’s comprehensive degradation, a serious group of prominent ex-Republicans and conservative critics of Trumpism hope to form a third force.

Their goal, Reuters reported last week, is to advance “‘principled conservatism,’ including adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law”—either by forming a new party, or a faction aimed at redirecting the GOP. Writes the estimable Peter Wehner, Republicans must “work toward a policy agenda to meet the challenges of the modern world” and “change the way their party thinks about itself.”

Sadly the GOP is no longer what Daniel Patrick Moynihan once labeled a party of ideas. Today it is a party of atavistic tribalism rooted in perpetuating minority rule. The indispensable prerequisite for reanimating principled conservatism is helping Democrats reanimate democracy by destroying the Republican party’s ability to destroy it.

Long before Trump, the Republican base rejected principled conservatism for cultural revanchism and white identity politics. In their gated community of the mind, falsehoods became self-validating and disagreement treasonous. Trump rose by personifying primal nihilism, rageful ignorance, and overt racism.

This GOP’s defining grievance is inherently authoritarian: that white Christian America, their presumptive birthright, is besieged by the seditious forces of intellectual and demographic diversity. Today’s pseudo-conservatism, writes Michael Gerson, “promises the recovery of a mythical past” and “feeds a sense of White victimhood.” He continues:

It emphasizes emotion over reason. It denigrates experts and expertise. It slanders outsiders and blames them for social and economic ills. It warns of global plots by Jews and shadowy elites. It accepts the lies of a leader as a deeper form of political truth. It revels in anger and dehumanization. It praises law and order while reserving the right to disobey the law and overturn the political order through violence.

That festering pathology permeates the base. A January 2020 survey by Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt found that 51 percent of Republicans agreed that “we may have to use force” to save “the traditional American way of life”—a mindset which, he concluded, is rooted in racial animus. One might imagine that last month’s deadly attack on the Capitol would impel Republicans to recoil from embracing violence. But in an AEI survey conducted after the January 6 insurrection, even more Republicans—56 percent—agreed that force may be necessary to preserve the American way of life.

Their sense of dispossession swells. According to the AEI survey, three quarters of Republicans believe that discrimination against whites is as great a problem as that against non-white minorities; 79 percent “agree that the political system is stacked against more traditionally minded people”; 66 percent embrace Trump’s incendiary narrative that Joe Biden was elected through fraud; and, particularly confounding, half blame Antifa for the lethal insurrection Trump’s mendacity inspired.

This intellectual incoherence typifies the hostility to reason which nourishes the GOP’s anti-scientific amalgam of fundamentalists, climate-deniers, anti-vaxxers, and antagonists of measures to combat COVID-19. Little wonder that nearly 3 in 10 Republicans believe QAnon’s demented claim that Trump was fighting a global child sex trafficking ring.

One pauses to observe that such people are not ideal subjects for an intramural reawakening to the excitations of federalism and free trade.

Recent surveys confirm the obvious—that the Republican party remains in Trump’s thrall:

  • A Quinnipiac poll shows that 75 percent of Republicans desire Trump to play a prominent role in the GOP.
  • A CBS/YouGov poll found that 73 percent want Republicans to show Trump loyalty.
  • Polls from Morning Consult/Politico and Vox/Data for Progress found that a majority of Republicans support Trump for president in 2024 (54 percent in the former, 70 percent in the latter).
  • In the Vox poll, 69 percent of Republicans said they would reject a GOP senator who voted for conviction in Trump’s impeachment trial.

With notable understatement, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute observes that “Trumpism is now a runaway train that is not going to be easily derailed within the Republican Party.”

Indeed. Among 257 Republicans legislators, 240 opposed impeachment. Trump, Lindsey Graham says, is “the most potent force” in the GOP, while his daughter-in-law Lara—wife of Eric the Lesser—“represents the future of the Republican party” as a putative senatorial candidate in South Carolina.

In the House, observing Kevin McCarthy cozen his Trump-besotted caucus is like watching a duck attempting foreplay on a football. The congressional GOP has become a platform for shameless demagogues practicing inflammatory histrionics on predatory media.

The grassroots party metastasizes this extremism. State and/or local parties have already censured 8 of the 17 legislators who supported impeachment and conviction, and the fever of reprisal spreads unabated. Two pro-impeachment representatives—Adam Kinzinger and Peter Meijer—face likely primary challenges, and the militia-friendly Michigan GOP anointed as co-chair a key organizer of the January 6 rally which peopled the sacking of Capitol Hill.

Compared to this feral environment, the Soviet Politburo was a haven for diversity of thought. As a Republican county chairman said of another GOP dissenter, Senator Pat Toomey, “we didn’t send him to vote his conscience.”

At every level, the Republican party is committed to cementing minority rule. This year the Brennan Center has documented 165 Republican state legislative initiatives to make voting harder, many in crucial states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Texas. Some impose strict voter ID laws which target minorities; others curb mail-in voting, shrink early voting periods, or terminate automatic voter registration. Remarkably, Republican legislators in Arizona propose giving themselves the power to reallocate electoral votes to their chosen candidate—overriding the election itself.

Further, state Republicans have the unmediated power to gerrymander 188 congressional districts—including in battleground states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—potentially flipping the House in 2022. This contrivance of safe Republican districts exacerbates extremism—an incumbent’s only fear is losing to a primary challenger from the right.

Thus does the GOP distill its own radicalization by effectively expelling moderates. The constituency for ideological reformation shrinks apace.

In pursuit of unsupervised chicanery the GOP has turned to gerrymandering the judiciary. Republicans in Pennsylvania are seeking to replace statewide elections to its Supreme Court—a defender of electoral integrity in 2020—with districts which overrepresent Republican voters. Swiftly the GOP’s aversion to democracy curdles into sociopathy.

These subversions reinforce the GOP’s structural advantages. Observes David Frum, “In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate.”

Trump won in 2016, Frum remarks, “not by the preferences of the American people, but by the anti-majoritarian mechanics of the Electoral College.” We almost saw a repeat in 2020, as Aaron Blake notes: A mere 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin prevented the electoral vote from tying, which would have allowed House Republicans—who control more state delegations through gerrymandering—to re-elect Trump.

Citing calculations from David Wasserman, Blake further observes that a change in 32,000 votes could have flipped the five seats Republicans needed to retake the House—yet another byproduct of gerrymandering. And only 14,000 votes kept David Perdue from winning the 50 percent he needed to defeat Jon Ossoff in November, returning Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader.

Even without the Senate majority, the GOP will empower its electoral minority by filibustering legislation to reform gerrymandering and restore the Voting Rights Act. In decrying the filibuster, Frum adjures that promoting majority rule is the only path to resurrecting stable, responsible, and representative governance. It’s also our only means of preventing the GOP from trashing America’s increasingly fragile democracy.

All this bears on the plans of former Republicans frustrated by Trumpism. Beyond peradventure America needs a responsible center-right party which competes with Democrats over how to navigate our challenging future. But the initial goal must be rallying alienated Republicans and independents to prevent this mutant GOP from regaining power—first, by supporting Joe Biden and his party; second, by embracing reforms which will reopen participatory democracy—and, by extension, create space for the reemergence of reasoned Republicanism.

Until then, I respectfully submit, it would be misbegotten to divert likeminded voters in the quixotic tasks of seeking to transform the GOP or forming a third party—either of which would bleed votes from the only current bulwark of democracy: the Democrats. The stakes are way bigger than abortion or the deficit, as important as those matters may ultimately be.

But we Democrats, too, must do our part—as Tom Nichols advises, “to become a large, coalitional, governing party” and “convince the commissars among you to let go of purity testing each other (and the rest of us).”

In his thoughtful meditation on this subject, William Kristol quotes his new ally James Carville on the lessons of 2020: “When our country and our Republic were on the brink of collapse, when our fellow Americans needed us, we took a blowtorch to our past differences . . . [and] fought together. . . . I can say with certainty that . . . joining in this crusade . . . is the greatest thing I have ever been a part of in my life.”

And, I would suggest as we go forward, in all of our lives.

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.