There is more than one way for a political party to die.
If you ask people of my vintage–the party volunteers, candidates, office holders and party functionaries who populated the Indiana Statehouse and the Hudnut Administration’s sixteen years in City Hall–the GOP we worked for and supported is long gone. We don’t recognize the party that bears the name.
The death of a political party via this sort of transformation into something much darker and different is less visible than the sort of death experienced by the Whigs, but it is no less real.
For the last two decades, at least, I’ve been predicting a split between the GOP’s “business wing”–those we used to call Country Club Republicans–and its far-Right fringe. (Helpful hint: don’t ever bet money on predictions I make; I’m notoriously wrong about nearly all of them.) It seemed inevitable that members of the sober business community, fixated on fiscal prudence and economic issues, would be increasingly unwilling to partner with and vote for the religious fanatics, flat-earthers and white nationalists who had become the party’s base.
If the divorce I saw as likely back in 2000 (the year I “came out” as a Democrat) is ever going to occur, it will be precipitated by Donald Trump–an unstable and self-engrossed con man no rational businessperson would hire for any responsible position.
I may still be proven wrong, but I’m no longer prophesying in the wilderness. Others have begun predicting the fracturing of what’s left of the GOP.
On August 8th–before Trump’s horrifying reaction to Charlottesville–the Guardian devoted an article to the defection of GOP conservatives from the party that had embraced (or at least tolerated) Trump. The article began with the highly visible unhappiness of Senator Jeff Flake.
Jeff Flake of Arizona, among 17 conservative politicians, activists, officials and pundits interviewed over two months, revealed that while the president has given rightwing fringe groups a seat at the table, his alliance with his own party remains highly precarious.
The article proceeds to quote a number of prominent Republicans who shared their disdain for Trump and his enablers. Eliot Cohen, a former state department counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, said:
“This fundamentally boils down to character, and his character is rotten. He’s a narcissist who happens to have taken control of the Republican party. Trump has taken conservatives back to a different era, before William F Buckley drove out the Birchers, the bigots and the antisemites. We’re now back in a different world.
British conservative historian Niall Ferguson agreed:
The Republicans have surprised me in one respect and that was the poor discipline of the party. If you think of this in British terms, essentially we are now in a quasi-monarchy, kind of what Alexander Hamilton vaguely had in mind. But it’s a monarchy in the sense that the White House is a court and Trump is like one of those people who becomes king who’s not terribly well-suited to the role. And so there’s rampant factionalism and infighting and erratic decisions by the king, and Paul Ryan’s the prime minister who’s trying to manage affairs in the estates general. But the problem is that from a British vantage point, the party discipline’s very weak.
The article goes on to quote a significant number of prominent conservatives, some still supportive and others noting that Trump’s erratic and uninformed behavior is inflicting substantial damage on the party, and widening, not healing, the rifts that have been growing for some time. Two of the most critical were Charlie Sykes, a talk-radio conservative, and Michael Steele, former Chair of the national GOP.
Sykes pointed to the obvious danger of “going along”: you end up accepting “someone who mocks the disabled and insults women because he gets you a social policy win.”
For his part, Steele says out loud what so many long-time Republicans say quietly:
This is my 40th year as a Republican and it is the first time I can honestly say I don’t recognise this party and some of the people who are leading it.
And this was before Charlottesville.
The GOP I once belonged to is already dead. The question for conservatives now is: what will become of its distasteful, immoral, unAmerican remains?