As the GOP establishment continues to be flabbergasted by the success and staying power of Donald Trump, the punditry has already begun dissecting his presumptive failure in the general election (no sure thing). Like the post-mortem they performed following Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the talking heads and opinion page scribes are calling for some soul searching and reorganization of the big tent. In 2012 they saw that their dismissive attitude towards Latinos was hurtling them towards demographic obscurity– simply being the party of old, white people would not be enough to win national elections moving forward. This time around the establishment is lamenting that they lost touch with the common man– as though they ever had any contact, experience, or thoughts about these people before! If only we had heard their pain in the years after 2008, this whole Trump mess could have been avoided!
This is insufficient. The Republican party is not suffering from some momentary lapse in judgment. Ted Cruz would have you believe that the party simply has not been “conservative enough.” They have not strayed from an orthodoxy that would have protected them against such an ugly, violent, and stupid revolution. Trump is not a bug in this system– he is the logical conclusion. Like Trump, this system is rotten to the core. To hear Cruz tell it the problem with Trump isn’t so much his fascist-nationalist tendencies, his implausible policy solutions, or his glaring lack of knowledge. The problem is Trump’s “liberal” agenda regarding entitlements. You could not diagnose the problem more erroneously if you tried. The failure of the Republican party is not that it has failed to be conservative enough– indeed, by nearly every statistical measure they have pushed American public opinion and political rhetoric far to the right over the last 30 years. The failure is that their ideology does not work in the modern economy or a pluralistic, democratic society.
GOP strategy since the 1960s has stressed economic ideological purity (a commitment to unregulated markets, low taxes, and the idea that wealth would trickle down from the rich to the poor), fanned the flames of social tension with racist dog whistles and coded religious language, and used inflammatory language to demean and vilify anyone who opposed them. They promised that the market would better take care of the poor and mentally ill. They assured you that allowing the wealthy to keep more of their gains would see that money pumped back into the economy– creating jobs and prosperity for all. They would stop abortion and prevent gay rights from spreading. They would be fiscally responsible, balancing the budget and curbing unnecessary spending. And they failed to deliver on a single plank of this platform.
They were always destined to fail. Ayn Rand (or Hobbes, for dummies) fantasies about capitalists as the makers and laborers as grotesque sponges who live off of the masters hard work are absurd on their face. The inversion of whose work makes whose life possible is a trick slave masters and early industrialists knew well. And it is the very first idea sociologists like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim tore apart in the 19th century. Wage laborers, blue and white collar alike, have power, agency, and importance in this system too. Trickle-down economics was never going to work and it is hard to believe that so many intelligent people deluded themselves into thinking otherwise.
The racist dog-whistles and end-around on civil rights era legislative gains were a loser from the start. This bargain with the devil, in the guise of southern Dixiecrats who made the new conservative movement a viable national power, poisoned the soul of the Republican party. You leveraged fear and animosity towards blacks to animate working class whites into voting against social welfare and economic policies that were in their best interests and worked hand-in-hand with “moderate” Democrats like Bill Clinton to create a justice system that has devastated the black community. Your stated strategy, from the mid-60s on, was to ignore the black vote. And as America became more brown in the late 20th century you took a similar approach to Latino voters. Frankly, you had little choice. You had used so much of this racist coding in promoting your agenda through phrases like states rights, local control, the silent majority, and protecting traditional ways of life that you could not easily extract yourself. If you admitted one of these cards had racist origins or effects the whole house would come tumbling down. You could keep up the charade as long as your politicians remained subtle and nuanced in their approach to these issues. But you were always going to lose power nationally in this scenario– the Southern Strategy was doomed from the start– and all it would take to knock the house of cards down was a more flagrant and compelling George Wallace type. And boy did you find him.
Likewise, it was implausible to believe that you could simply impose your narrow social worldview on the rest of the nation. Even within the GOP the evangelical conservatives never held a majority, yet they presumed to be able to force change across the social spectrum on issues regarding marriage, divorce, sexuality, abortion, and a whole host of other “moral” issues. This is fundamentally undemocratic. You used the rhetoric of religious freedom to hide your desire to control and discriminate against anything that was contrary to your notion of proper or “normal.” This was never going to fly with liberal Christians, non-Christians, politically liberal Americans, or the libertarians in your own coalition. Put quite simply, the math was never there.
As David Brooks points out in The Post-Trump Era, when you have this much rot at your core the house must be gutted to the studs and rebuilt from the ground up. So it must be for the Republican party.
Brooks calls for a “mental purging.” While he still can’t see that the policies of the Reagan era never really did work, he has been convinced that they no longer work. Indeed, this seems plainly clear to every moderate Republican I know or read. You can hear how jarred they are by the utter failure of their mental frameworks. Most of my friends seem unsure about the next step. There are really only three ways forward: continue down the Trump rabbit hole, follow Cruz’s “purity” path, or embrace the “burn it down” mantra of Brooks.
The Trump path is untenable. He has exposed too much of the rotten core for educated people, liberal and conservative alike, to ever rally around that standard again. They know that the problems he exposed must be addressed or you simply run the risk of an endless series of crazed populists, ever more violent and unhinged, popping up in his place.
Some of my friends find Cruz’s purity path compelling– if we just try to be more conservative maybe it can work! Ignoring that half of the country has no interest in going down that road, they think they can simply dig in and wait the rest of the country out. This will fail spectacularly, again the numbers are simply not there, and they will be left gnashing their teeth and seething that the “sell-outs” in Washington couldn’t follow through on more undeliverable promises. These are the holdouts who can’t believe that their mental frameworks simply didn’t work and that it is time to go back to the drawing board.
Brooks suggestion is the least popular one. But I have been hearing it more and more. At first, it was in hushed tones. The disappointment was clear in their voices. How could we be so wrong? Their policies and worldview offer them no escape from the problem. As Brooks says, their mental frameworks simply “stopped working.” While Trump offers no feasible ideas or policies, neither have any of his opponents. His bluster and bravado win the day when put up against the tried and true failures of the modern GOP.
But as time moves forward some of these hushed tones have become confident calls for revolution. Not the throaty, angsty revolution of the Tea Party– that movement was the death-throes of the old order. No, the GOP must be cleansed by the fire of Trump so that conservatives can look freshly at their philosophies and values.
It will not be easy. It will require conservatives to do things that they have eschewed for a long time. First, as Brooks points out, they must become open to seeking out and engaging new ideas. Rejoin academia. Not only would the academy be richer for your work, the movement desperately needs a scholarly grounding. Engage the political and economic philosophies that have grown out of the problems and scholarly research of the last fifty years. This means learning to ask questions that you do not assume to have the answers to beforehand. Look at the sources and data surrounding the economic collapse of the working class and determine causality, not through your faith in a worldview, but through the preponderance of evidence. Stop shouting down dissent from blacks, immigrants, and white working class Americans and figure out why they are so mad. Hint: it is not because taxes on the wealthy remain too high.
The second step–and one Brooks only hints at–is that conservatives and the GOP need to renew their commitment to democracy in a pluralistic society. Compromise is not a dirty word. It is essential to a functioning republic. Work to find places where conservative ideas and liberal ones intersect. Point out the unintended and/or negative consequences of liberal policies without going apocalyptic. Be willing to accept half-measures that leave neither side particularly happy. This is how democracy works.
Finally, the modern conservative movement must find a more coherent coalition. The unholy alliance of conservative evangelical Christians, white supremacists, libertarians, and neocons is incoherent. It views Americans alternately as unworthy sinners, bands of competing racial tribes, logical and utility-driven individuals with selfish motives that serve the greater good, and as cogs in a well-oiled global economic machine. Until the movement is able to see human communities and human nature in more honest terms they will fail to develop a coherent approach to serving the people of this nation. This will inevitably mean casting some people out of the big tent. I suggest starting with the bigots. And if the evangelicals can’t come to grips with the idea that human suffering on Earth is something we should collectively work to avoid I would send them packing too.
There is both great appeal and a tremendous need for a strong conservative movement in America. The new GOP should champion the small guy. It should stand up for the people who break their backs building this country. It should embrace using the federal government as a tool for good, but only in places where the scale or level of suffering supports it. It should push for a fair trade and competition, carving out space for innovative entrepreneurs and protecting them from the crushing interests of big business. Conservatives should be our last line of defense against the overreach of the national security state, protecting us from Orwellian NSA nightmares. Conservatives should promote traditional values, not through futile attempts to control people’s sexual practices, but by living out the love, compassion, and support that has always been the backbone of faith in America. We don’t need it in our laws. We need it in our words and deeds. The GOP should embrace diversity, seeing the American Dream in the lives of hard working immigrants, calling out the tyranny of the state in our treatment of blacks, and finding the literal embodiment God’s message of love and community in our multicultural society. This is a coalition that works. It has a coherent worldview, rooted in a philosophy of small government, traditional American religious values, and free-market capitalist ideology, yet it acknowledges the challenges and complexities of reality.
This is a rare moment in American history. Think carefully and act responsibly, my conservative friends and family. You have a chance to fundamentally remake your movement. What comes out of it goes on your historic record– it can’t be blamed on Goldwater, Nixon, the Southern Strategy, Reagan, or W from here on out. Will you embrace a more nuanced and loving way forward or continue down your path of hate and destruction? Your move. Make it wisely.