If social media is any indication, many Republicans won’t come out of this election cycle with the friends they had going in. Along the fault line of Donald Trump’s campaign for president, our party has torn itself asunder.
Fracture has been a topic of Republican introspection for years. We’re beyond mere fracture now. With prominent Republicans hurling their bodies from the Trump train as if their political lives depended on it, the party has utterly imploded. With rancor at a fever pitch, there will be no reconciliation, no regrouping after November, no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. The party, as we have known it, is done.
It’s an outcome I anticipated back in March, when I wrote of the need for a “post-apocalyptic conservative movement.” By apocalypse, I don’t mean the end of the world (or the Republican Party as such). Rather, in the true sense of the term, the party’s apocalypse consists of radical transformation into something different. What different looks like will depend entirely on those who remain to shape it.
When Trump loses next month, which he undoubtedly will, recriminations will follow. Indeed, they have already begun with the likes of Sean Hannity pre-blaming Never Trump Republicans for the imminent election of Hillary Clinton. It’s a simple, silly, and unproductive sentiment. Where blame truly lies proves more complicated, and must be understood as a prerequisite to new movement.
First, it’s true what fervent Trump supporters say. The Republican establishment largely brought this on themselves. Beginning with the lackluster Bush 43, Republican politicians began a cycle of disappointment. It followed this pattern. Talk a good game about conservative principles, freedom, and the Constitution. Make sweeping promises to shrink government and fight Democrats. Get elected. Do essentially nothing or, worse, actually grow government. Rinse, wash, repeat. That pattern set the party on a descending spiral course, setting up the next stage of decay — the Tea Party.
Yes, the Tea Party. I write this as a former Tea Party activist. I ran a statewide grassroots organization in Minnesota. I attended multiple events and training sessions put on by Tea Party Patriots and similar groups. I have some notion of what I’m talking about. And yes, I’m connecting that movement — the movement of which I was a devoted part — to the decay of the Republican Party.
Here’s why. Fueled by disappointment engendered through disingenuous Republican politicians, a market grew for evermore extreme alternatives. In shooting terms, we started to lead our target. The grassroots hadn’t got what we wanted from conventional Republicans, so we aimed for more intense (and less electable) alternatives. Some of those alternatives found success, like Ted Cruz, and began a new cycle of disappointment that was worse than the first. It followed this pattern. Talk a good game about conservative principles, freedom, and the Constitution. Make sweeping promises to shrink government, fight Democrats, and fight other Republicans. Get elected. Champion impossible causes like defunding Obamacare while Obama sits in the White House. Then leverage the inevitable failure of those impossible causes to demonize fellow Republicans while raising money and building lists. That pattern accelerated the party’s descending spiral course, driving the grassroots to such frenzied desperation that they turned to a man they did not understand — Donald Trump.
Put simply, we all did this. If you were active in Republican Party politics at any point in the 21st century, you played some role in summoning the Trumpocolyspe.
With the past understood, where do we go from here? Before answering that, the “we” must be defined, because it ain’t gonna be the same Reagan coalition which got us to this point. That coalition is done. It’s gone, and it isn’t coming back. Many Republicans on both sides of the Trump divide have no desire to forgive and forget. We’re disgusted with each other. We regard one another as traitors to the cause, which is a pretty good indication that “the cause” has diverged into two distinct things. Those two divergent causes must now compete for dominance.
Broadly speaking, I would define the two camps as governing versus anti-governing. Ideologically, each camp shares many of the same principles. However, the difference in strategy is vast, to the point of total divergence. The governing conservatives actually want to, as the term suggests, govern. They want to win elections and affect public policy through available means. I emphasize the word “available” because it’s the crucial distinction from the anti-governing crowd. The latter just wants what they want, with little to no regard for how things actually work. Both camps are willing to “fight in the trenches,” but to wholly different effects. The governing conservatives want to secure public policy consistent with their principles and values. The anti-governing crowd wants the cathartic affirmation of “being right,” a feeling mostly secured through retweets, likes, and internet memes.
Teddy Roosevelt presciently spoke of the anti-governing crowd when he said in his 1910 “Citizenship in a Republic” speech:
The citizen must have high ideals, and yet he must be able to achieve them in practical fashion. No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible and indeed undesirable to realize. The impractical visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcoming, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things. Woe to the empty phrase-maker, to the empty idealist, who, instead of making ready the ground for the man of action, turns against him when he appears and hampers him when he does work! Moreover, the preacher of ideals must remember how sorry and contemptible is the figure which he will cut, how great the damage that he will do, if he does not himself, in his own life, strive measurably to realize the ideals that he preaches for others. Let him remember also that the worth of the ideal must be largely determined by the success with which it can in practice be realized.
That’s a governing attitude, and one which many in today’s crumbling Republican Party reject with full-throated contempt. Of course, they have good reason to. The cycles of disappointment which brought us to this point have fostered the sense that governing cannot be trusted to anyone who knows how to govern. The argument for Trump has been the argument for the amateur. We need a non-politician, the reasoning goes.
What we really need are statesmen. That’s a word you don’t hear often anymore. A statesman is characterized by his devotion to service, not of a puritan ideological cause, but of the practical ideal — that “which can in practice be realized.” Whatever emerges from the ashes of today’s Republican Party, it must be led by statesmen, figures of inspiration who focus on persuading the populace to embrace their ideas.
Such persuasion must proceed from a sense of humility. This cycle has been characterized by entitlement and bravado, the sense that support is owed and votes can be taken for granted. By contrast, a statesman begins from the assumption that no one will support him. He takes nothing for granted. He works to earn every vote, secure every donor, and win every ally. He demands nothing. He presumes nothing. He serves and, through service, conveys a value which fosters loyalty. A statesman thus positions himself to secure concessions which no threat of retaliation could muster, because people like and trust him.
This is why Ted Cruz, despite his many virtues, holds no claim to statesmanship. Virtually none of his contemporaries likes or trusts him. He therefore cannot get anything done. Who knows what he might have accomplished had his focus been on building coalition rather than leveraging impossible expectations for political gain — which, in the end, turned out to be major political loss.
At this point, skeptical readers might object. Playing nice hasn’t gotten conservatives very far, they may argue. That’s true. However, being likable is only one half of the package. A statesman must also be competent in securing policy objectives, leveraging the loyalty he earns to realize legislative accomplishments. That’s the part Republicans have largely been missing, pretty much since Reagan. In lieu of statesmen, the intraparty contest has been between two types of impotents, those who get elected and accomplish nothing, and those who accomplish nothing because they can’t get elected. Neither proves particularly useful. We need a new breed.
Rising stars may yet emerge. A scant few currently occupying elected office have potential. However, given the catastrophic effect of the Trump campaign, it may be several years before the ground proves fertile enough for a new Republican statesman to succeed. In the meantime, the focus of the conservative movement will inevitably change. It will have to. We’re not going to be looking at the same electoral landscape in 2020, not after four years of Hillary Clinton and the overall demographic trajectory. The movement has to adjust to its new reality. Like it or not, the ideal “which can in practice be realized” is going to change. The Republican Party will change with it, or descend into further irrelevancy.