On the eve of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, in the course of trying to apportion responsibility for things getting to that point, I diagnosed three related failings among his conservative critics.
First, a failure of introspection: the critic “blames others in the party, or often just unpredictable chance, rather than him- or herself.” Second, a failure to grasp electoral reality: “Even if driven to abandon the Republican Party, the conservative critic just does not regard voting Democrat as a live option: it has dropped out of the range of conceivable political behavior.” And third, a failure to confront history:
At most, the critics acknowledge that certain tactical choices made by the GOP in recent times may have helped to create the climate that made Trump possible. They decline to dig deeper, and look seriously at the party’s record over two decades.
Trump won because those critics, although they realised that Trump was unfit for the presidency, were not prepared to face the full implications of that fact: that the Republican Party itself had deep problems, and that the only remedy in the short term was wholehearted support of the opposing party.
One reason for their reluctance was that they believed, like most observers (including me), that Trump wouldn’t win anyway, and therefore drastic measures to stop him were unnecessary. That turned out to be an error of historic proportions.
Trump’s victory drew many former critics back into his camp. Politicians (including political intellectuals) love power, so a sitting president was much more attractive than a long-shot candidate. And even those who remained unreconciled mostly continued their failure to embrace the only available alternative, the Democrats.
But as this year’s election has drawn closer, things have started to change. Last December, a group of four Republican strategists announced the formation of the Lincoln Project, “dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box,” and acknowledged that this meant working to elect Democrats. Since then, it has mounted a sometimes brutal advertising campaign against Trump.
Other prominent Republicans have edged towards more open opposition as well – helped in part by the Democrats’ choice of a moderate, Joe Biden. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, voted to convict in Trump’s impeachment trial. Former governor John Kasich, who was one of the runners-up to Trump for the 2016 nomination, will speak in support of Biden at the Democrat convention. Even former president George W Bush has sharpened his criticisms of Trump.
The interesting question is whether this tactical awakening is or will be accompanied by any sort of philosophical rethink. Do Biden’s new supporters still blame Trump for all that has gone wrong with the Republican Party, or are they willing to trace the roots of the problem further back?
Two weeks ago, Jon Chait offered reasons for thinking the latter was more likely:
Many of them are deeply alienated from the party — not only in personal terms (…) but also in ideological terms. If Democrats somehow nominated a bigoted, ignorant, authoritarian-minded career criminal and defended his daily abuses, I would rethink the premises that had brought it to that point.
Several of the anti-Trump Republicans have done just that. … Other Republican defectors have become, at least for the time being, moderate Democrats, who have come to recognize the unacceptability of party positions like vote suppression and climate-science denial they used to go along with.
The evidence is starting to back him up. Last week another long-term Republican strategist, Stuart Stevens, took to the op-ed page to indict a much longer period of the party’s history:
I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn’t hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today’s Republican Party.
Critics of the Lincoln Project and similar efforts often point out that Trump’s support among self-declared Republicans remains very high. But if Trumpism is leading people to question the party’s whole identity, not just its leadership, that’s exactly what we’d expect. Those who desert Trump are ceasing to call themselves Republicans.
A recent Gallup poll found a sharp drop in the number of Americans who called themselves “conservative”: down six points (to 34%) in just four months. The biggest falls came among the middle aged, the relatively well-off and suburban dwellers; just the sort of traditional Republican groups where something like the Lincoln Project might be expected to have an impact.
Assuming Trump loses in November, what will happen to these (ex-)Republicans? Will they return to the party to try to remake it in their non-Trumpist image? Or will they settle down as a new centrist faction of the Democratic Party, adding to its already considerable internal tensions? And if the latter, where will that leave the Republican Party?
These are important questions for the future; no doubt we’ll return to them during the next three months. But there’s also a lot to be said for the view of Charlie Sykes, another anti-Trump conservative quoted by the Washington Post: “I feel like the house is burning. I want to put out the fire. I’m going to worry about the redecorating later.”