Almost one year ago, the GOP won control of all three branches of the federal government as the Democrats suffered their most embarrassing defeat in a generation. Many political commentators noted that the Democrats suddenly found themselves at a low ebb in terms of power: they had consistently lost House and Senate seats, as well as state legislature seats, for a decade. While the Democrats have their own problems, the GOP has mostly failed to take advantage of its unified control of government. The reason is simple: the GOP is intellectually and morally bankrupt and its members are not willing or able to solve the problems facing our country.
First, let’s make one thing clear: Trump did not cause the GOP to be this way. Trump has helped sully the GOP’s reputation, but he is a recent symptom of what the party has sowed for a long time. The GOP media and political establishments have stoked anger and resentment to fire up their voters for years, first resulting in the Tea Party, and now the proud, Know-Nothing Trump supporters. Some have argued that its problems stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the many failures of the Bush administration, creating a large trust deficit between the base and party elites. But however the mess started, it has only grown worse.
Trump himself has no ideology and few coherent ideas on what policies he supports. He has no idea how to fix and improve our healthcare system. He has little idea how to grow the economy or how to fix America’s aging infrastructure. Moreover, he has no interest in addressing gun violence, environmental issues, economic inequality, or racial tensions, which are all important issues that real leaders would address. He also has no interest in reforming our criminal justice system, and his foreign policy is dangerously incoherent, constantly damaging US credibility and influence in the world. Trump has immigration “policies”, to use the term lightly, but they are extremely reactionary and not cost-effective.
“Establishment” ideas are old and fail to reckon with the challenges that our country faces.
So, Trump campaigned on a vaguely nationalist agenda with few real details. Consequently, his agenda has morphed into a standard conservative one. “Establishment” ideas, however, are old and fail to reckon with the challenges that our country faces. The GOP agenda is still stuck with Reagan’s ideas: small government, deregulation, and tax cuts. Beyond this, the GOP is mostly happy with the status quo, although the party also favors “tougher” stances on immigration and national security. These policy ideas stem from the GOP’s elite donors and their ties to the business community, and nothing is wrong with them on the surface. But Republicans have failed to truly cut government spending in any meaningful way for decades. Their selling point for tax cuts still lies in Reaganomics (the theory of which does not apply well to our current economic situation); their current tax plan disproportionately favors the rich (and pretty obviously so). Having a conservative attitude on regulation can help individuals and businesses, but Republicans are mostly excited about eliminating environmental and financial regulations, which should be treated with caution.
What few ideas the GOP seemed to have under Obama have been exposed as hypocritical or empty. The most damning case-in-point is that of fiscal conservatives, who under Obama made dramatic stances on deficits and the budget. Now, most Republicans favor a tax plan that will likely increase the deficit. In the words of Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), deficits are “a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led.” Republicans’ complete and utter failure on healthcare also stands out. After promising to “repeal and replace” for multiple election cycles, GOP leaders were caught flat-footed with no plan at all for the healthcare system. As Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) said bluntly in a town hall during the height of the Obamacare repeal effort, “I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win. I think most of my colleagues didn’t. So we didn’t expect to be in this situation.” As a result, the party desperately tried to pass a series of half-baked and rushed bills that proved enormously unpopular. Obamacare and healthcare overall suffer from huge problems that need to be addressed. But the GOP, with one of its biggest campaign planks exposed as an empty promise, focused on simply undoing whatever parts of Obamacare that it could rather than focus on core problems such as incredibly high costs and the need to improve the quality and quantity of available insurance plans.
In short, the GOP is stuck between traditional, country-club conservative ideas and a vague “Trumpism” with no actual, workable plans. Stuck with this ideological and intellectual bankruptcy, the GOP has decided to undo whatever Obama did and plunge ever-deeper into the culture wars.
The GOP is also morally bankrupt: its members are spineless and incapable of leadership, which has created an utterly dysfunctional party. Again, Trump exacerbated this trait but did not cause it. Embracing Trump, though, has shattered every norm that the party pretended to care about. Because it apparently needs repeating: Trump has a long history of racist and sexist acts and comments, and any examination of his statements over the last two years should lead any rational individual to conclude that he is morally disgusting, intellectually vapid, and grossly unqualified for the position he holds. The GOP can continue to pretend that it cares about values such as religion, family, responsibility, and leadership. But this pretense has been utterly exposed.
Of course, the GOP would have committed political suicide if they had rejected Trump’s nomination, or perhaps if they had abandoned him after the “Access Hollywood” tape. Perhaps they cannot be blamed so harshly. But the spectacle has still been sad for our country. The few Republicans who speak out against Trump are either on their way out (John McCain, Bob Corker) or have always been independent-minded (Susan Collins and Rand Paul). Most follow Trump because they are afraid of their own voters. The party has moved rightward for decades, but it has lost control of the process. The GOP no longer leads. It follows. As Rep. Thomas Massie (a libertarian-like Republican) recently stated, the Republican base does not even vote for Tea Party ideas or even libertarian ideas: “they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race – and Donald Trump won best in class.” This trend has only continued with Alabama Republicans’ embrace of Roy Moore. He has claimed, among many insane statements, that parts of Illinois operate under Sharia law, that homosexual conduct should be illegal, and that members of Congress who are Muslim (such as Keith Ellison) should be barred from service. Moore was also removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice: first for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments that he had installed on public land, and the second time for refusing to recognize the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. Despite all this, Moore has recently been endorsed by Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who claim to be strict constitutional conservatives.
The GOP no longer leads. It follows.
The GOP, then, has no leaders. Its members are unwilling to solve problems and lead the country forward. No members can lead the party itself either: the scorched-earth tactics of Republicans have convinced most that compromise is a sin and that any sort of moderation will result in a hard-right primary challenge. As a result, Republicans cannot even work with each other. There have always been many types of Republicans: libertarians, business conservatives, social conservatives, moderates, etc. But their inability to agree with even each other has ground their legislative agenda to a halt. Their abdication of moral leadership has resulted in a hopelessly divided party. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are left struggling to even keep their caucuses in order. Congressional leaders are not supposed to be the real leaders of a party; they focus on satisfying donors and maintaining (or gaining) power. The GOP increasingly risks failing in these goals, and so Ryan and McConnell are left with simply trying to maintain a semblance of order.
The GOP not only lacks ideas, but the ability and the will to lead the country, solve problems, and address pressing issues. The paralysis of the party represents Republican leaders reaping what they have sowed: anger, fear, resentment, and unwillingness to compromise. I’m not sure what this means for the future. A cycle of buck-passing has already begun in Washington: Trump has refused to take any responsibility for GOP failures, and Paul Ryan has begun to blame the Senate with regularity. Trump also increasingly punts politically difficult issues, from DACA to the Iran deal, to Congress rather than make a final decision. The midterms will likely be rough for Republicans, and while individual members may lose to Trumpish, far-right candidates (with targets including Jeff Flake and Dean Heller), the establishment GOP and Trump are one and the same. The “Trumpian Anschluss, the peaceful takeover of a party too craven to fight back” has already occurred. A reckoning would be well-deserved.
Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons