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If I had to bet on the likeliest survivors of a killer asteroid striking earth, they’d be cockroaches and America’s political parties. The last time a major party died, it mothered today’s Republicans, and while the Whig Party, splintering over slavery in the 1850s, didn’t survive, its progeny has been the Democrats’ opposition ever since.
But now the GOP shows the beginnings of its own rupture. Against history’s odds, are we witnessing a fatal Republican crack-up?
In mid-December, a quartet of Never Trump Republicans announced, via New York Times op-ed, a new group named for the party’s first president. The Lincoln Project, they wrote, aspires to no less than “defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box” because of his “crimes, corruption and corrosive nature.” One potential target: Maine’s Republican senator, Susan Collins, should she drink the anti-impeachment Kool-Aid.
Euthanizing the party is not the stated object of the Project. Yet when luminaries who’ve worked for the Bushes and John McCain say that “electing Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not is a worthy effort;” when the likes of George Will and Todd Domke, a strategist and WBUR analyst, leave the GOP in disgust over Trumpism; and when Domke foresees the party’s ”extinction” as its rank-and-file racism drives decent Americans away, you have to wonder if we’re in the first death throes of a major party since Lincoln’s day.
Having predicted that my party would never nominate Trump in 2016 — and, after they did, that he couldn’t win that November — I now forswear predicting tomorrow’s weather even after hearing the forecast. I wish the Lincoln Project all success. I remain a Republican because I share William F. Buckley’s preference for private solutions whenever possible (for example, supporting Obamacare for all instead of Medicare for All), and I share Edmund Burke’s reverence for institutions that have proven their social value over time.
I fear, however, that the Lincoln Project is too little, too late. Congressional Republicans grovel before Trump because they fear political reprisal from his bigoted base; the leaders have become the led. Even so, rumors of the Republican Party’s imminent death are greatly exaggerated. We’ll almost certainly be living with it for some time to come. The question is how it will be remade.
One telling sentence in the op-ed explains why weaning Trump’s cult from his thuggishness is hopeless: “In a recent survey, a majority of Republican voters reported that they consider Mr. Trump a better president than Lincoln.” (Well, Trump did say he likes the poorly educated.) Preferring a man who stole migrant children to the man who believed no person is another’s to steal corroborates the overwhelming evidence of primal bigotry motivating the Trump base.
Such voters aren’t like the persuadable Americans who embraced civil rights after watching Jim Crow brutality on their televisions in the 1960s. They’re more like George Wallace’s unapologetic segregationists. Studies suggest one-on-one, empathetic conversations with bigots can cure some of their hate, but those interventions are outside the wheelhouse of politics, a naked if non-violent exercise of power: If I get more votes, I win. You lose. On that score, the odds aren’t good for the Lincoln Project.
I fear, however, that the Lincoln Project is too little, too late.
The same poll exalting Trump over the Railsplitter reported that almost nine of every 10 Republicans somewhat or strongly approve of the incumbent’s job performance. For now, neither of the president’s GOP primary opponents, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld and ex-congressman Joe Walsh, is showing enough strength to upend the 136-year-old tradition of robotic renomination of presidents.
It will be great if Weld particularly exceeds expectations and damages the president for the fall election, at which point the Democratic nominee, Domke predicts, will thump Trump. You can make a case for and against that prediction. But the notion that a Democratic win would hasten a total GOP self-immolation merits skepticism. We’ve seen prophesying about both parties’ demises misfire before. (Some thought the GOP was Dumpster-bound as recently as Barack Obama’s first election.)
“Parties, it turns out, are almost shockingly resilient,” political scientist Seth Masket says. He attributes their hardiness, first, to our winner-take-all congressional and legislative elections; unlike parliamentary systems, minor parties rarely win seats. That reinforces Americans in voting either Democratic or Republican. You may have to hold your nose, but why waste a vote on a third party that can’t win? Thus fortified, the two major parties have passed laws making ballot access hellishly hard for everybody else.
Contra Domke, Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson predicts that, 10 years after Trump leaves the scene, Republicans will look like the GOP Teddy Roosevelt headed, which protected the environment and regulated big business. It’s a needed reminder of what the party could be.
I take critics’ point that previous Republicans seeded the soil for Trumpism, but the president’s two heartfelt principles, xenophobia and protectionism, historically were antithetical to conservatives. And men of conservative politics and/or temperament -- Lincoln, Britain’s Disraeli, Germany’s Bismarck — invented government safety nets.
But returning Republicans to those roots, history suggests, would require a string of electoral defeats beyond 2020. Republicans accepted the New Deal after FDR’s landslides; Democrats moderated their liberalism after their 1980s shellackings.
For now, resurrecting the first Roosevelt isn’t on the to-do list of Republican voters. More than playing for their allegiance, the party’s reformers are playing for posterity. As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin writes, “At least the Lincoln Project founders can say to their children and grandchildren that they gave their all to defend the deeply held principles on which this country was founded. That is far more than many will be able to do.”
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