The Grand Old (Fracturing?) Party

My first piece for this website — dated 9/13/15 — was called “Donald Trump and the Fragility of the GOP.” It centered on Trump’s ongoing coup d’etat of the Republican Party. It’s interesting to re-read the poorly worded piece now that we know what’s happened in the 18 months since.[1] The column’s theme was that the party was losing control of its voters. “Politics as usual” wasn’t cutting it anymore. Trump’s brash inexperience was the natural face of this movement. In retrospect — and in retrospect only — it made sense that he would go on to win the party’s nomination.

Of course, like many coups d’etat of centuries past, the hard part is not the coup itself, but what comes next — that is, the etat.[2] Revolutions are easier than governing. Different groups of people come together to fight a common enemy, but once that enemy has been overthrown, the groups return to being separate factions. It happened to the Greek city-states after their defeat of Persia, the Roman foederati after their defeat of Attila, and the heroic leaders of the American and French Revolutions after vanquishing their respective suppressors. The very gravity that bound those alliances together was their mutual antagonist. No antagonist, no gravity. No gravity, and things start to spiral.

We’ve seen this physics play out with segments of the Republican Party. For eight years, their collective animosity toward President Obama gave them a common cause. From the party’s “top political priority” of denying Obama a second term to the Senate’s refusal to hear his final Supreme Court pick, Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder against the 44th president and his Democratic successor. Therefore, even as GOP HQ lost control of its voters, it was at least unified in its opposition to the Obama presidency and the Clinton coronation. For that reason, Republicans talked themselves intro Trump, and in November they tasted sweet victory.

The 45th president, however, has made things more complicated for the GOP. On the one hand, his electoral triumph last November gave Republicans control of the legislative and executive branches. That should have poised the party for a couple years of almost unchecked legislation.[3] They could deliver on the promises of the party and Trump’s campaign.

But that’s not what’s happened. With their common foe defeated, if not locked up, the party is having trouble getting on the same page. One reason for this discombobulation, aside from Donald Trump notoriously not reading things with multiple pages so it’s unlikely that he can get on the same one with anybody, is that this party leader lacks a proverbial “north star.” He hasn’t spent a career making a name for himself in conservative circles.

Though this heterodox ideology is mostly inoculated from conservative attacks because he’s now the nominal head of the conservative party, it’s worth summing up the ways in which he hasn’t been one of them:

  • He was a Democrat for most of his life, and has taken many liberal positions in the past. Even after his Republican conversion, he has taken positions outside the conservative spectrum.
  • Small government conservatives should be frustrated that he refuses to touch the biggest driver of the U.S. debt — entitlements — and intends to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, which hasn’t yet been factored into his budget proposal, a proposal that even without it will continue to drive up the debt. These are typically Democratic positions.
  • Foreign policy hawks should fear his vowed retrenchment from foreign affairs.
  • Free trade conservatives should resist his protectionist trade ideas.
  • Evangelical conservatives must react squeamishly to his seedy, three-marriage, foul-mouthed, unScriptured past. (No links necessary)
  • Intellectual conservatives must recognize that despite his unrelenting fanfaranade, he’s rarely spoken intellectually on any single issue, but instead in a series of repetitive, skin-deep, and frequently false sound-bytes.

All these different groups need a capable rudder to steer them together, but the only major issues where he fully connects with Republican orthodoxy is immigration and deregulation. Everywhere else, he would never be chosen as that particular subset’s ambassador. He can’t speak their language, and that makes it exceedingly difficult to negotiate.

Republicans have been patient with him, but one must wonder how much longer they can wait for the most inexperienced president ever to figure out the job. The recent debacle with his first major initiative — health care reform — illustrates not only the above problems, but an underlying fault of his presidency. Consider the following:

  • For about seven years, the Republican Party promised to repeal and replace the American Care Act. That pledge came from members of Congress, presidential candidates, and the soon-to-be president himself, who promised to replace it with “something terrific” on “Day One.” Then they controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress. After 11 weeks, the ACA is still law. Thus, they were united in opposition to Obamacare, but once in power they couldn’t agree what to do about it. The revolutionaries weren’t able to govern.
  • The split was due to an ideological wing disconnecting from the party’s pilot. In this case, small government conservatives — most prominently the House’s Freedom Caucus — had reservations about President Trump and Speaker Ryan’s American Health Care Act, most prominently that it did not roll back Obamacare’s policies enough.
  • During the postmortem on the failed bill, the new head elephant broke Reagan’s 11th Commandment, reared his trunk, and drenched the more principled conservatives. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” he tweeted. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

This aggressive language — to lump the most conservative members of his own party in with the diabolical Democrats, including threatening their seats in the 2018 midterm elections — surely tested the patience of conservative Republicans. Here is a life-long Democrat criticizing life-long Republicans about not being loyal to the party.

With such predictably irresponsible language, Trump risks a circular firing squad, so he must aim carefully. His bellicosity has alienated too many groups necessary to govern, especially the media, every last member of the Democratic Party, and a majority of the American people.[4] No president since the birth of polling has ever been this unpopular in his third month, but the support he does have is propped up by still strong numbers among conservative Republicans. Now, however, with threats to work with Democrats to make a more moderate health care bill, he might be on the precipice of losing them, too.

Of course, winning back Democrats — thanks to their stubbornness and his language, demeanor, proposals, and pretty much everything about him — is impossible. He must find a way to keep all Republican groups under the party’s big tent, pass big legislation (tax reform, anyone??), act the part of responsible leader who doesn’t shoot himself in the foot by alienating potential allies, grow that approval rating, and convert all of that into a stronger coalition. It’s been done before.

That starts with putting the GOP back together again. A party that controls the first two branches should not be this listless. This presidency isn’t over, but unless he finds a way to steer his party and the ship of state, it might never begin.


Footnotes: 

[1]Am I the only one who cringes at their old writing? At the time the wording sounds perfect! Only upon later revisitation do the words betray our voice. For example, I’m sure that by this summer I’ll hate having used the word “revisitation.”

[2]Sorry.

[3]As long as that so-called “third branch of government” didn’t get in the way.

[4]Quick aside because I need to rebut a weak counterargument here. Just because Clinton was predicted to win and Trump became president does not mean polls can’t be trusted. After all, the Real Clear Politics national average of polls predicted about a 3.2-point victory for HRC, and she won by 2.1 percent. It was off by about a percent. Therefore, I think we can still generally trust the amalgamation of national polls. If the President’s current approval polls are off by a percent, we can all agree they’re pretty accurate. State polls, to be sure, are more finicky, mostly due to their smaller sample sizes, hence the electoral predictions in a few states missed the mark.

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2 thoughts on “The Grand Old (Fracturing?) Party

  1. […] My last political post finished by asserting Trump could still rebound from his uneven start.[1] I know this because we’ve been here before. Well, maybe not exactly here. It’s safe to say President Trump lacks a totally congruent precedent. Still, we not too long ago had unpopular presidents who not only rebounded, but they ultimately achieved historic victories. […]

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