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The End of Republicanism?

Vanessa Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Tiffany Trump, on the third day of the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 20, 2016
Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Vanessa Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Tiffany Trump, on the third day of the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 20, 2016

The purpose of a modern party convention, one of them at any rate, is to have delegates return home full of enthusiasm and vigor for the struggle ahead. Ideally, they’ll have been stirred by a soaring closing-night acceptance speech from their anointed nominee, they’ll be armed both with arguments and an inspirational vision to see them through the fall, and they will know that any rifts opened up during the preceding primary season have been duly healed. For a few weeks, at least, they will bask in the afterglow of party comradeship, having been reminded of the rightness of their cause and convinced of their chances of victory.

Some of those who spent last week navigating the heavily-secured streets of Cleveland for the Republican National Convention may well feel that way. Trump supporters outnumbered those who had backed his opponents and they liked what they heard. They reckon the nominee is channeling a mood of fear and rage in the country that the national media and the liberal elites might not like, but that is potent and deeply felt. They believe this spirit of anxious fury is capable of forging a “silent majority” that could carry Trump, like Richard Nixon before him, to the White House.

But others left Cleveland in low spirits. Richard Tafel, who founded the Log Cabin Republicans to shift the party’s stance on gay rights, told a panel discussion a few hours before Trump’s speech Thursday night that, “I might be watching the funeral of the Republican Party at this convention.” (And this was, despite Trump’s clear effort to reach out to gay voters, exemplified by his halting enunciation of a commitment to protect “LGBTQ citizens,” the phrase hardly tripping off the Trump tongue.) A few minutes after the address, Nicolle Wallace, who was a senior operative in the John McCain campaign of 2008, had a similar premonition. “The Republican Party that I worked for for two decades died in this room tonight,” she told NBC, citing Trump’s strident appeals to “protectionism, isolationism, and nativism.”  

This was about more than the traditional split between moderates and hardliners, or the familiar divide between economic and social conservatives. The current turmoil runs across multiple fissures and goes deeper, raising serious questions about the coherence, even the viability, of the Republican Party.

It means that the ranks of the discontented are not confined to the usual suspects. The most visible dissident in Cleveland was not a member of the near-extinct patrician, Rockefeller Republican tribe but a born-again Christian conservative from Texas, Ted Cruz, who made himself the martyr to the Never Trump cause by ostentatiously withholding his endorsement in a speech whose climax was drowned out by boos. Minutes later, on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena, I was rapidly surrounded by Cruz supporters, drawn by the sight of my notebook.

Until then, they had bitten their tongues, they said, for the sake of party unity. But the rancor that had deluged Cruz was too much to take. Now, Selena Coppa, a young delegate from Washington State, wanted me to know that she would back anyone but Trump. Cruz had instructed the audience to “vote their conscience” and her conscience would not allow her “to vote for a bigot and proto-fascist” like Trump.

Yet this is not solely a revolt of “values conservatives” against the brash, thrice-married vulgarian from Queens—a battle of Iowa against New York, as Cruz likes to frame it. There are other fault-lines. Neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol (or Robert Kagan, who says he will vote for Hillary Clinton) oppose Trump too, as do foreign policy realists such as Brent Scowcroft. Some of this is personal: Scowcroft and others feel a strong loyalty to the Bush family, whose animus toward Trump is incandescent thanks to the billionaire’s trashing of Jeb. But policy substance has also played its part in Trump’s improbable achievement: he has managed to turn many disparate Republican strands—Log Cabin types and evangelicals, neocons and Bush 41 stalwarts, Wall Streeters and military brass—against him. (That these different elements have not been able to cohere around an alternative candidate or program helps, in part, to explain Trump’s success, but it does not make their opposition any less real.)

Trade is a crucial example. The GOP has long been the party of free trade; in 1993, Bill Clinton could only pass NAFTA with Republican votes. But now its nominee denounces such trade as a destroyer of American jobs, apparently seeing commerce as something the US should do to, rather than with, other countries. The result was the astonishing sight of a Republican presidential nominee, in his acceptance speech, bidding for the voters of an avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, “because,” as Trump put it, “we will fix his biggest issue, trade deals.” The issue was hardly debated in Cleveland, but the shift is remarkable all the same. Trump has refashioned the GOP as the party of protectionism, advocating an approach Republicans previously denounced as a threat to American prosperity.

Similarly, Republicans have for decades enjoyed an advantage on national security, obliging the Democrats to match them on strength and military commitment. Trump has broken from that too. He implies a rupture not only from the neocon, democracy-spreading policies associated with Bush the son, but also with the engaged internationalism of Bush the father. Trump is seemingly uninterested in America’s traditional status as sheet-anchor of the international system, central in a series of interlocking alliances that have maintained relative order and stability since 1945. Instead, he took time out from Cleveland to tell The New York Times he did not believe in the cardinal principle underpinning NATO—that an attack on one member is an attack on all—and that, as president, he would only defend one of the Baltic states from hypothetical Russian invasion if he deemed that state to have been paying its proper dues. Put aside the huge implications of such a shift for global security. Trump is turning his back on decades of Republican Party doctrine.

That’s true on the scale of government, too, with Trump implicitly advocating gargantuan powers for an imperial presidency: “I alone can fix this problem,” he says of crime, ISIS, immigration and much else. That’s quite a change for a party that has long regarded it as an article of faith that government is the problem and never the solution.

In his electoral strategy, Trump seems to be in tune with the old Republican playbook, the one written by Nixon and which used racially-tinged fears to win the White House by winning white votes. But in recent years, Republicans were meant to have seen the limitations of that strategy and at least to have gone through the motions of winning over non-white voters, especially Latinos. Trump has set that project into reverse, alienating if not infuriating Latino and other non-white Americans with his signature promise to build a wall with Mexico and by alleging that a US-born judge could not be impartial because of his Mexican heritage. He is apparently resting his hopes on expansion of the white electorate, chiefly by persuading blue-collar workers in rustbelt states to turn out for him in unprecedented numbers. (An oft-repeated line in Cleveland was that Trump got more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history—though, in a close race with a huge turnout, he also set a record for the most votes cast against an eventual nominee.)

In one area after another, Trump is upending the pillars of Republican wisdom. The old guard looked bewildered in Cleveland, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell coming out to boos rather than the respectful greeting he might have expected from a Republican flock welcoming one of its elders. Senators and congressmen were thin on the ground—many found their diaries booked with the politicians’ equivalent of washing their hair—but the ones that did appear were reduced to walk-on parts. As they spoke, usually in slots outside primetime, the hall remained noisy and only half-filled. The self-aware among them would have understood that in the new Republican hierarchy, they now fall below a 1990s soap actress-turned-avocado-grower named Kimberlin Brown—a real speaker on Tuesday night—and several notches lower than the new Republican elite: the children of Donald Trump. What took the Bushes and Clintons decades was achieved in Cleveland within days: the anointing of the Trump clan as a political dynasty.

Republicans alarmed at these developments are not quite sure what will be worse: for Trump to lose or for Trump to win. Some have persuaded themselves that a Trump victory is best for America, simply because Hillary Clinton must not be president. (One Utah delegate, anguished about Trump’s “rough edges,” told me he believed Clinton was “evil.”)

But others are terrified by the possibility of a Trump victory. If that happens, they fear, the upheaval of 2016 will become permanent: the Republican Party will be reshaped in Trump’s image. It will be protectionist, nativist, authoritarian, and the vehicle for an exclusively white rage. Richard Tafel recoils so sharply from that prospect, he is talking seriously of forming a new party of the center-right. He’s already had conversations with “some of the wealthiest” CEOs and others, worried that Trumpism does not respect the prudent, cautious, free-market conservatism they value. For millennials especially, Tafel says, Trump is making the Republican Party a “toxic brand.” 

Tellingly, Tafel is clear what his new party would need if it is to fly. It is a lesson he has learned from Donald Trump. “We’d need a celebrity with money.”