What is to be done about the Republican Party? Sixty years ago it was the party of Dwight Eisenhower and a dynamic suburban middle class putting an end at last to the long reign of the New Deal Democrats. This summer it became the pathetic captive of Donald Trump, a television performer professing to speak for a discontented and sullen middle class.
From Eisenhower to Trump in sixty years—this was a real trip to the bottom, make no mistake, a humiliation indeed for a once-powerful party. The Republicans had had ample time to avoid it. There had long been warning signs of a party slipping into irrelevance, but there seemed to be no Republican leader shrewd, charismatic, or brave enough to shake it out of its intellectual slumber.
Nelson Rockefeller had been purged years ago for association with Henry Kissinger and for opposing the thought of Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley, brilliant political writer though he might be, was only a journalist, after all. The Bush family, which had recently had a son elected president by the Supreme Court with one of its customary five-to-four votes for Republicanism, may have wondered if it would be worth disturbing the Court again to spare the party a little humiliation.
Whatever the case, what Trump saw when glancing at the arthritic Grand Old Party was the empty shell of a political machine, available for occupancy. Adding it to the world-famous assortment of properties and consumer goods bearing the Trump name—hotels, golf courses, gambling casinos, colleges, beefsteaks, and so forth—would not only give him some sorely needed political legitimacy but would also enhance his celebrity, always a serious consideration with Trump. He took it over.
For people who like their history adorned in high-flown nomenclature, this period might be called “the Trump Captivity,” and “captivity” describes the condition in which the Grand Old Party awoke late in the 2016 presidential campaign to discover it was wearing the Trump logo.
Equally surprising had been the discovery that Trump was running for president. This was odd because Trump had never seemed to be a political animal. No one thought of him as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. Having so little political identity, he surprised serious politicians in 2015 by declaring himself a Republican candidate for president and starting to play one on television.
His stage was a televised set of “debates” designed to show off the party’s presidential talent. These gave Trump an immediate advantage, since he was the only performer already known to millions, having played host on a popular TV “reality” show in which he tested people for business acumen and fired those who didn’t measure up.
Political experts who stay on top of the cable TV bulletins and know who is who in the blogosphere now assure us that Trump has never been interested in politics. It is a killer job:…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.