The Donald is back. He wowed them at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando—normally a sedate affair as such things go, but this time Trump was cheering on his concluding address like a revivalist tent at white heat. For people outside the tent, namely the majority of the country who drove Donald Trump from the presidency only four months ago, it looked like a banished nightmare come back to life. But I’d like to tell you why we should welcome Trump back and encourage him to stick around. Yes, he inflicted desperate damage on the country, and that damage continues—Donald Trump is not merely a demagogue but a destroyer, pure and simple.
But there’s one thing that needs demolishing in the land, and Trump is the man to do it. That is the Republican Party. The Republican Party began with Abraham Lincoln and ended up with Donald Trump. That’s a heck of a long way down. From Reconstruction, Republicans moved within a generation to Wall Street. They haven’t budged since except, briefly, under Teddy Roosevelt, and they kicked Teddy out.
The Republicans have been a minority party since the Great Depression, and the presidents they elected have ranged from the dismal to the disastrous. Dwight Eisenhower: the war hero who beat Adolf Hitler, hid under the sheets while Joe McCarthy tyrannized the country. Barry Goldwater thought of nuclear war as an elaborate picnic. Richard Nixon was, well, Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan crushed unions, killed what was left of the New Deal and sabotaged the government he supposedly led. George W. Bush lied us into two wars we are still fighting and brought us the greatest economic collapse since 1929. And those are only the highlights. I don’t want you to think I’m too fond of Democrats.
For generations, they made a deal with the Devil to enable segregation in the South. They got us into our biggest wars. On the whole, they got along perfectly well with Wall Street themselves. But for a modestly liberal wing that makes noise but not policy, they are a right-of-center party. We could use a progressive party in the country. Maybe even a new conservative one, although the Democrats fill that bill pretty well. But right now they are the only party we’ve got. And our politics won’t go anywhere until we have cleared the debris that still calls itself the Republican Party.
Some Republican intellectuals (and I used the word advisedly) have been appalled at what Donald Trump has meant for the party and have left it. Some politicians have retired or gone into the wilderness. But, for those who hope to resuscitate it, it’s worth looking at what they argue it’s really about. John Thune, the Senator from South Dakota who serves as Mitch McConnell’s Minority Whip, recently put the case this way to CNN: “Do [House Republicans] want to be the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, free markets, peace through strength and pro-life, or do they want to be the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon?” Let’s unpack this a bit. The federal bureaucracy has grown steadily through Democratic and Republican administrations alike; it’s the nature of the beast.
What Republicans have done is cut essential services and regulatory functions or shift resources from where they’re needed (for example: public schools, public housing and public health) to where they’re not (for example: new weapons systems that keep the military-industrial complex flourishing). Reagan cut the federal public health budget by 30 percent, and it’s been progressively starved, particularly by Republicans, ever since. That’s what made us such easy pickings for COVID-19.
Fiscal responsibility? From 1969 to 1993, Republicans controlled the White House for 16 of 24 years. There was never a balanced budget in that time or in 12 years after under George W. Bush or Trump. As Dick Cheney famously said, Ronald Reagan taught us that balanced budgets don’t matter—unless Democrats are in the White House, as he forgot to add. Free markets? Yes, with tax cuts, subsidies, write-offs and “incentives” that have fostered monopolies, propped up dysfunctional or climate-destroying industries, shifted the tax burden onto a middle class whose steady decline has resulted in bitterness, division and—Donald Trump.
Peace through strength? Pick your missile. Pro-life? Perish the thought if Roe v. Wade were ever repealed. But there are votes in promising it. John Thune tells us exactly what the Republican Party is not, has not been and never will be. The reliably vapid David Brooks, writing recently in The New York Times, concedes that the Republican Party is now the captive of “an apocalyptic personality cult,” meaning of a leader he dislikes. But, he says, it can come back as a “multi-racial, working-class coalition” that will also be “a champion for those who didn’t complete college, don’t want to leave their hometown for the big city, [and] have a set of traditional values centered around their faith.”
What world is David living in? The Republican Party embraced racism when the Civil Rights Act cracked the Dixiecrats’ stranglehold on the South in the 1960s; Ronald Reagan sweet-talked this into the Party’s DNA and Donald Trump blared it, throwing xenophobia and anti-Semitism into the bargain. Reagan snared a disaffected white working class abandoned by the Democrats, and blue collar workers followed Republicans for a generation until they got the message that they were worse off than ever. Imagining the party that shuns a $15 minimum wage is going to retrofit itself as the friend of the working stiff is downing the Kool-Aid with a chaser of bleach. And as for that near-zero population that was a dying breed in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” good luck there.
David Brooks’ party is three-fourths fantasy and one-fourth ghost. The fact is that Republicans have been a minority party since the 1930s. It has no core but the corporate class that funds it.
It wins elections only when Democrats lose them, as after the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It has no strategy for victory except suppressing Democratic votes, and so, in 43 states, it has introduced over 250 bills aimed at doing exactly that since the November elections.
It fell naturally into the arms of a Donald Trump, a man dedicated to serving only the simplest and ugliest interest: himself.
It had, and has, no other place to go. So, let Trump finish the job of killing off a bankrupt and moribund party at long last. Yes, he won 46.8 percent of the popular vote for president in November. On that same day, his nationwide approval rating stood at 34 percent. Republican politicians would desperately love to escape him, but he has consolidated a base around himself—a majority within a minority—that they dare not offend and cannot win over.
They can only be taken down with him. The risk in this is that Trump will spread his personal toxicity further, and that is a serious consideration. But he can’t win the presidency again and will only pull down candidates yoked to him. Individual Republicans for whom one might have had a modicum of respect have left the scene or been fatally marginalized. The rest of them have sold their souls, many long ago. Now their time has come.
Let’s give the Devil a chance to collect.