Republicans must destroy their party in order to save it. So goes the argument advanced by Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, fellows at the Brookings Institution, in The Atlantic, and by Tom Nichols in USA Today. While their criticism seems well-intended, their collective wisdom accounts for neither the zero-sum nature of American politics, nor the double standard by which the parties are judged.
Rauch and Wittes pull no punches in making the following declaration:
The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to … vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).
Setting aside their conclusion for a moment, the concerns that animate the Brookings duo should be broadly resonant. Our deepening tribal rift is a real problem, and it coincides with politics becoming something more pervasive and akin to blood sport. Politics is no longer the means for self-governance in a free society, but instead a form of entertainment that centers upon personally destroying your political opponents. Our democracy has taken on the flavor of a circus, and no one’s hands are clean.
Obama Attacked Civic Norms Also. Where Were You?
That’s the fundamental problem with Rauch and Wittes piece. They see Donald Trump and his political coalition as uniquely dangerous, instead of as symptomatic of crumbling institutions and a declining civic impulse. The president’s rhetoric and actions can be corrosive—for instance, calling Democrats who opposed his tax plan traitors—but Rauch and Wittes magnify Trump’s impact while ignoring similar transgressions from the Obama years.
Rauch and Wittes decry Trump’s “attacks on federal judges, his pardon of a sheriff convicted of defying a court’s order to enforce constitutional rights, his belief that he gets to decide on Twitter who is guilty of what crimes, and his view that the justice system exists to effectuate his will.”
But is this any worse than President Obama firing a shot across the bow of the Supreme Court before its ruling on the Affordable Care Act? Is Chelsea Manning more deserving of a pardon than Joe Arpaio? (I would argue neither is, but that’s just me.) Was it acceptable when Attorney General Eric Holder used his department to surveil American journalists?
This isn’t to dismiss Trump’s actions—which are often indefensible—through whataboutism, but to instead suggest that this White House is a magnet for criticism because of the president’s flamboyance and the cultural importance of the individuals and groups he offends. President Obama just picked better enemies, and attacked them with greater elegance.
Even if this administration’s transgressions are more serious, writers concerned about the health of civil society, as Rauch and Wittes purport to be, should understand that durable institutions need buy-in from a broad cross-section of society. By definition, that must include many of President Trump’s supporters. How does telling Republicans, even those who may share their concerns, to self-destruct in coming elections do anything to advance their objectives?
We Don’t Live In a Purist Fantasy World
Nichols, by contrast, writes with the frustration of a Republican witnessing his party lose its sense of self. A prominent Never Trumper, Nichols undoubtedly has conservative sensibilities. The criticism he levels at his party cuts deep because it’s true. Conservatives have forsaken deeply held beliefs and turned a blind eye to behavior they would decry in a Democrat, all for the sake of winning.
But with modern politics a zero-sum game, Nichols’ suggestion that Republicans willingly go into exile is folly: “Where I was once unaffiliated but quietly cheering on conservatives, I am now a member of a party I want to see cast into the political wilderness for a few years — or longer, if that’s what it takes to break the fever.”
Projecting Nichols’ wish back to 2016, we would now be in the second year of a Hillary Clinton presidency that would secure generational victories for Democrats, including a progressive majority on the Supreme Court, expansion of the administrative state, and a continued assault on religious liberty.
From Nichols’ point of view, the risk of a Trump presidency outweighed the terrible certainty of a Clinton administration. But were others wrong to believe that Clinton posed an equal or greater danger? She certainly wouldn’t champion the unborn. Having never met a government program she didn’t like, limited government conservatives would find little to embrace. And would a Clinton administration meaningfully pivot from its predecessor’s foreign policy that embraced Iran and Cuba while distancing the United States from Israel?
Politics is the art of the possible, and when the nominating process concluded, voters had two choices. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who believed either candidate was the pinnacle of American statesmanship, but it’s the choice primary voters gave us. (Though let’s not forget that 55 percent of Republican primary voters pulled the lever for someone other than Trump). It was a difficult choice, and some opted to cast a protest vote if only to say “none of the above.” But the reality was a binary choice, and most Americans made it.
Don’t Throw Stones in Glass Houses
The temptation toward self-criticism is powerful, and I experienced many of the same feelings Nichols articulates. Of course I would prefer our party always take the high road. But cynics may point out that Republicans tried this, imperfectly, during the 1990s. Republican Speaker-designate Bob Livingston announced his resignation over extramarital affairs while national Democrats rallied around their scandalous president. Or consider how Mitt Romney was treated as the Republican nominee in 2012. Democrats, with a complicit media, turned a decent and accomplished man into one of history’s great villains.
At the very least, there are always members of the Republican coalition who have had the courage to call out their co-partisans when they go astray. This includes writers like Nichols and Jonah Goldberg, elected officials like Sens. Ben Sasse and John McCain, and Republican voters in Alabama who crossed over to defeat Roy Moore.
Our party isn’t perfect, but it did generate a movement of opposition to its own nominee (where was Never Bernie?). There are heterodox Republicans that work with Democrats on issues more at home on the Left—Sen. Lindsey Graham on immigration and Sen. Mike Lee on criminal justice reform come to mind—because they think it’s the right thing to do. What Democrats are reaching across the aisle on issues of greater import to the Right, if it’s not in their immediate self-interest?
So yes, America needs a better Republican Party. It’s not impossible to imagine. After all, Democrats pivoted in less than a decade from Bill Clinton’s Third Way to Sanders’ democratic socialism. While Trump may have demonstrated that populism runs much deeper in the Republican Party than many believed, a new generation of leaders could articulate a vision of America that bridges the gap between the tribes.
Our new house divided is one made of glass. Critics of the Trump Republicans should reflect on the systemic failure of our politics before they begin to cast stones.