One of the things that has gotten lost in present predicament of the Republican Party is the remarkable degree to which the fundamental character of the party itself is now in doubt. Pundits and party officials have been far more talkative about the immediate issues caused by Republicans’ nomination of Donald Trump—that his extreme views and unhinged statements are imperiling not only GOP prospects at regaining the White House but also increasingly threatening the party’s majorities in the House and Senate. This short-term focus is understandable. The latest round of polling has been abysmal for Trump, and down-ballot races are shaping up as referenda on the GOP standard-bearer as well. Saving the party from electoral oblivion is probably Republicans’ best use of energy and resources for the next three months. What comes after November 8th, however, will likely prove more challenging to the Republican Party than even this urgent task. This looming existential crisis is usually discussed only by certain Trump-averse Republicans offering the banal observation that Donald Trump is not a “true conservative.” That may be true, at least in the minds of those who speak it. But the problem is far greater than that.
Political parties are vehicles both for the accumulation of power and for advancement of ideological and policy goals. That is, to be successful, parties need to get people elected and reelected; to be purposeful, they must also be about ideas. These twin goals are often at odds with each other, and all parties have factions and interests within them that excessively emphasize one over the other. To be effective, though, parties must balance principle with practicality. Its ideology must be malleable enough to obtain the means for achieving desired ends. At the same time, the ideas which form the basis of the party can change over time, but there has to be some guiding vision greater than winning. Parties struggle when they give in too fully to one end of this pragmatism/purity continuum. What is remarkable about the Republican Party today, however, is that it is self-immolating on both ends of the spectrum. The party is becoming less electable and less cohesive.
As mentioned, Republicans are in a lot of trouble when it comes to the first metric—getting elected. Yes, they’ve won resounding victories in two consecutive midterm elections on the backs of anti-Obama sentiment and off-year voter apathy. They’ve still lost the last two presidential elections, though, along with the popular vote in five of the last six. Now they’ve nominated an unstable and politically toxic candidate who both unites core constituencies of their Democratic opposition and repels many committed Republican partisans.
The current polling averages have Hillary Clinton with a 7 to 8-point lead over Trump, in line with the margin of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain that netted him 365 electoral votes. The recent state polling has in many ways been even more impressive. A recent CBS/YouGov poll found Clinton ahead of Trump in Virginia by an astonishing 12 points. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently put Clinton up 4 in deep red Georgia. And a new Franklin and Marshall survey of Pennsylvania has Clinton ahead by 11 in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, should these numbers hold, this election would be the biggest landslide since 1984. Moreover, these numbers are so bad that they imperil dozens of Senate and House seats. Even if there is an upswing in ticket splitting this year due to the unique nature of Trump’s candidacy, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey is not getting reelected if his fellow Republican at the top of the ticket is losing by double-digits. Already this dynamic is starting to emerge in down-ballot polling. A WBUR/MassInc. New Hampshire poll giving Clinton an astonishing 15-point advantage in the presidential race there put Republican incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte down 10. As the New York Times reported yesterday, embattled Republican congressional candidates are poised to begin running ads this fall explicitly separating themselves from their own nominee.
Normally, this level of discord and fearful campaigning is intertwined with a contracted ideological worldview of what it means to be a Republican. This might have been the result of a Ted Cruz nomination—the GOP might have become less enticing to the electorate as a whole yet more appealing to committed conservatives. But here, too, Republicans are in disarray. While Donald Trump has staked out extreme views on immigration, and has used divisive rhetoric in addressing terrorism, crime, and racial issues, he’s deviated wildly from previous conservative consensus on government spending and social insurance programs. Meanwhile, he has offered no opinion or guidance on a whole slew of core policy issues that any president would necessarily have to address. The lead video on his website’s issues page right now is a defense of Trump University. Otherwise, that page contains little to nothing on education, the environment, or budget priorities (On Israel: “I am very pro-Israel.”). Worst of all, the limited ideological ground he has staked out—deporting illegal immigrants, building a wall on the Mexican border, prohibiting Muslim entry to the country, and reworking NATO and the entirety of America’s post-war alliance system—was previously antithetical to most elected Republicans’ views and the positions of past Republican administrations.
This growing division was highlighted this past week by an embarrassing twitter meltdown from right-wing Fox News anchor and radio talk show host Sean Hannity. After Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens wrote a scathing Trump takedown on August 1st, he followed that up by calling Hannity “Fox News’ dumbest anchor” after Hannity blamed Republican leaders’ lukewarm support of Trump for the candidate’s poor poll numbers. In response, Hannity went on a Trump-worthy late-night twitter binge, calling Stephens an “asshole” and an “arrogant, elitist, enabler” responsible for failing to hold the Republican establishment accountable. But as Lloyd Grove pointed out recently in The Daily Beast, in endorsing Trump and giving him fawning coverage for the better part of a year, Hannity has abandoned everything that he and his show purportedly stood for the last seven years:
[O]nce a reliable interpreter of Republican National Committee talking points into the everyman argot of his white working-class Long Island roots, [Hannity] is trashing treasured icons and bedrock principles he apparently used to revere. Free trade? Scratch that. Balanced federal budgets? Forget it. Entitlement reform? No longer important. And what about America’s commitment to NATO and opposition to Vladimir Putin’s expansionism? Apparently that’s not a vital concern either.
Hannity’s commentary this week, however, has in some respects resembled more a dissociation from the reality of Trump’s positions than a full-throated repudiation of his own prior stances. In criticizing Stephens, for instance, he repeatedly emphasized the Republican establishment’s role in allowing President Obama to allegedly expand the federal deficit (untrue, but never mind), even as his own candidate has shown absolutely no concern for massive deficit spending. Trump’s tax plan would blow an enormous hole in the federal budget, and just this week—as Hannity was excoriating the Republican political class for its role in piling on federal debt—Trump casually one-upped Clinton by promising to spend as much as $1 trillion rehabbing the nation’s infrastructure. In discussing the proposal, the Wall Street Journal called Trump “the most debt-friendly politician to appear on the American scene in recent memory.” That Hannity—a man whose championing of “true conservatism” is the essence of his public identity—can accuse others of endangering the country by failing to stand up to Obama’s alleged expansion of federal deficit spending while cheerleading for America’s “most debt-friendly politician” and get away with it, shows how meaningless the word conservatism means today.
Republicans made many ideological shifts in 2009 as their support for the Bush administration’s foreign adventures, prescription drug plan, and Wall Street bailouts gave way to convenient revisionism in the age of Obama. But the stunning shifts in conservative dogma in the last year are of another degree. What does it mean to be a Republican these days? Who is a conservative?
Paul Ryan would say Republicanism means limited government through lower taxes, less regulation, and freer trade. Yet, how does that square with deportation forces, protected social safety nets, and increased domestic spending? Ted Cruz would emphasize the belief in religious liberty and individual rights free from government intervention. But how does that jive with either Trump’s apparent position on allowing transgender people to use any bathroom they want or the official Republican platform’s diametrically opposing stances against gay marriage and supporting parents’ ability to force gay conversion therapy on their kids (in between is Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Mike Pence who would allow businesses to deny service to gay patrons)? John McCain would say it means standing up for American values and interests abroad through aggressive use of diplomatic rhetoric and military force. Then again, a congress full of Republicans just moved away from advocating military force against Iran and saber-rattling towards Russia to retrenchment and realignment of post-war power. It’s not a big tent, it’s an open one.
It’s easy to dismiss the Trump candidacy as a cult of personality and a vehicle for racial resentment. The reactions of party leaders and primary voters, however, has far greater implications for the future of the GOP. Take Trump out of this. What will be the Republican line on immigration on November 9th? On trade? On Social Security? On Syria or Russia or China?
Sean Hannity had an economic incentive for embracing Trump. His viewers and listeners liked Trump’s unsubtle racial appeals and Hannity makes millions telling them what they want to hear. Incentives such as these are precisely the problem. Conservative voters have been motivated for the last twenty years—and especially the last seven and a half—by antipathy to Democrats fueled by opportunistic politicians interested in gleaning short term fundraising and vote totals and cultural identity resentments encouraged by a massively profitable conservative media headed by snake oil salesmen. As a result, the core issue positions of conservatives are now antipathy to national Democrats and to the always-threatening “other.” Conservatism has nothing to do with it. The consequence is that the Republican Party has no identity of its own outside of what and who it opposes. What is the point of a party that doesn’t win and stands for nothing?