The fight to save the soul of the G.O.P.
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 to oppose slavery, which makes it all the more ironic that in 2018 the party of freedom finds itself in bondage. It is in bondage to three parts of itself, each of which claims to be the center of power and the repository of orthodoxy, the only authentic and acceptable wielder of leadership in U.S. politics since Ronald Reagan. While professing unity and fearful of splitting entirely with the two rival factions, each contender casts a suspicious and resentful eye on the others.
There are three combatants in this struggle: first, President Trump and his loyalists; second, the far-right-wing Republicans in Congress—the Freedom Caucus, Republican Study Committee and other descendants of the Tea Party—and third, the survivors of a Republican establishment dominated by business interests and supported by urban and suburban professionals.
All three sides are bound together in their need to cooperate if they are to maintain the party’s hold on power, but they remain divided by mutual disapproval and resentment of each others’ demands and aspirations. If Republicans lose control of the House in this November’s midterm elections, as is expected, and if the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election seriously damages the president, it is not at all clear that the Republican Party will survive in any recognizable form.
The G.O.P. was founded to oppose slavery, which makes it all the more ironic that the party of freedom finds itself in bondage.
Each side in this contest for the soul of the G.O.P. brings unique resources to the battle. President Trump is able to set the course of our national conversation with a single tweet and can threaten his Republican critics with the anger of “the base”—a grass-roots multitude of predominantly white evangelicals. The conservative Republican faction in the House effectively holds the power of veto over the president (though they have proven reluctant to use it). It has access to its own set of large donors and connections to the grass roots. The establishment Republicans, like the Bushes and Romneys, rely on successful professionals and executives who also have commitments to professional standards in the law and in various government agencies, as well as their own deep pockets.
At the same time, each faction has its own vulnerabilities and deficiencies. First, the president carries with him the heavy burden of his own carelessness and recklessness—which not only exposes him to potential legal trouble but unsettles Republicans who otherwise support his policy goals. Second, the congressional conservatives have strong ideological convictions about business, sex and military strength, but they have failed to influence large segments of the population that have not already been converted to the special conservative mix of economic libertarianism, Christian moralism and aggressive nationalism that they make a test of orthodoxy. Third, the establishment Republicans lack the energy and vision to put forward a platform that responds to the economic anxiety that fueled the right’s populist turn, as was clearly shown in the 2016 primaries.
The three sides have overlapping but distinct priorities. The president was able to lead a coalition of congressional conservatives to victory on the tax cut, a matter on which the three factions of the party had no serious divisions. But the fight against Obamacare failed, largely because there was no coherent alternative on offer. Immigration policy seems likely to follow a similar path. On this issue there is little common ground between, on the one hand, the Trump administration and conservative House members, who play on populist fears of low-wage migrants and on white Protestant fears of people from other cultures, and, on the other hand, establishment business and community leaders, who welcome skilled immigrants and who are taken aback by the administration’s disregard of expert opinion and popular compassion in handling the problems of the border.
Each side in this contest for the soul of the G.O.P. brings unique resources to the battle.
Each corner of this awkward triangle has its own specific concerns and worries. The establishment Republicans seek to preserve the rule of law against what they perceive as the arbitrary and corrupt behavior of the president. They oppose the politicization of the Department of Justice and the dismissal of scientific expertise and professional competence from government agencies. They are distressed by the president’s lack of civility and morality and by his erratic and unreliable performances on the world stage.
They are also the people most likely to be swayed to abandon the president if Mr. Mueller uncovers evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump. The establishment Republicans will find the prospect of dealing with the likely Democratic majority in the House less distressing than it is for either President Trump or the radical conservatives; they may even welcome it as altering the balance of forces in the Republican caucus in their favor.
The conservative radicals are intent on gaining control of the judiciary by installing advocates of their vision of a Christian social order and a free-market economy. This longstanding yearning for an idealized and updated version of the 1950s—the time before the Warren Court and the civil rights movement—is now focused on the elevation of conservative judges, most recently Brett Kavanaugh, to the Supreme Court. To achieve this objective, Republicans who share their ideology have to control the executive and legislative branches, at least until retirement and death have removed judicial obstacles to their grand project.
These right-wing conservatives in Congress have been happy to run interference for Mr. Trump when it comes to the investigation into Russian meddling. But a blue wave in November would greatly diminish their ability to shield the president, and they would be unlikely to regain control of the House for some time.
The question is whether after November the Republicans will be so divided that they are unable to function as a governing party.
At the present time, however, both the attention of the public and the president’s concern is centered on Mr. Trump’s survival at the center of power. He may survive various forms and degrees of denunciation, investigation, impeachment and desertion, but his power is almost certain to be drastically diminished, especially if the Democrats take control of the House. On the other hand, survival to the end of his four-year term would be a remarkable accomplishment, even while it would demonstrate the inadequacies of the Republican leadership in Congress and in the party at large.
President Trump has the most to lose; the question is whether after November the Republicans will be so divided and enfeebled that they are unable to function as a governing party. In the event of a decisive defeat for the Republicans, Mr. Trump becomes a lame duck. The radical conservatives will lose their confidence that they were been right all along, only earlier than everybody else. They will intensify their criticism of the media, of higher education, of feminism and of minorities. Politics will in general continue to be vicious; the alligators will be assisted by hyenas, by copperheads and other unlovely creatures of the swamp.
Four Steps to Freedom
It is understandable that Democrats, who are at least as divided as their Republican counterparts, are attracted to a scenario in which they are able to hold a united front against Mr. Trump while waiting for victory in the November elections. This would allow the party to postpone serious decisions about future policy until a clear leader emerges in the 2020 primaries. A continuing combination of blunders, scandals and crises of one sort or another on the part of the president and the Republican-controlled Congress, some imagine, will ensure a Democratic victory in the fall.
The Democrats, however, paid dearly for such overconfidence in 2016. This go-around, important parts of the electorate are likely to turn against the party if they come to suspect that the Democrats hope to profit somehow from potentially avoidable disasters that may well harm the country as a whole.
A continuing combination of blunders, scandals and crises on the part of the president, some imagine, will ensure a Democratic victory in the fall.
How, then, should Democrats, independents and centrist Republicans respond to the current state of bondage in which the Republican Party faces seemingly endless internal struggle, ongoing moral debasement and looming electoral catastrophe?
First, everyone should pray for the Republican Party. This is not a pious wish but a cry from the heart that a major element of our political system is being ruined. Without a Republican Party that is ready to accept the dual roles of loyal opposition and spokesperson for conservative values, all of us will be hobbling into the future on one leg. A shifting balance between the two deeply entrenched parties in our system of representative democracy is an essential part of its health.
The balance has to revolve around a unifying commitment to the common good, which exists above the conflicting values of factionalism and partisan conflict. Such a commitment leads us to enter into public debate in a spirit of compromise and cooperation and leads us away from slanderous attacks on the other side. This commitment eschews political narratives in which there are no mistakes and honest disagreements but only sins and crimes. It protects social and political institutions and forms of civility that sustain our common life. Such attitudes need to be cultivated within both parties as well as between them.
Second, outsiders from both ends of the political spectrum should encourage the Republican Party and its allies to adopt a less adversarial approach to politics and a less individualistic view of society. Politics, especially when it is organized around two great coalitions, as ours has historically been, will retain an adversarial dynamism; interests will continue to conflict; intellectuals and commentators will fire away in all directions. But in an increasingly interconnected society, we need to find ways of moderating dissent that dampen extremism rather than exploiting it.
Conservatism can be conceived in communitarian rather than libertarian terms.
Conservatism can be conceived in communitarian rather than libertarian terms. It is in the general interest to ensure that those left behind in the forward movement of society are not left without the resources and programs that can ensure that they are treated with the respect and dignity appropriate to human beings and to our fellow citizens. This minimal form of equality stands as a shared moral value, even though there will always be justifiable disagreements about how to achieve it. Reliance on a single set of strategies, whether these be market-oriented or government directed, will almost inevitably lead to social failures—including failures of imagination and sympathy. This will require Republicans to move away, at least partially, from their insistence on free-market solutions across the board; it will also require Democrats to avoid government overreach. And for both parties, it should lead to a critical examination of the role of contributions from interest groups and megadonors in influencing policy and legislation.
Third, and this is primarily the responsibility of Republicans themselves, though Democrats will need to follow their example, it is necessary to insist on the moral character of political life. The life of public service and community leadership proposes worthy ideals for those working for the common good and at the same time imposes binding rules on those who may be tempted to use morally and legally questionable means to benefit themselves and their causes and to conceal their mistakes. The current state of the Republican Party should not be taken as a guide to “the new normal” in partisan politics. In a polity that insists on mutual respect and human dignity as a cornerstone, some level of public morality is almost a matter of national security. A shared respect for the protection of truth in the public sphere holds us together and provides a basis for global leadership.
Whatever the advice of lawyers, consultants, pollsters and fundraisers may be, a political system that refuses to cleanse itself and its key members of corruption will lose the confidence of an open and democratic society. A regime that tolerates white nationalism in its ranks, practices tax fraud and obstruction of justice and openly accepts the multiplication of conflicts of interest will lose the respect and to a considerable extent the allegiance of its citizens and voters. The future of such a regime in an open and democratic society will not be happy or lasting so long as there is a free press. Yielding to the temptation to set moral considerations to the side will not be good for the Republican Party in the long run. It will also damage the republic itself. It is, therefore, not an outcome that Democrats should welcome or rely on. Nor should they think that immorality in government is a distinctively Republican problem.
The current state of the Republican Party should not be taken as a guide to “the new normal” in partisan politics.
Fourth, Democrats and others should pray and work for a renewal of internationalism in the Republican Party. Mr. Trump has walked away from the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, taken a hard line on trade and tariffs, drastically cut the number of refugees admitted to the United States and questioned the value of U.S. military commitments in Europe and Asia. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been a great deal of emphasis in the media on “Trump the nationalist.”
But the desire on the part of many people to reverse key elements in U.S. foreign policy is much broader than sentiments for and against Trump. There have been critics, especially in Latin America, who have for a couple of generations denounced U.S. imperialism and the consequences of an overly active role in the affairs of various countries, whether these be left-trending democracies or backward-looking dictatorships and oligarchies. Others have attacked U.S. foreign policy as insufficiently bold in responding to China and North Korea and to radical Islam in the Middle East. Still others have criticized Washington for being overly generous to Israel or to the United Nations and for being insufficiently generous to Africa and other extremely poor areas.
This set of observations reminds us how difficult it is to reduce U.S. foreign policy to one pattern of response to what are widely varied problems. But sustained and patient dialogue between ourselves and the contending states in the Middle East; between ourselves and our close allies in NATO and the Pacific; and between ourselves and those states seeking to establish or maintain great power status, including Russia, China and India, should help to contain the current wave of anxiety and reverse America’s retreat from the global stage.
Supporters of the pro-life movement should bear in mind that their fortunes are deeply affected by what happens to the Republican Party.
This is especially true with regard to those problems that urgently require international consensus, including nuclear proliferation, environmental protection, ensuring fair terms of trade, sustaining—and holding accountable—international institutions, and defending human rights in realistic and cooperative ways. These are all tasks that require a sense of shared responsibility and confidence in the reliability and stability of partners, the United States above all.
More broadly, the task is to find a pattern for international action that is neither imperialist nor isolationist, that affirms the moral bonds underlying an active human rights policy as well as the contribution of existing international organizations to the maintenance of peace and the relief of extreme misery. The outcome should be a balanced and cautious internationalism that should be acceptable to both parties and beneficial for the country as a whole. This will liberate Republicans from the cries and demands of strident nationalism and xenophobia and will give them room to shape and pursue objectives in their own style.
The Way Forward
Republicans looking at this list of paths to a liberated version of their party are entitled to ask just how to get from here to there. The answer to that question is to look for a new generation of leadership willing to take on the difficult but crucially important task of saving the party from its current divisions and its enslavement to current ideologies and fears. This task will require patience, courage and imagination.
Non-Republicans, especially those with strong religious convictions, may well wonder what is supposed to happen with regard to such hotly and rightly contested issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. In comparison with the fundamental concerns about human life, family and sexuality, the ups and downs of the Republican Party, important as they are, seem ephemeral and parochial.
But supporters of the pro-life movement, especially, should bear in mind that their fortunes are deeply affected by what happens to the Republican Party and, in particular, its more conservative elements. Recent ill-conceived efforts by the Democratic Party to purge pro-life members seem likely to deepen and to confirm the political-religious polarization in this country. But the pro-life movement should be willing to reconsider the political side of its own strategy. Maintaining an ever-closer mutual embrace with the Republican Party increases the risk to the movement’s long-term objectives. Given the style of the current Republican regime, the party does not seem to be a worthy vehicle for the essential moral and religious concerns of the pro-life community.
If the argument advanced in this essay is correct, the Republican Party stands in need of liberation from self-imposed bondage, conversion to a new agenda, and transformation into a party of civility and inclusion. If it does not move in this direction, it is likely to entangle and tarnish many of its supporters and allies in the hard times that lie ahead. But the party already stands in opposition to Catholic commitments to internationalism, to justice and participation for the poor and the marginalized, and to environmental protection, as these are interpreted and proclaimed by Pope Francis and by the tradition of Catholic social thought. Catholics, who have at times promoted single-issue politics in ways that contribute to the polarization of the U.S. electorate, ought to seize the G.O.P.’s moment of reckoning as an opportunity to broaden their own conception of public life.