The Lost Republicans
If you didn’t watch the speech Cuban émigré Maximo Alvarez gave to the Republican convention tonight, do yourself a favor:
I’m a total softie for this kind of thing, whether it comes from liberals or conservatives. I had tears in my eyes, and get that way when I hear old Civil Rights movement veterans speak too. It is the kind of thing that makes you proud of this country. God bless that man. This was pure Reaganism, delivered with such heartfelt emotion that it felt like 1984 all over again.
Unfortunately, a great and moving speech is no substitute for a functioning political party or movement. I read Tim Alberta’s long and troubling piece in Politico about the decadent condition of the GOP, and it struck me with the same force that Tucker Carlson’s great January 2016 Politico essay titled “Donald Trump is Shocking, Vulgar, and Right” — which was also about GOP decadence. What a strange and interesting experience to read these two essays as bookends to the Trump era.
Take this passage from the Alberta piece.The writer, who covers conservative politics, opens by saying that he was addressing a group of high school students by Zoom recently, and was stumped when one of them asked what Republicans believe, and what it means to be a Republican. Alberta was surprised that he couldn’t come up with an answer. More:
I decided to call Frank Luntz. Perhaps no person alive has spent more time polling Republican voters and counseling Republican politicians than Luntz, the 58-year-old focus group guru. His research on policy and messaging has informed a generation of GOP lawmakers. His ability to translate between D.C. and the provinces—connecting the concerns of everyday people to their representatives in power—has been unsurpassed. If anyone had an answer, it would be Luntz.
“You know, I don’t have a history of dodging questions. But I don’t know how to answer that. There is no consistent philosophy,” Luntz responded. “You can’t say it’s about making America great again at a time of Covid and economic distress and social unrest. It’s just not credible.”
Luntz thought for a moment. “I think it’s about promoting—” he stopped suddenly. “But I can’t, I don’t—” he took a pause. “That’s the best I can do.”
When I pressed, Luntz sounded as exasperated as the student whose question I was relaying. “Look, I’m the one guy who’s going to give you a straight answer. I don’t give a shit—I had a stroke in January, so there’s nothing anyone can do to me to make my life suck,” he said. “I’ve tried to give you an answer and I can’t do it. You can ask it any different way. But I don’t know the answer. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the answer.”
Here’s an answer:
“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
With Election Day just a few months away, I was genuinely surprised, in the course of recent conversations with a great many Republicans, at their inability to articulate a purpose, a designation, a raison d’être for their party. Everyone understands that Trump is a big-picture sloganeer—“Build the wall!” “Make America Great Again!”—rather than a policy aficionado. Even so, it’s astonishing how conceptually lifeless the party has become on his watch. There is no blueprint to fix what is understood to be a broken immigration system. There is no grand design to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. There is no creative thinking about a conservative, market-based solution to climate change. There is no meaningful effort to address the cost of housing or childcare or college tuition. None of the erstwhile bold ideas proposed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan—term limits, a balanced budget amendment, reforms to Social Security and Medicare, anti-poverty programs—have survived as serious proposals. Heck, even after a decade spent trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans still have no plan to replace it. (Trust me: If they did, you’d hear about it.)
Understand what he’s saying here: it’s not that Trump hasn’t said what he’s for, necessarily. It’s that he has no ideas or plans for how to get there.
It’s not that the Republicans are necessarily wrong about the Democrats:
Similarly, the problem for the party isn’t that the aforementioned complaints are entirely without merit. It’s that they form no part of a broader construct on which voters can be sold. This continues to be the bane of the GOP’s existence: The party is so obsessed with fighting that it has lost sight of what it’s fighting for.
“I think I have brought tremendous strength back to the party,” the president told me last year, arguing that previous GOP leaders lacked the stomach for gruesome political combat. There is no denying Trump has transformed the party from a country club debater into a barroom brawler. But to what end?
He fights. Yeah, but for what? A drunk who slides off the barstool and flails his fists as he careens across the saloon trying to land a punch on a cowpoke also fights, but that doesn’t make him Muhammad Ali.
Read the whole thing. And like I said above, read Tucker Carlson’s 2016 piece too, which he wrote near the beginning of the GOP primary season, when Trump was still a joke with the Republican establishment. “Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party,” wrote Carlson then. “That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.”
Trump’s presidency has been a failure in most regards, but very few actual Republican voters want to return to the pre-Trump status quo — nor should they. Still, the fact that the zombie Reaganites that Trump defeated and displaced deserved it does not make Trump a successful president. Owning the libs and pissing off the media — that can be fun, but it’s not the same as governing with competence and effectiveness.
The weirdest thing is that for the GOP to become a party that actually could get some populist agenda items accomplished and enacted into law, Trump might have to lose to clear the way for serious, focused, steady politicians who know how to pass laws, not just tweet and emote and cause pointless chaos. As Alberta points out, as long as he’s here, Trump is kryptonite to Republican lawmakers. They all know how nuts he is, but they also know that the base loves him, so they don’t dare resist. To be fair to these Washington lawmakers, in a democracy, it’s awfully hard to be an elected representative who stands against the views of the people who sent you to Congress.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
Personal anecdote here, but it encapsulates the mood:
Because of the industry I work in, I recently attended a policy meeting with a mid-level official in the current administration (not giving too many details here on purpose). Anyway, even though I am no personal fan of Trump, I was very impressed by this official and their in-depth knowledge of the very real challenges their department is trying to address, their perspective of what defines successful outcomes, a realistic view of the trade-offs required by different policies, and what slate of policies would be in the best overall interests of this country. I came away very excited, and wanted to tell my parents, who are hardcore Trump supporters about this meeting, since we often don’t see eye to eye on politics.
While relating the story to my parents, I added my opinion that the administration might be more successful if it stayed on message and promoting this single, consistent set of policies vocalized by this official (because this is an area where the President and the Party leadership often contradicts themselves one day to the next). My dad cut me off –
“Why should we give an inch? You think the Dems won’t act in bad faith on this?”
And it really struck me — this is the essence of the Republican party today (and to be fair, the Democrats too). It’s not just the politicians and the talking heads, the zero-sum groupthink has infected the voters all the way down to the very base of the parties.
When the thought process of “let’s try hard to figure out what is best for the country and offer our best vision of what that is to voters” has to take a backseat to “let’s do what maximizes our Republican-ness (or Woke-ness) and try to beat the people on the other side of the aisle into submission with it” — we don’t stand for anything other than Red Team / Blue Team tribalism. And that’s a game for idiots.
UPDATE.2: Reader Chris R. comments:
What does it mean to be a Republican (or, heck, a conservative) in 2020?
I can answer that question: To be a Republican is to be terrified, despairing, and bitter. I am all of these things. I have the distinct sense that I’m living at the end of something, and it’s not a pleasant thought.
Almost all right-leaning people, whether they admit it or not, are grappling with the question, “What good is conservatism when there’s nothing left to conserve?” This question is especially worrying if you’re like me, and you believe that a flourishing civilization is something too complex to spring from the mind of a bureaucrat or policy wonk. How does one rebuild civil society? How do we create social capital from scratch? I don’t know. Nobody knows. It might not be possible.
If I vote for Donald Trump (which isn’t a certainty, by any stretch), it won’t be because I expect him to solve the world’s problems (far from it) or because I’ve convinced myself that he’s a great statesman (he isn’t). I’ll do it for purely cathartic reasons—as one final scream of anguish, and one final “F you!” to my own class, before the wave drowns me.
That’s bleak, and speaks for me, to a large extent. What, exactly, is there to conserve — at least that can be conserved through politics? That’s why I wrote The Benedict Option — to explore that question.