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The Republicans’ Dilemma

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Ross Douthat thinks Jeff Flake’s decision to retire is a mistake, and urges Trump’s critics to present a choice to Republican voters:

The president’s G.O.P. critics should engage in electoral battle because the act of campaigning, the work of actually trying to persuade voters, is the only way anti-Trump Republicans will come to grips with the legitimate reasons that their ideas had become so unpopular that voters opted for demagoguery instead.

A speechifying anti-Trumpism, distant from the fray, will always be self-regarding and self-deceiving — unwilling to see how the Iraq War discredited both the Bushist and McCainian styles of right-wing internationalism, incapable of addressing the economic disappointments that turned voters against Flake’s Goldwaterite libertarianism and Romney’s “trust me, I’m a businessman” promises. Only in actual political competition can the Republican elite reckon with why it lost its party, and how it might win again without succumbing to Trumpian indecency.

That makes a certain amount of sense. Trump critics can’t win the party back if they don’t make the attempt, and thus far most of his vocal critics among politicians are either out of office or retiring. The retiring politicians could “stand and fight,” but what would they be fighting for? The same bankrupt Bush-era agenda that did so much to bring them to their current position? Judging from what they tend to emphasize in their attacks on Trump, that is what most of them want to go back to. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are in “the fray” or distant from it: they don’t want to learn anything from the party’s failures over the last decade and a half.

Almost all of Trump’s loudest intra-party critics are incapable or unwilling to “come to grips” with the reasons why they lost their party. They couldn’t come to grips with any of the reasons for the 2006 and 2008 defeats, and they absolutely refused to come to grips with them after losing in 2012. On foreign policy in particular, they are stubbornly committed as a party to much the same mindless aggressiveness and interventionism that contributed to their defeats in the past. Bush and McCain don’t reckon with how their preferred policies abroad have led to multiple disasters because they will never acknowledge that those policies were wrong from the start. McCain conveniently declares that he stands for American ideals, pats himself on the back for how high-minded he is, and then urges the U.S. to pursue the same costly, dangerous foreign policy that he has advocated for at least the last twenty years. Other Trump critics cheer him on for this self-serving, myopic rhetoric.

Republican hawks’ insane insistence over the last decade that the Iraq war had been “won” under Bush opened the door to anyone, no matter how ridiculous he was, who was willing to acknowledge the obvious truth that it was nothing but a costly disaster. A party with a sane foreign policy worldview could not have been taken over by a militarist falsely selling himself as an opponent of unnecessary wars, but the GOP didn’t and still doesn’t have anything like that. Almost all of Trump’s opponents were so wedded to defending the disgraces and excesses of the Bush era and eager to engage in new excesses of their own that they made Trump seem sane by comparison.

The state of “debate” over Iran policy inside the GOP tells us how ready the party is to come to grips with past errors. Except for a few dissenters, elected Republicans are split between hawks and ultra-hawks when it comes to Iran. The latter demand regime change and possibly military action in the near term, and the former insist on relentless hostility to Iran and anyone even remotely connected to them. For the moment, Trump is lining up with the hawks, but could very well end up favoring an even more aggressive policy in time. This is not a party that is interested in rethinking assumptions or learning from catastrophic errors. On the contrary, it is a party in which most Trumpists and anti-Trumpists seem to find common ground in their desire to create new disasters abroad. On the issues where Republican resistance to Trump is most needed and would be most constructive, instead we see almost all Trump critics inside the party fall in line and applaud. Until Trump’s elected Republican critics are able to offer something other than reheated Bushism, they may as well quit.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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