Party crasher

Donald Trump delivered Republicans the presidency and both houses of Congress. That gift may prove fatal to the GOP

By Keith Boag

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A year ago, in the afterglow of an election that gave Republicans so much of Washington’s power, no one in the party could have foreseen things crumbling in quite the way they have. The idea that they’d be saddled with a special prosecutor’s investigation would have seemed absurd. They were the miracle team.

Donald Trump had already defied every law of political physics when he took the stage at Trump Tower in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016. He’d been rude, crude, unapologetically unprepared for the office he sought — and, it seems, a proud sexual assaulter to boot. Now president-elect of the United States, he offered a bruised and battered nation an uncharacteristically conventional-sounding speech, as though victory had humbled him. He promised to lay down the weapons of his campaign.

“It’s time for us to come together as one united people,” he read from a Teleprompter.

In the year since, we’ve learned that whenever Trump slips into anodyne language, it’s often the “tell” that his words are empty. Trump was never a healer and he didn’t intend to become one in the White House. His campaign had been about the opposite.

For the Republican Party, it has the potential to be the colossal climax of years of self-destruction.

Trump’s grassroots supporters wanted a fighter to crush political correctness and ratchet back time to a hazily remembered golden era when, they were sure, America was a better place.

His most important backers, a handful of wealthy elites, wanted something more destructive — a bull to let loose and wreak havoc on the institutions of the federal state.

“I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment,” Trump’s campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, told the Daily Beast in 2016. Bannon’s partner, the taciturn billionaire Robert Mercer, who funded Trump, was described by a former employee in a New Yorker profile as someone who is “happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the president’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it all to fall down.”

Destroying the Republican Party is the particular goal of Bannon and Mercer, and they will arguably be the most important voices in the president’s ear as we slide into the 2018 midterm elections. The midterms will be the battleground for a civil war about Trumpism fought against the background of mushrooming developments from the Robert Mueller inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.

For the Republican Party, it has the potential to be the colossal climax of years of self-destruction. 

II.

Republicans have been quarrelling about who they are since conservative icon William F. Buckley labelled a far-right faction of the party “kooks” more than half a century ago. But you don’t need to go back that far to understand how the party came to its current existential crisis.

It begins with the Republicans’ watershed victory in 2000, and the election of George W. Bush. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the GOP had won the White House and both houses of Congress. After decades of blaming Democrats for big government and Washington’s culture of entitlement, they suddenly owned it all and had the power to fix it.

But as sometimes happens in party politics, it’s at the moment of maximum advantage when things begin to turn south. By the most important measures, the Bush era was a gruelling time for America. It ended with the country mired in two foreign wars, hugely in debt and with an economy circling the drain into the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

Large swaths of grassroots Republicans looked at what their party had done and felt angry, embarrassed and betrayed. But they were also in an unprecedentedly strong position to act on those feelings. 

Through gerrymandering, demographic shifts and media tribalism, significant numbers of Republican voters had clustered geographically in places where they were safely isolated from Democrats. Without Democrats to fight, party discipline broke down and they fought among themselves. It was at once empowering and destructive.

In district after district, grassroots Republicans confronted the party’s establishment with new demands on the people they elected to Washington. They insisted on ideological purity, meaning limited government and maximum individual freedom (except in social matters).

Republicans who had expected an easy ride to Washington were abruptly taken off the battlefield by primary challengers who were the flag-bearers of a new insurgency: The Tea Party. In the 2010 election, the Tea Party ran 138 candidates on the Republican ticket, and about a third of them were elected, including future luminaries such as senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

By 2015, the anti-establishment had its own minority group — the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus — to bully the party leadership on Capitol Hill. It was hard enough to manage when Republicans were opposing Barack Obama’s agenda, but with Trump in the White House, the result has been utter dysfunction — a party too riven by discord to govern. 

Their truculence has come fully into view this year as the party again has control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, yet failed again and again to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Steve Bannon, who was Trump’s chief White House strategist before leaving in August, saw opportunity in the health-care failure, an opening to frame the party’s leadership as an obstruction to the Trump agenda. Bannon decided to make Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell the enemy of the base. 

It was a bold assault on the Republican establishment, and Bannon tested it in the Senate primary in Alabama this September. 

McConnell’s man in that race — the establishment’s man — was Luther Strange, the sitting senator who’d been appointed to fill Jeff Sessions’s seat when the latter became Trump’s attorney general. Trump backed Strange, in part to avoid a public fight with McConnell, with whom relations were already troubled. But Bannon backed Roy Moore, an extraordinarily reactionary choice who was the more Trumpian candidate, and the eventual winner.

Moore is a 70-year-old former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama and a fundamentalist Christian who believes that the Bible is the highest law of the land. He was twice removed from the bench for defying the constitution, is anti-gay and anti-Muslim as well as an Obama birther conspiracist. 

By winning in Alabama, Moore showed the old Republican Party the terms of engagement in its civil war — and what their new Trump party will look like. A super PAC (political action committee) run by Steven Law, a former chief of staff for McConnell, spent millions trying to stop Moore and couldn’t.

In a memo late in the race, Law offered an analysis of Trump’s hold on the party:

  • Trump, more than any other person, group or issue, is the main driver for Republican primary voters.
  • Incredibly, the Republican Congress had replaced Barack Obama as the “bogeyman” for primary voters.
  • And primary voters didn’t seem to be put off by Moore’s politically incorrect and combative style — in fact, they warmed to it, because he reminded them of Trump.
Research done during the Alabama Senate primary in September found that many people voted for candidate Roy Moore because his politically incorrect rhetoric reminded them of Trump. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Research done during the Alabama Senate primary in September found that many people voted for candidate Roy Moore because his politically incorrect rhetoric reminded them of Trump. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Research done during the Alabama Senate primary in September found that many people voted for candidate Roy Moore because his politically incorrect rhetoric reminded them of Trump. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

III.

After sifting through the ashes of the Alabama defeat, the Republican establishment decided that to stop the party from becoming more Trumpist, it needed to wage war against Bannon. Law’s super PAC planned to attack him personally, warning Republicans that Bannon would help elect extremists in primaries who would be losers in a general election.

But Bannon has his website Breitbart, a weapon he has turned against establishment leaders and candidates to smear them as anti-Trump. And, as Law’s memo points out, “critical comments about Trump are instantly fatal to the candidate who makes them.”

It’s not an ideological battle. Trumpism is tribalism. Conservative or Republican bona fides are irrelevant to Trump’s base in the party. What matters to them is that Trump wins and his enemies lose. And since the president is already disposed to declare victories regardless of whether they exist, his base believes he’s succeeding even when he’s failing.

"It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative... has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party."

In his powerful and dramatic resignation speech last month, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said it was the sacrifice of traditional Republican values in deference to Trumpism that was driving him out of politics. 

“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party.” 

If anything, Flake understated it. It’s not just conservatives who’ve ditched their ideology for Trump. Consider how others seem to have abandoned their strongly held moral beliefs. A 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked whether elected officials who had behaved immorally in their private lives could still behave properly in public life. White evangelical Protestants were the most unforgiving of all religious groups. By a two-to-one margin, they said “No.”

But by October 2016, with Trump in public life, they had become the most forgiving. In answer to the same question, they now said “Yes” by a two-to-one margin. It was around this time we learned that Trump had boasted that the routine of his life included what seemed to be sexual assaults.

It’s hard to imagine this reversal in moral conviction had nothing to do with accommodating Trump. White evangelical Protestants voted for him in overwhelming numbers.

IV.

The Republican Party is becoming ever more rigidly the party of Trump at precisely the moment when the country might need it to be the opposite.

The GOP majority in Congress is supposed to be a check against the president, alert to deviance and ready to express dissent. But as a criminal investigation circles the White House, the party is purging its dissenters. 

What’s alleged and, in some cases, proven in the investigation is heavy stuff that reads like the outline of a Cold War spy novel. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller says Trump’s presidential campaign was managed for a time by what the FBI calls an “unregistered agent” who had secretly been in the pay of a foreign government that had close ties to Russia.

That agent, Paul Manafort, is now under house arrest, accused of crimes including money laundering and conspiracy against the U.S. government. There is also new evidence that Trump operatives reached out to Russia to try to get their hands on stolen information about their political rivals — specifically emails with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton — to use in the campaign.

Reducing everything to partisanship might fool the Trump base for a while, but it won’t fool Robert Mueller.

Trump and his media allies deny there was any collusion with Russia and have dismissed the Mueller investigation as a hoax contrived by their political enemies.

Reducing everything to partisanship might fool the Trump base for a while, but it won’t fool Mueller.

Circumstances might soon demand that Republicans put not just their partisanship aside, but also their internal strife, lest they be so subsumed by it that they are unable to meet their constitutional responsibility to check the president.

For now, Trump is America’s national Rorschach test, an inkblot that looks like a courageous patriot to some and a crook and a traitor to others. But he could soon become a full-blown national emergency — and as Jeff Flake told his Senate colleagues, there will be a day when they have to explain to their children and grandchildren what they did at that crucial moment.

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Editing: Andre Mayer