Donald J. Trump is the political issue of our time. Yet Mr. Trump is, in a very real sense, peripheral to present events. He is a result, not the effective cause; a symptom, not the disease. The significant thing is not the rebel candidate but the crisis of the Republican Party, so long arriving, which in turn is a crisis of the party system and even of democratic representation itself, reminiscent perhaps of the situation in Britain in the mid-18th century that so concerned Edmund Burke. On the one hand, party officials are unrepresentative of the party rank and file. On the other, voters in all the Western democracies today no longer trust the wisdom, the competence, and the discretionary judgment of their political representatives, and so they are attempting to act through a myriad of special-interest groups whose intrusion upon the work of career politicians is the closest democratic societies have yet come to direct democracy (which is why, in the end, it will destroy democracy). The GOP is unsuited to represent this antiestablishmentarian, even rebellious political movement across the Western world, as are the main European parties today. “The old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Gramsci, at the time a political prisoner of Mussolini, wrote; “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The Republican establishment persists in treating Trump and his ten-million-odd GOP primary voters (more than any other Republican candidate in history has won) as an impostor and the saboteur of “principled conservatism.” But the Grand Old Party itself was founded in 1854 as a protest movement by conservative Whigs, Free Soilers, and antislavery Democrats who demanded the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that had annulled the Missouri Compromise and established the principle of congressional noninterventionism in the territories. Since then, the GOP has arguably conserved nothing in its 162 years, save the Union That Never Was—and was never intended to be. “[D]on’t forget,” Trump enjoined his followers the week after his victory in the Indiana primary, “this is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.” That was brilliant of him, especially as the injunction cuts two ways. The GOP was founded as a party with a liberal agenda (in the political context of 1854), while from 1865 down to 2016 it has been the party of industrial capitalism, the political representation of conservatism understood exclusively as an ideological form of economics. Between World War II and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the party’s more powerful wing was proudly and self-affirmatively liberal Republican. But Reagan himself came from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and his two administrations were “conservative” only in a comparative sense, as his support for the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which made 4 million illegal aliens eligible for citizenship and lured as many as 40 million more of them over the next two decades, demonstrated. “The very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” Reagan once said. But he was a popular president, during his administrations and in retrospect, and because of his popularity and his ability to pass as a conservative in a progressively liberal country, Republican officialdom, with the support of the neoconservatives whom he’d brought into his government, set him up as the ideological gold standard of “true conservatism.” The party has exploited this reputation ever since. This is the supposed legacy Rep. Paul Ryan invoked in a rash remark last spring that Trump devastatingly put down via social media: “Paul Ryan said I inherited something very special, the Republican Party. Wrong. I didn’t inherit it; I won it with millions of voters!”
The standoff between the party brass and Donald Trump forces several necessary questions. Who owns a democratic political party? Who are the party? Who decides finally what a party stands for: its high officials and its most powerful national officeholders, or the rank and file of its registered voters? And ought a democratic political party to be a means, or an end?
In the case of a popular party operating within a democratic polity—especially a polity in which deference in almost every aspect of political and social life has virtually disappeared—the answer obviously is the rank and file, or at least that portion of it that expresses its preference through the ballot. If that is so, then in the present situation Trump and his ten million primary voters are not the party traitors and subverters the establishment says they are; the party elite is. The vast gulf between that elite’s sense of itself and its function half a century ago, and how it perceives its role today, is obvious if one compares the GOP’s behavior in 1964 with its behavior today. In 1964, despite their detestation for the conservative nominee, party officials loyally supported the Goldwater-Miller ticket and refrained from threatening to sabotage the GOP’s own democratically selected candidate by threatening to start a third party to destroy him. (Though Nelson Rockefeller refused to endorse Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon campaigned assiduously for him across the country, and in 1968 Goldwater returned the favor by supporting Nixon in his own quest for the presidency.) The present speaker of the House’s refusal to endorse Trump (as of this writing), the stated refusal of Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Gov. Jeb Bush to vote for him, and the nearly hysterical condemnation of the candidate by Republican commentators, among them George Will, William Kristol (also threatening to back a third-party candidacy), National Review, and Glenn Beck, are the real threat to party unity after the Indiana vote, not Donald Trump and his supporters. Following the Hoosier primary, Charles Krauthammer remarked with admirable simplicity, “A new GOP is being invented.”
It is too early to know that, of course, but the party is certainly changing. It’s entirely understandable that Republicans who deplore this change might wish to resign from the GOP and form a party of their own—after the election in November. (“There are a lot of people in my state,” Republican Sen. James Langford from Nebraska told the press in May, “who have been asking me, ‘Is this who we are?’ I say yes.”) The voters who put Trump where he is today are not going to go away, or give up on him or someone like him, and the GOP is democratically obliged to recognize them and their views, and the candidate who represents those views. Not to support Trump and the Republican ticket is to strengthen Mrs. Clinton’s bid for the White House—a frank admission that the Republican establishment would indeed prefer their archenemy of three decades as president of the United States to Donald Trump. If that in fact is their preference, they are of course entitled to it, but for them to attempt to force the party as a whole to conform with their partisan ideals (or “principles,” by which they mean self-interested motives in rhetorical disguise) is shamelessly undemocratic of them. And they must understand—assuming they care any longer—that their demonstrated willingness to countenance another Clinton presidency would confirm conservatives’ long-standing suspicion that at the apex of the American political structure and of American society politics no longer exists, only self-interested collusion among the members of a single more or less homogeneous class sharing the same interests and prejudices.
The Republican establishment insists that its chief criteria for an acceptable candidate are adherence to “our principles” and “electability,” by which it really means a rejection of new ideas, new perspectives, and new aims, while maintaining a respectable image of “moderation.” But moderation in Western political discourse, here and in Europe, means one thing only, and that is whatever is most convenient for “democratic” politicians to cope with, without risk of losing votes. The outraged reaction to Trump of European politicians and the European media exceeds, if anything, the American one, and it is easy to see why, since Donald Trump poses precisely the same threat to them that he does to their American counterparts. When Trump speaks of making the other NATO members contribute more in support of their own defense, European heads of state think, Suppose he really is elected president; suppose he really does cut American funding to NATO. To pay our fair share for our own defense, we’d have to raise taxes on our citizens, who are already making bad trouble for us in a time of economic recession and political tumult! A mainstream Republican president would sympathize with their plight. But never a President Trump (or someone like him).
As the party of business big and small (but especially big) whose “principles” include a moral obligation reflexively to oppose governmental intervention in the economy (save when intervention benefits the large corporations that help finance it), government regulation, and tax increases, the Republican Party has substantially lost its raison d’être, and thus its defining role in American politics. Before the industrial era, “separation of powers” referred to the relationship between the executive and the parliamentary branches in a representative constitutional government. Since then, it has meant also the balance between Big Business and Big Government, the one acting where necessary in restraint of the other. The fact that the first of these institutions is demonstrably more efficient and productive than the second does not weaken the argument for government regulation of it, as the proved efficiency of industrialism in producing valuable goods and services makes it equally efficient in producing what economists call “externalities.” Similarly, the destructive byproducts of useful industrial development and beneficial scientific research, in particular those produced by industrial science, clearly demand regulation that cannot be entrusted to the industrialists and industrial scientists themselves. This implies both the curtailment of free and unregulated economic activity by government and a significant limitation on democratic politics. So far no one has discovered a means of resolving this contradiction, and doubtless nobody ever will: The need and the solution are practical, not ideological, considerations, like the increased levels of taxation required to finance regulatory and “intrusive” government. Establishment and free-enterprise, corporate-minded Republicans, like National Review and the Wall Street Journal, need to reconcile themselves to modern political and economic reality by recognizing that modern society founded on the worship of unprecedented economic power facilitated by the application of scientific and industrial technique comes with a price: an equally powerful regulatory power to oversee it. They cannot have the one without the other, and until they admit this, a political party representing their interests above everything is not merely of no benefit to other interests but dangerous to them. Trump’s supporters seem to grasp this intuitively. The Republican establishment either can’t or doesn’t wish to, just as it refuses to recognize that making sympathetic noises without carrying through with supportive political and legal action no longer suffices to retain the loyalty of another of its previously significant constituencies, the social conservatives who have been betrayed by it time and again.
Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times, sees the Republican split as an opportunity for a liberalized GOP (presumably following Trump’s defeat in November) to free up congressional politics by cooperating with the Democratic Party. That is precisely what the Republicans, encouraged by conservative politicians and their constituents, should not do.
Conservatives have been hostage for generations to the Republican establishment but also to their own reluctance to nominate candidates with the strongest conservative credentials, from fear that the Democrats would defeat them handily, and that a subsequent liberal Democratic landslide followed by a solidly liberal Democratic administration would establish a Democratic Ascendancy and transform the country in the image of liberalism once and forever. The time has arrived, with or without Donald Trump, to challenge this apocalyptic bogey and summon the courage to gamble against it, even at the cost of another Democratic administration. The sole alternative is for conservatives to go on as they’ve been going, refusing to field a genuinely conservative candidate while enduring political gridlock indefinitely. If they should win their bet, the standoff is ended. If they lose, they have in fact lost nothing, as the slow death of conservative politics—death by a thousand cuts—continues to advance, as has been happening since 1964. Come what may, the result cannot be calculated in advance. Conservative success in the long run will not be achieved by pollsters, “strategists,” political operators, think tanks, and media entertainers. Instead, it will take shape organically and from the bottom up, as Trump’s movement has developed.
Should the Democratic Party sweep the country in this national election year or some future one, the United States will remain a country encompassing a broad range of subcultures, each of which would more likely be encouraged than not to resist the heightened tyranny from Washington. Already significant ukases from Congress, the federal agencies, and the Supreme and other federal courts mandating homosexual “marriage,” transgender “rights,” and even “a woman’s right to abortion,” invented by the High Court 43 years ago, are being actively resisted by state and local governments. Meanwhile, the craven and impotent fear of a liberal majority on the Supreme Bench—“There goes the Supreme Court!”—needs to be exposed for the papier-mâché tiger it really is. There are other means to hand than presidential appointments to reform the Court, among them the severe limitation of its jurisdiction by Congress, which has the undisputed constitutional power to do so.
Moreover, it is a grave failure of political thinking to imagine that the Democratic Party, if given the opportunity, could establish perpetual liberal hegemony—a Democratic Reich—as self-interested Republican strategists warn. Politics simply doesn’t work that way. Friends and allies easily, almost inevitably, fall out in time to the point where they would rather be at one another’s throats than at the enemy’s—a truth of human nature that anyone who has studied the history of the War Between the States knows. Lasting Democratic hegemony would depend upon an equally lasting agreement among a constituency comprising mutually hostile minority groups with competing interests and a motley assortment of social misfits and sexual perverts whose pathologies and neuroses make them unstable and undependable allies. It is an indisputable fact that America needs a morally and otherwise responsible party to counter the multiminority and multicultural Democratic coalition the Clintons are busy putting together this year, but that party is as much an eventual certainty, whether in the form of a renovated Republican Party or a new one, as the aggressive reaction of a live body’s immune system is to invading microbes.
Prudence is a virtue in politics. But so is courage, at opportune moments especially, and the willingness to accept risk. The leaders of the unreconstructed Republican Party have very good reasons for taking no risks and playing this election (and subsequent ones) safe, as they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by doing otherwise. The rest of the party, like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, certainly have much to lose. But they have a great deal more to gain. After all, fortune does favor the brave.