David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed page’s long-standing ambassador from the center-right, recently wrote a self-flagellatory column about the failure of anti-Trump Republicans to influence their own tribe. It was remarkable not for what it said but for what it didn’t. After lingering over the grim evidence — President Trump’s approval rating still hovers in the low 40s, and, more important, he commands the near unanimous support of the Republican base — Brooks concluded, “A lot of us never-Trumpers assumed momentum would be on our side as his scandals and incompetences mounted. It hasn’t turned out that way.”
What implications might be drawn from the implacable support of the party base for the manifestly incompetent, scandal-ridden party leader? One might entertain the conclusion that no combination of facts and logic can dislodge the Republican base from its tribal loyalties. This interpretation could be supported by such evidence as the fondness of Republicans for birtherism, their distrust of climate science, and so on. Perhaps the Republican base as currently constituted is hopelessly immune to reason and a reasonable person such as Brooks should instead refocus his political energies on curtailing its political power.
But Brooks’s column did not come to that conclusion. Indeed, amazingly enough, he did not even consider the option. Instead, he suggested that critics of Trump must try harder and somehow do a better job of persuading Republicans to stop loving Trump so much. The idea of abandoning the Republican Party because it is authoritarian and toxically anti-intellectual was apparently as unfathomable to him as a fish in a polluted river deciding to live on land.
If you want to understand why an event as large and potentially cataclysmic as the election of Donald Trump has not (yet) scrambled the long trench-warfare stalemate between red and blue America, this dynamic is a good place to start. We have in our heads a basic model of how the parties and voters are supposed to operate: If a party swings too far to one side or otherwise forfeits its claim to responsible governance, it will suffer some political consequences from voters, who will ultimately force it back.
That intuition has a sound historical and theoretical basis. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show in their recent book How Democracies Die, the first and strongest defense against the election of an extreme or unfit leader is for his more mainstream partners to defect en masse. In Finland in 1930, and in Belgium later that decade, conservative politicians closed ranks with their socialist adversaries in order to block the ultranationalist right. In France last year, François Fillon called for his center-right party, the Republicans, to support Emmanuel Macron in the runoff rather than Marine Le Pen. Almost nothing of the sort has happened in the United States.
The nomination of a candidate who refused in advance to accept defeat, who encouraged violence at his rallies and called for the imprisonment of his opponent, did lead some prominent Republicans — Mitt Romney, John McCain, several Bushes — to withhold endorsements of their party’s nominee. But none of them later supported the only candidate who could have defeated Trump. The only sitting Republican officeholder willing to go so far as to endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a single retiring member of Congress, Richard Hanna of New York. The Republicans who refused to actively support Trump mainly removed themselves from the discussion.
Imagine being one of those moderate Republicans of some political consequence. Looking around at what 16 months of President Trump has wrought, watching Fox & Friends, refreshing the news sites for the latest national-security debacle, would you decide, each morning, to remain in the Republican Party? And yet in varying ways, anti-Trump conservatives have all taken the impossibility of trans-partisan cooperation as a given.
The boldest of them have formed Republican-branded dissident groups like Stand Up Republic and Republicans for the Rule of Law. One might defend this as necessary to garner the approval of the party faithful, who theoretically recoil at criticism of Trump that comes from sources whose loyalty is suspect. But Trump has had no compunction about labeling anybody who gets in his way as an agent of Hillary Clinton. That the FBI is filled to the brim with Republicans has not stopped Fox News from painting the agency as part of a left-wing conspiracy. If Trump is going to call anyone who criticizes him a Democrat and if his base is going to believe him, why not go along with it?
Certainly, the half-measures adopted to date by Republican dissidents have failed completely. The GOP is systematically purging dissent and has made anti-Trumpism impossible for anyone who sees a future in Republican politics. In places where Republicans have had contested primaries, the central issue has been which candidate can demonstrate the purest loyalty to the president. Recently, National Review editor Rich Lowry, whose magazine published an “Against Trump” special issue during the primaries, conceded that, while “most of the fears of how Trump would conduct himself in office have been realized,” Trump’s conservative critics “sound like they are in denial.” Republicans in Congress who have criticized Trump’s unfitness for office, like Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, have noncoincidentally announced their retirement from office. (And even now, as lame ducks, they serve Mitch McConnell.)
Historically, politicians switched parties all the time. Dixiecrats like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, who couldn’t abide their party’s embrace of civil rights, became Republicans. Northeastern Republicans like Vermont senator Jim Jeffords and Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter switched the other way when they saw their party veering too far right. A sequence of events like the transformation of a party into a cult of personality dedicated to the most unfit personality ever to occupy the Oval Office should have had a disruptive effect on the alignments of national politicians.
One can make sense of the choices made by those Republicans, like Paul Ryan, most committed to the conservative movement’s ideological goals. They fervently support ideas, like reducing taxes for the rich and allowing industry to pollute the atmosphere for free, that lack popular support. They have no choice but to harness their program to the ethnonationalist base that Trump commands.
But there are also Republicans who have shown a desire to move their party to the center. During the Bush administration’s dying years, Romney supported universal health insurance and McCain and Newt Gingrich advocated a cap-and-trade program to mitigate climate change. The absence of Republican moderates, among both elected officials and intellectuals associated with the party, willing to openly join or work with the Democratic Party suggests that the power of partisanship remains overwhelming, even among those Republicans who profess the strongest aversion to partisanship.
Over the long run, the country needs two small-d-democratic parties that are tethered to empirical reality. The GOP has no ability to be a party like that and no short-term prospects of becoming one. Even restoring the party to its relative sanity of a decade ago — a time when many Republicans agreed that the GOP was in dire need of reform — seems unimaginably ambitious from the standpoint of today. There comes a time when trying to patch things up and hoping for better days ceases to be a responsible choice, and one must conclude that the Republican Party’s straightest path to salvation runs through a cleansing fire of electoral destruction.
*This article appears in the April 16, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!