There is not much doubt that if Donald Trump loses on November 8, we will witness a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party on a grand scale. This almost always happens when parties lose presidential elections, especially if they believe the race was winnable with a different nominee or message. And it will certainly happen when the nominee and message are a sharp departure from the party’s precedents and involve implicit and explicit attacks on the party’s past leadership and agenda. In many respects, the Trump candidacy itself has represented an ongoing “struggle for the soul of the GOP,” and thus the continuation of that struggle over his prostrate body should be a given.
Trump’s poor performance in the first presidential debate and Hillary Clinton’s subsequent bounce in the polls seem to have loosened the tongues of some disgruntled Republicans. And thus the first shot of the post-election fight was fired by Noah Rothman from the neoconservative bastion of Commentary. A response was duly published by longtime Republican thinker David Frum at The Atlantic.
It’s safe to say that Rothman’s views largely reflect those of most “Republican Establishment” folk who basically think the GOP should go back to where it was before the Trump calamity struck:
[T]he coalition cannot be reformed around two competing ideas. Trumpism exists at odds with conservatism, and the party as reconstituted in 2017 must be one built up around conservative ideals of limited government, free trade, an internationalist foreign policy, and an unqualified rejection of identity politics. In short, Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed. That’s the price of admission, and it’s a modest one given the great costs associated with sacrificing a winnable race for the White House.
Other than an insistence on orthodox conservatism, Rothman’s key idea is a politics of “addition,” which means going back to the inclusive prescriptions of the post-2012 RNC “autopsy report” — but also trying to bring along Trump fans, other than a few Trumpian opinion-leaders he would clearly love to purge.
Frum, meanwhile, probably speaks for the “reformicons” who have long argued for a GOP message and agenda more in touch with the views of the party’s white working-class base, but were horrified by Trump’s crude and demagogic preemption of that appeal. So in contrast to Rothman’s restorationist argument, he has to make the more difficult don’t-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater analysis.
[A]nti-Trump conservatives will be thrust back into exactly the position they held from 2013 to 2015: exponents of an ideology that does not command majority assent even within the Republican coalition, never mind the country as a whole. Repeal Obamacare; end the Medicare guarantee for people under age 55; offer big tax cuts to corporations and the richest taxpayers; pass constitutional amendments to stop abortion and same-sex marriage; back immigration reform that increases the flow of low-wage labor into the economy; take no action on climate change or other environmental concerns: that message has been tried and found wanting again and again since 2009, and it’s not going to appeal any more strongly after November. Whatever else Donald Trump did, he confirmed that a majority of Republican voters also want a message that secures health coverage, raises middle-class incomes, and enforces borders and national identity.
Frum views the search for a post-Trump reformed conservative ideology as a lot more than a post-election tweak: It is a fundamental challenge for conservatives everywhere given the prevalence of white-middle-class nationalist reaction against globalization.
But it’s no clearer from Frum’s analysis than from Rothman’s exactly how much accommodation of Trumpism will be necessary. Notably, neither of them says much about the virulent opposition to international trade agreements that is so central to Trump’s economic message and so antithetical to what conservatives have believed for a couple of generations — and to the corporate titans who are paying for the whole GOP show.
A more notable omission from both arguments for GOP revival is how Republicans should behave toward President Hillary Clinton (if Trump wins, this whole debate changes dramatically, of course). Given their pleas for — and acknowledgements of the obstacles against — party unity, you have to figure violent opposition to a Clinton administration and all its works will be a given. After all, obstructionism is one prescription that won’t require either pro- or anti-Trump Republicans to change at all.