The Fantasy of Future Republican Centrism

Like it or not, this is the Grand Old Party now. Photo: Mark Felix/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Republicans unhappy with what Donald Trump has done to and with their party have reacted in various ways. Some have sucked it up and gone along, perhaps quietly grumbling while hoping that when the Bad Man goes away, they can return to a quieter, more traditionally reactionary agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and abortion bans sold via the kind of shameful demagoguery Trump raised to an entirely new level. Republicans at the other end of the gag-reflex spectrum have concluded MAGA represents the natural culmination of extremist tendencies that were already beginning to dominate the GOP before Trump appeared like a nightmare bogeyman. They have for the most part left the party and formed what Tim Miller calls the Red Dog faction of the Democratic Party.

And then there is Peggy Noonan, the venerable multimedia star and self-appointed oracle of the crumbling Temple of Reagan. Appropriately enough, she recently offered her counsel to the GOP in a speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, which she then excerpted into a Wall Street Journal column for the edification of Republicans wherever they live. Noonan’s advice is the opposite of her signature florid prose style: Be boring, be unchallenged and unchallenging, be normal: “As America tries to cohere and regain its cultural and societal balance,” she writes, “it is the job of the Republican Party to be the party of the big center, to stand for normal, regular people in all their human variety — all races, ethnicities, faiths — against the forces of ideology currently assailing them.”

Noonan has long angered many other Reagan acolytes by arguing that despite the former president’s longtime (pre-Noonan) tendency to clip and repeat little snippets from Human Events and the Goldwater-redux Viva Ole! chants of his supporters, he essentially represented a nonideological brand of conservatism as a wise and avuncular man of good character and working-class instincts. In the Reagan White House memoir that made her the world’s first celebrity speechwriter, she derided the movement conservatives around Reagan as “creepy little men with creepy little beards.” She lost patience with the Republicans around George W. Bush for the arrogance and rigidity of their worldviews, and initially welcomed Trump for standing up for the “regular people” conservative ideologues didn’t understand.

Now, Noonan calls the MAGA incarnation of that movement a “cult” — and worse yet, unserious and Trump himself a loser. She is again impatient, but this time for Republicans to crusade against “excess” (the mother’s milk of MAGA) of any sort and satiate the craving of the “big center” for peace and quiet — a party that is “centrist in its mood and attitudes, and in its internal understanding of itself.” We are talking about a party that has not been open to any kind of centrism since George H.W. Bush — another of Noonan’s presidential clients — placed David Souter on the Supreme Court and signed a deficit reduction bill with a tax increase. The right-wing backlash is still under way.

Reading Noonan’s advice to her party, it sounds like she wants the GOP to occupy the political space so many centrist pundits imagined Joe Biden to occupy before he actually took office: someone determined to crush any passion or purpose out of politics on behalf of a traumatized white suburban middle-class exhausted by Trump and the pandemic. Looking a bit deeper, it’s the centrism of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose “progressive conservatism” was for the most part an effort to anesthetize a nation seething with ideological tensions that finally exploded in the 1960s, whose “excesses” offended young Peggy Noonan. Reagan’s forebear and idol Barry Goldwater sneered at Ike’s administration as a “dime-store New Deal.” Now Noonan wants Republicans to embrace the entire New Deal–Great Society legacy, “the whole edifice created in the past century by both parties to help people feel more secure and with a steadier foothold in the world.”

That ain’t happening. Trump remains the de facto leader of Noonan’s party, and if he falters, he will be succeeded by someone as bad or worse if “excess” is the enemy and the “big center” is the goal. Yes, the pointy-head right-wing intellectuals and propagandists who represented a forgotten part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy are mostly dead and gone. But their MAGA successors look not to Barry Goldwater or Herbert Hoover but to Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro. They may not be traditional conservative ideologues, all right, but the last thing they want is a politics of “normalcy.” They want the fire and sword, not peace, other than the peace that comes when victors stand over the graves of the vanquished.

To the extent that Peggy Noonan is arguing for a sort of popularism of the right, her advice to the GOP may be cynically shrewd. But it won’t be taken. For a lot of reasons that have little or nothing to do with alleged Democratic “excesses,” the Republican Party will likely make gains this November, giving it momentum heading toward 2024 that will make challenging Trump and Trumpism seem like the real gamble. I have to wonder if for a third time Noonan will refuse to vote for either major-party candidate. If so, it may finally become clear that she represents no one but herself and the “big center” that cannot be roused to vote.

The Fantasy of Future Republican Centrism