The Republican Party is dissolving before our eyes

President Trump's highly personalistic, anti-ideological presidency is but one expression of a much broader trend in the GOP — namely the thoroughgoing dissolution of the party's ideological coherence

But will the Democrats take advantage?
(Image credit: Illustrated | Image courtesy iStock)

There are only so many hours in the day or neurons in our minds to devote to politics, but it's nonetheless important that we raise our sights above the daily displays of the Trump administration's bumper-car incompetence to take in the bigger picture. When we do, it becomes clear that Trump's highly personalistic, anti-ideological presidency is an expression of a much broader trend in the GOP — namely the thoroughgoing dissolution of the party's ideological coherence.

This breakdown in unity and consistency within the Republican Party can be seen across a range of issues. Over time it will render the party increasingly incapable of governing — and most likely prepare the way for a much more dramatic shift in the party's direction in 2020 or beyond.

Health care. The House Freedom Caucus wants to gut ObamaCare, including provisions that force insurance companies to cover "essential health benefits" (like maternity care, hospitalization, and mental health services) and preclude them from charging more for consumers based on their gender or medical history. In place of these provisions, the HFC prefers a market-based system that would supposedly lower costs and increase efficiency and innovation while leaving millions fewer covered by health insurance. Party moderates, meanwhile, including the so-called "Tuesday Group" in the House, would prefer more marginal adjustments to the Affordable Care Act. Adding to the chaos, a recent poll shows that a plurality of Republican voters favor a single-payer system that most of the party's elected officials, as well as nearly all of its lobbyists and activists, passionately denounce as "socialized medicine," and which many Democrats consider too left wing to touch.

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Taxes. Since Ronald Reagan, promises to cut taxes have formed the core of the GOP's appeal to voters. But today, the agenda has fallen into disarray. Some, like Grover Norquist and assorted billionaire funders, want cuts, cuts, and more cuts, the better to "starve the beast." But other Republicans are more worried about the deficit and so prefer to pair revenue trims (or even modest enhancements) with specific spending reductions. Still others, including (on some days) the president himself, want to experiment with consumption taxes (like a border adjustment tax). Put it all together and we're left with a bundle of contrary impulses and priorities when it comes to the GOP's signature issue.

Foreign policy. Both parties are dominated by hawks — liberal internationalists on the left and neoconservatives on the right. The supremacy of the neocons in the GOP has persisted despite their leadership of the #NeverTrump movement and continued skepticism about the president's competence, instincts, and entanglements with Vladimir Putin. Yet those who reject the neocon conviction that every global problem can be remedied by the generous application of American military power received a significant boost when Trump ascended to the White House, bringing Mr. America First (Stephen Bannon) with him to the West Wing and placing him (temporarily) on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. That, like everything else in the Trump administration, was not to last. But the churn at the top of the party around such fundamental issues has reinforced the impression that everything is up for grabs in today's GOP, including its stance toward the wider world.

Crime/drugs. The GOP remains broadly "tough on crime." But in recent years, several high-profile Republicans have shown a willingness to work with Democrats on various forms of criminal-justice reform, especially reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Yet Trump comes from a faction of the party that is far more interested in emphasizing "law and order," and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, shows every sign of working against any reform at all. If anything, Sessions seems eager to move in the opposite direction, toward a re-intensification of the drug war, including harsh sentences for convictions.

Immigration. The GOP has been split on immigration for many years, with the party's rich donors and the Wall Street Journal crowd firmly leaning in the direction of open borders and the grassroots of the party taking a far more draconian line, including support for the forcible deportation of undocumented immigrants (invariably denigrated as "illegals"). For a long time, the former group held the preponderance of the power in the party and found themselves checked from time to time by the latter. But with Trump's election that balance has been upended. Now it's the anti-immigrant forces who hold the power and their opponents who've been placed on the defensive. But regardless of who holds the cards at one time or another, the fact is that the party is, and shows every sign of staying, deeply divided on the issue.

The two areas where the GOP remains broadly unified are social policy (especially abortion) and the Supreme Court. Given the importance of the Court in adjudicating our most polarizing disagreements on social policy, it makes sense that the party largely stuck together through the rancorous year-long battle to succeed the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, which included a successful effort to deny a hearing or vote to the nominee of a Democratic president and culminated in the nuking of the judicial filibuster in the Senate.

But don't let such steadfastness fool you. On just about every other issue, the Republican Party is in a state of disarray, its once-unifying ideology crumbling before our eyes.

All that remains to be seen is whether the Democrats can exploit this massive vulnerability.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.