The Republican problem no one knows how to solve
In the raging debate among Trump-critical conservatives over whether the goal in November should be merely to defeat the president or to pursue the more radical strategy of burning the Republican Party to the ground, I'm firmly on the side of scorched earth.
The case for maximalism is strong. The head of the party is a corrupt and malicious imbecile. Republicans in Congress are a mix of Trump enablers, obstructionist-demagogues out to maximize the wealth of their donors, know-nothing conspiracist loons, and a few reformers experimenting with the most politically palatable way to blend nationalism with socialism. All of them are primarily motivated by the drive toward self-promotion within the right-wing media complex. And when we move further down the Republican hierarchy to the state and local level, things only get worse.
So yes, it would be very good for the Republican Party of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Louie Gohmert, Devin Nunes, and all the rest of them to be leveled to the ground so a wholly new party — a more reasonable, responsible, principled, and honorable party — can be built in its place.
There's just one difficulty with the plan: It does nothing to address the root of the problem, which no one — not the minimalist Trump haters, and not the fiercest maximalists out to pummel the party's establishment — has a clue how to solve.
That is the problem of the Republican voter.
Every one of those politicians — from Trump on down to Gohmert and Nunes and beyond — was elected by these voters. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed 160,000 in under six months and that the president shows no sign of understanding how to combat, his approval rating among Republicans remains at 91 percent. Thanks to this unshakable support, his overall approval has barely dipped below 40 percent through the nightmare of recent months and is currently creeping back up toward his norm of the past year (around 42 percent).
That may — God willing — be low enough for Trump to lose his bid for re-election to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But the loss, if it happens, will come despite his continued support from the overwhelming majority of Republicans, not because they (with a handful of well-publicized exceptions) have abandoned him.
The voters who swooned for Sarah Palin in 2008; who seriously considered giving the nod to Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum in 2012; who four years later elevated a reality-show conman to the head of their party, cast ballots for him to win the presidency, and have rallied around him ever since — most of these voters remain undaunted in their conviction that politics is primarily about the venting of grievances and the trolling of opponents. The dumber and angrier and more shameless, the better.
That, it should go without saying, is very bad for American democracy. Unless and until it changes, the Republican Party will continue to spew raw sewage into the country's political system and public life. Which means that even the go-for-broke strategy of burning the party to the ground by maximizing its electoral losses in 2020 is likely to be nothing more than a short-term fix bound to be reversed by the voters the next time they get a say.
This also means that the only thing that could lead to better outcomes for the country and the party would be a fundamental shift in sensibility and temperament on the part of Republican voters. What might — even hypothetically — produce such a sea-change?
Conventional wisdom among NeverTrump pundits and political consultants holds that a serious drubbing this year could, if paired with repeats over the next few election cycles, lead to a rethinking motivated by self-interest. For precedent, these prognosticators point to the Democratic Party's three drubbings in the 1980s and its subsequent shift to the center-left with Bill Clinton's victorious presidential candidacy in 1992. Perhaps some serious losses this year and beyond would disabuse today's Republican voters of their belief that far-right provocation is the surest path to victory and convince them of the wisdom of circumspection instead.
Maybe. Though this assumes Republican voters are primarily motivated by self-interest rather than raw animus and the entertainment value of nastiness. It also assumes that such voters are reasoning on the basis of facts and evidence. Some Republicans obviously are. But this is also a party led by a man who routinely suggests that the severity of the country's public health crisis is a function not of how many people who are sick or how many have died but of how many COVID-19 tests have been administered. It's also a party whose rank-and-file members have turned the refusal to wear protective masks in public during the worst pandemic in a century into a gesture of political defiance. So let's just say I'm skeptical that Republicans are inclined to discipline their reasoning by tying it too closely to the contours and constraints of reality.
Then there are those who have encouraged these tendencies — the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, Tucker Carlsons, Laura Ingrahams, and all the lesser-known rabblerousing imitators who make up the right-wing noise machine. Of course in a free society, there's nothing that can be done to make them go away. Though it's important to remember that none of them would be hocking their pestilential opinions for profit if there wasn't a large and appreciative audience for them. So once again, we're back to the bedrock truth that what has turned the GOP into a political cesspool is the preferences, tastes, and convictions of Republican voters.
Could anything change these voters — turning them, not into liberals or progressives obviously, but into thoughtful citizens capable of engaging with reality, thinking about actual problems, and rewarding public servants who make a good-faith effort to respond to them? The honest truth is that I don't have the slightest clue how to make it happen. Which also means that I have no idea how the United States might work its way back to having two civically responsible parties instead of just one.
So by all means, aim to burn down the GOP in 2020 if you can. But don't for a minute think it will solve the bigger problem that confronts us — the problem of the malignant Republican voter.