Can the GOP ever redeem itself?
Democrats look well poised to beat President Trump and the Republican Party in this fall's election. There are some observers who hope that a good electoral thrashing will bring Republican leaders to their senses and cause them to steer a course away from the party's unofficial platform of revanchism, culture wars, and white identity politics toward a less-alarming path.
But defeat — no matter how large or ignominious— probably won't redeem the GOP, nor cure it of its Trumpist excesses.
A landslide victory for Democratic candidate Joe Biden "would turn the Trump era of nihilism, tribalism, and cruelty into a cautionary tale of extremism, illiberalism, and, above all, failure," Andrew Sullivan wrote last week. He added: "And a landslide is the only thing that can possibly, finally break the far right fever that has destroyed the GOP as a legitimate right-of-center political party, and turned it into a paranoid, media-driven, fact-free festival of fear and animus."
This might sound familiar. Sullivan made a similar case in 2007, arguing in The Atlantic for the candidacy of Barack Obama as a means of repudiating the Boomer-driven culture wars that had culminated in the multiple disasters — Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — of George W. Bush's presidency.
"At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war — not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade — but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most," Sullivan wrote. "It is a war about war — and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama — and Obama alone — offers the possibility of a truce."
Obviously, that's not how things actually worked out.
Republican leaders did distance themselves from Bush, but Obama's landslide election victory sparked a backlash that ushered in the Tea Party, Glenn Beck's ugly heyday, GOP intransigence, and birtherism.
When Obama won big again in 2012, there was a moment when the party's leaders appeared ready to set a new course. The Republican National Committee produced a postmortem report that proclaimed voters perceived the party as belonging to "stuffy old men." The RNC vowed to plunge its resources into reaching out to minority voters. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — eyeing a 2012 run for the presidency — even took the lead on crafting a bipartisan immigration reform bill as part of an effort to soften the GOP's image.
The bill never gained traction. Conservatives bludgeoned Rubio for his perceived softness on immigration. Republican voters chose Donald Trump and his border wall in the 2016 primaries, despite the obvious agitation it caused the party establishment. But when Trump was elected, that establishment — including Rubio — fell in line.
So even if Trump loses the election by double-digit margins, as several recent polls have indicated he might, recent history doesn't augur Republican repentance. The party's Trump-loving base voters aren't going anywhere. Neither is Trump. It is doubtful he would follow the lead of his predecessors and recede into the background after leaving office — instead we probably can expect a Mar-a-Lago tweetstorm to keep the former reality star in the spotlight and stirring up trouble for as long as he is able.
One big election defeat, or two, might not convince Republicans of the errors of their ways. It might take a generation of losses, of being deprived of power, to do the trick. Republicans were locked out of the White House for 20 years starting with Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932, and only reclaimed office after Dwight Eisenhower — a hugely popular war hero whom Democrats had also tried to woo as their candidate — took office and governed as a post-New Deal moderate. Similarly, Democrats spent most of the post-Richard Nixon era in the wilderness, given a break only by the Watergate-driven election of Jimmy Carter, and getting relief only when Bill Clinton arrived on the scene in 1992 to steer the party toward the center.
Maybe this time will be different.
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