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The Grand Old Meltdown

Timothy Alberta

I decided to call Frank Luntz. Perhaps no person alive has spent more time polling Republican voters and counseling Republican politicians than Luntz, the 58-year-old focus group guru. His research on policy and messaging has informed a generation of GOP lawmakers. His ability to translate between D.C. and the provinces—connecting the concerns of everyday people to their representatives in power—has been unsurpassed. If anyone had an answer, it would be Luntz.

“You know I don’t have a history of dodging questions. But I don’t know how to answer that. There is no consistent philosophy,” Luntz responded. “You can’t say it’s about making America great again at a time of Covid and economic distress and social unrest. It’s just not credible.”

Luntz thought for a moment. “I think it’s about promoting—” he stopped suddenly. “But I can’t, I don’t—” he took a pause. “That’s the best I can do.”

When I pressed, Luntz sounded as exasperated as the student whose question I was relaying. “Look, I’m the one guy who’s going to give you a straight answer. I don’t give a shit—I had a stroke in January, so there’s nothing anyone can do to me to make my life suck,” he said. “I’ve tried to give you an answer and I can’t do it. You can ask it any different way. But I don’t know the answer. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the answer.”

Every fourth summer, a presidential nominating convention gives occasion to appraise a party for its ideas, its principles, its vision for governing. Recent iterations of the GOP have been easily and expertly defined. Ronald Reagan’s party wanted to end the scourge of communism and slay the bureaucratic dragons of big government. George W. Bush’s party aimed to project compassion and fortitude, educating poor Americans and treating AIDS-stricken Africans while simultaneously confronting the advance of Islamic terrorism. However flawed the policies, however unsuccessful their execution, a tone was set in these parties from the top-down. They stood for something manifest, even if that something was not always (or even usually) practiced by members of the party.

“If you think about the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—they’re all about ideas. Parties were supposed to be about ideas,” said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman who ran a short-lived primary against Trump in 2020. “John Adams was an ornery guy, but he believed in his ideas. On the other side, Thomas Jefferson, he certainly didn’t live up to the ideas he espoused, but shoot, at least he talked about them. Nowadays, it’s just regression to the lowest common denominator on everything. It scares me. You keep going this way of cult of personality, you will kill our Republic.”

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It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator Sanford alluded to. If it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.

“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”

With Election Day just a few months away, I was genuinely surprised, in the course of recent conversations with a great many Republicans, at their inability to articulate a purpose, a designation, a raison d’être for their party. Everyone understands that Trump is a big-picture sloganeer—“Build the wall!” “Make America Great Again!”— rather than a policy aficionado. Even so, it’s astonishing how conceptually lifeless the party has become on his watch. There is no blueprint to fix what is understood to be a broken immigration system. There is no grand design to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. There is no creative thinking about a conservative, market-based solution to climate change. There is no meaningful effort to address the cost of housing or childcare or college tuition. None of the erstwhile bold ideas proposed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan—term limits, a balanced budget amendment, reforms to Social Security and Medicare, anti-poverty programs—have survived as serious proposals. Heck, even after a decade spent trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans still have no plan to replace it. (Trust me: If they did, you’d hear about it.)

Is the cupboard totally bare? Of course not. Members of Congress employ legislative personnel for a purpose; there will always be paper packets gathering dust in subcommittee offices to ward off accusations of intellectual complacency. Some of these efforts are more earnest than others. These days, GOP lawmakers would point to bills touching on areas such as military readiness and intellectual property, which they consider pieces of a coherent and forward-looking national security policy. They would also admit, however, that these measures, which tend to attract bipartisan interest, are hardly the stuff of TV commercials and five-point campaign plans.

When I called one party elder, he joked that it’s a good thing Republicans decided not to write a new platform for the 2020 convention—because they have produced nothing novel since the last one was written. Trump and his party have relied more on squabbles than solutions in delivering for their base. Even some of the president’s staunchest supporters concede Buck’s point in this regard: The party is now defined primarily by its appetite for conflict, even when that conflict serves no obvious policy goal.

The result is political anarchy. Traditionally, the run-up to a convention sees a party attempting to tame rival factions and unite around a dynamic vision for the future. Instead, Republicans have spent the summer in a self-immolating downward spiral.

On Capitol Hill, several House Republicans berated a member of their leadership for defending the integrity of the nation’s top infectious disease expert amid a raging pandemic; one of them, days later, accosted a young Democratic congresswoman on the steps of the House, allegedly calling her a “fucking bitch,” while another one, who had proudly refused to wear a face covering around the Capitol, contracted Covid-19. Things weren’t much sunnier on the Senate side, where one Republican touted a new investigation that would “certainly help Donald Trump win reelection” while his GOP colleague concluded that a separate probe exonerated Trump’s campaign of wrongdoing in 2016 when it did precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, as party operatives worked feverishly to win ballot access for Kanye West, a bipolar Black celebrity who could ostensibly draw votes from Joe Biden, emerging victorious from at least three GOP primaries were congressional candidates who have expressed support for QAnon, the psychotic conspiracy theory that accuses Democrats and Hollywood elites of trafficking and cannibalizing young children. Given a chance to disavow this nascent movement, the president pleaded ignorance and, along with other party officials, embraced these candidates, even the self-described “proud Islamophobe” who has fantasized about immigrants dying en masse.

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All the while, Trump kept busy suggesting a delay to the November election and predicting that the only way he will lose is if ballots are rigged against him. He repeatedly misstated the key statistics of the coronavirus and misleading citizens about its scale; condemned American cities to “rot” amid continued social unrest and violence; defended the Confederate Flag and suggested that the Civil Rights Act was a mistake; promised a “full and complete health care plan” that never materialized; declined to attend the Capitol funeral of civil rights icon and beloved congressman John Lewis; dog-whistled to white suburbanites that Black and brown people are readying an “invasion” of their neighborhoods if Biden wins; extended well-wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell, who stands accused of running Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex-trafficking ring; pondered a sabotage of the United States Postal Service for the purpose of suppressing absentee votes; warned that Biden, a lifelong Roman Catholic, is “against God” and will “hurt God” if elected; indulged an encore presentation of birther speculation, this time with regards to Kamala Harris, the California-born Democratic V.P. nominee; and, naturally, pressured the governor of South Dakota to make room for him on Mount Rushmore.

This is not a party struggling to find its identity. This is a party in the middle of a meltdown.

***

The verdict I’m rendering here is both observable in plain sight and breathtakingly obvious to anyone who has experienced the carnage up close. Some Republicans don’t want to see the wheels coming off and therefore insist that everything is fine; others are not only comfortable with the chaos but believe it to be their salvation. In either case, these groups are the minority. Most of the party’s governing class sees perfectly well what is going on. They know exactly how bad things are and how much worse they could yet be. Even as they attempt to distract from the wreckage, redirecting voters’ gaze toward those dastardly Democratic socialists and reminding them of the binary choice before them, these Republicans rue their predicament but see no way out of it. Like riders on a derailing rollercoaster, they brace for a crash but dare not get off.

Having written the book on the making of the modern Republican Party, having spent hundreds of hours with its most powerful officials in public and private settings, I cannot possibly exaggerate the number of party leaders who have told me they worry both about Trump’s instability and its long-term implication for the GOP. Not that any of this should come as a surprise. There’s a reason Lindsey Graham called Trump “crazy,” a “bigot” and a “kook” who’s “unfit for office.” There’s a reason Ted Cruz called Trump “a pathological liar” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” There’s a reason Marco Rubio observed that, “Every movement in human history that has been built on a foundation of anger and fear has been cataclysmic,” and warned of Trump’s rise, “This isn’t going to end well.”

Of course, these are the before” photos. The “after” shots reflect only the slightest hints of skepticism from these and other Republicans who once denounced Trump but now strain to avoid the wrath of the president and his minions. The rest of the right-wing universe—conservative media, think tanks, activist organizations, financial networks, civic groups, voters themselves—has largely gone along for the ride, and for the same reason: “What about the Democrats?” It’s true that the post-Obama party has stretched its ideological spectrum; it’s also true that Biden’s nomination, on top of the 2018 election results, revealed a Democratic coalition still anchored by the center-left. Not that any such nuance matters. To be a Republican today requires you to exist in a constant state of moral relativism, turning every chance at self-analysis into an assault on the other side, pretending the petting zoo next door is comparable to the three-ring circus on your front lawn.

The spectacle is unceasing. One day it’s a former top administration official going public with Trump’s stated unwillingness to extend humanitarian aid to California because it’s politically blue and Puerto Rico because it’s “poor” and “dirty.” The next day it’s Trump launching a boycott of Goodyear Tire, a storied American company that employs 65,000 people, for one store’s uneven ban on political apparel in the workplace. A day later it’s Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, getting rung up on charges of swindling donors out of money for the private construction of a border wall, money he allegedly spent on yachts and luxury living. It was just the latest in a string of arrests that leave Trump looking eerily similar to the head of a criminal enterprise. What all of these incidents and so many more have in common is that not a single American’s life has been improved; not a single little guy has been helped. Just as with the forceful dispersing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park—done so he could hold up a prop Bible for flashing cameras—Trump and his allies continue to wage symbolic battles whose principal casualties are ordinary people.

How to process such nihilism? It can be tempting, given that Trump is the fount from which so much of the madness flows, to draw a distinction between the president and his party, between Trumpism and Republicanism. It is also fair to examine the difference between local party politics and national party politics. But these distinctions grow blurrier by the day. At issue is not simply the constant enabling and justifying of the president’s conduct by GOP officials at every level of government, but also the rate at which copycats and clones are emerging. Sure, moderate governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts prove the truism that all politics are local, but so do radical state party chairmen like Kelli Ward of Arizona and Allen West of Texas. Unsavory fringe characters have always looked for ways to penetrate the mainstream of major parties—and mostly, they have failed. What would result from a fringe character leading a party always remained an open question. It has now been asked and answered: Some in the party have embraced the extreme, others in the party have blushed at it, but all of them have subjugated themselves to it. The same way a hothead coach stirs indiscipline in his players, the same way a renegade commander invites misconduct from his troops, a kamikaze president inspires his party to pursue martyrdom.

That is precisely what will be on display at this week’s Republican convention—martyrdom, grievance, victimhood. Oh, there will be touting of tax cuts, celebrating of conservative judges, boasting of border security. But accomplishment will not be the sole undertone of the proceedings. The party of rugged individualism will spend as much time whining as reveling. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, will be given precious speaking time, as will Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-clad high school kid who was defamed after a confrontation on the National Mall went viral. Other headliners will take turns bemoaning media bias, denouncing the obstructionist Democrats, cursing the unfair timing of the coronavirus, decrying their loss of culture, rebuking corporate America for kneeling at the altar of social justice and accusing the Deep State of stacking the deck against them.

It’s not that America won’t hear from serious Republicans who have real substance to offer, people like Senator Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. It’s that these two, along with the remnant of other sober-minded Republicans, are the new sideshow at a time when the old sideshow has moved to center stage.

Similarly, the problem for the party isn’t that the aforementioned complaints are entirely without merit. It’s that they form no part of a broader construct on which voters can be sold. This continues to be the bane of the GOP’s existence: The party is so obsessed with fighting that it has lost sight of what it’s fighting for.

“I think I have brought tremendous strength back to the party,” the president told me last year, arguing that previous GOP leaders lacked the stomach for gruesome political combat. There is no denying Trump has transformed the party from a country club debater into a barroom brawler. But to what end?

Consider the case of Goodyear Tire. The company recently came under fire after one of its locations introduced a policy that allowed employees to wear apparel with slogans supporting Black Lives Matter but not Blue Lives Matter. Also banned, in addition to the pro-police attire, was any Trump gear, including Make America Great Again hats. With the outcry swelling on social media, the president couldn’t resist jumping in. “Don’t buy GOODYEAR TIRES – They announced a BAN ON MAGA HATS. Get better tires for far less!” Trump tweeted.

The silliness of this defies description. For one thing, using the bully pulpit some 70 days before the election to blackball an iconic American brand—one headquartered in the swing state of Ohio—is political malpractice, particularly given this year’s sweeping economic disruption. (Goodyear shares fell 6 percent the day of Trump’s tweet.) Moreover, Trump missed the point of the uproar. Instead of seizing on the chance to affirm his support for law enforcement, wielding the incident as proof of a creeping anti-police prejudice, he made it all about himself. When Goodyear’s corporate office intervened, reversing the store’s policy to allow Blue Lives Matter apparel (but not Trump wear), it was celebrated as a triumph by conservatives. “Goodyear Caves to President Trump, Reverses Ban on Blue Lives Matter at Workplace,” read a headline from The Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog that posted at least four stories about the tire tiff.

But where, exactly, was the victory? Some mechanics in Topeka can once again wear their preferred shirts. But no progress was made on the underlying problem of race relations. Nothing was done to strengthen the trust between law enforcement and their communities. Nowhere was a policy remedy advanced or a cultural reconciliation advocated. It was simply another political hit-and-run, Republicans fighting cancel culture with cancel culture, satisfied to cater to the few rather than build a coalition around the many.

“I think to myself in situations like this, what would Ronald Reagan do?” said Chip Roy, a freshman congressman from Texas. “The difference is, he would have a speech somewhere at some rally or some event. He would make a joke, some Reaganesque quip, that would put Goodyear in their place while making a larger point. But I don’t believe for a minute that he would ignore it, either. He wouldn’t be OK with corporate warlords bending us to their will.”

Roy’s point—that Reagan would have kept the matter in perspective, wielding it subtly to advance his loftier aims—is probably right. Still, that no Republicans seemed upset with Trump for bullying yet another business was stunning. What happened to not picking winners and losers? This was why I’d called Roy. He occupies a unique space inside the party—a lawyer and fiery constitutionalist who was Cruz’s Senate chief of staff and a fierce Trump critic in 2016 but now a congressman in a purple district who can’t afford to alienate the president’s supporters. Still, Roy is as close to a plainspoken conservative Republican as there is in Congress. I was curious to know how he would define today’s GOP.

“Our central mission is to stand up for America. It’s to say loudly and proudly that we choose America. When I go around talking to Texans every single day, what I hear is that they’re proud of this country. And they want us to fight for this country. That’s what ties it all together for Republicans,” Roy said. “The people I talk to—even the ones who maybe get a little frustrated with the president—they look at him as someone who fights for this country.”

There is a place in politics for fighting—and, yes, for culture wars. Some of the great policy debates of this century, from abortion to same-sex marriage to marijuana legalization, were shaped more by social movements than policy debates. The problem for Republicans is that most of the fights they’re picking nowadays are futile at best and foolhardy at worst. NASCAR? Confederate flags? Goya beans? Face masks? To the degree any of these issues move the needle politically, Republicans are on the wrong side of them. What’s worse, there is no connective tissue. There is no focus to the GOP’s incessant appetite for fighting. That’s how they wound up with Trump in the first place. That’s how they’re winding up with people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Laura Loomer. When your war is boundless and undefined, you end up sharing foxholes with some pretty weird allies.

“The GOP has been here before with John Birchers and it didn’t end well,” said Ben Sasse, the Nebraska senator who has been a vocal if terribly inconsistent Trump critic. “The party of Lincoln and Reagan ought to have something big and bold to offer the country, but it’s got way too many grifters selling grievance politics.”

To be clear, these grifters aren’t just shady party operatives and obscure congressional candidates. They are some of the president’s closest allies, people like Matt Gaetz, the cartoonish Florida congressman who is self-grooming as an heir to the MAGA empire. Gaetz knows there is no downside, at least not in his district, to embracing the likes of Greene and Loomer. These candidates didn’t win primaries in spite of their absurdity; they won because of their absurdity.

Whenever I watch Gaetz—who has used his platform to publicly intimidate a federal witness, to host a Holocaust denier as his State of the Union guest, to wear a gas mask around Capitol Hill in a mockery of the Covid-19 threat—I am reminded of the admonition offered by his father, longtime Florida state Senator Don Gaetz, at Jeb Bush’s campaign launch in July 2015. “We cannot save this country,” the elder Gaetz declared, “with politicians who have no principles.”

***

If there is one principle driving Republican politicians today, it is that traditional American values—faith, patriotism, modesty, the nuclear family—are under siege. There is no use adjudicating this dispute or enumerating the ways in which Trump has himself undermined these ethics. Rather, what’s fascinating to observe is the shift in priorities and proportionality. What was once a source of annoyance and frustration for one sect of the party, social conservatives, has turned into the dominant lifeforce for the GOP. The good news for Republicans is that “grievance politics,” as Sasse describes it, continues to be highly effective in motivating their base. The bad news? It has diminishing returns when it comes to the many millions of persuadable voters in the middle. It’s also especially difficult for an incumbent party to sell grievance to the masses, as it amounts to a tacit acknowledgment of powerlessness. This is perhaps the most baffling aspect of the GOP’s approach to 2020: Instead of downplaying the social upheaval, treating it as a fleeting phenomenon that will pass with time and promising better days ahead, they are highlighting it at every turn, claiming it’s a sneak preview of Biden’s America when it is, factually speaking, the feature presentation of Trump’s America.

“This election feels to me a lot like 1980,” said Whit Ayres, one of the country’s best Republican pollsters. “We had the Iranian hostage crisis, double digit inflation and unemployment. It just felt like events were spinning out of control and the president had little ability to effect positive outcomes.”

Ayres added, “There were doubts about whether Reagan was a credible alternative. They had one debate and Reagan came across as credible—and the dam broke. There are similar doubts about Joe Biden now; not his experience, but his ability to do the job. Can he persuade voters that he is up to the challenge?”

The Democratic nominee took a giant step in that direction last week, capping his party’s impressive virtual convention with easily the finest speech of his entire 2020 campaign. Having soared over the pathetically low bar Trump and his fellow savants set with allegations of senility, Biden has enhanced his credibility and kept the election, for now, a referendum on the beleaguered incumbent.

The pressure is now entirely on Trump. And he won’t have much help. Unlike his opponent, who enlisted a number of broadly popular advocates to vouch for him during the Democratic convention, the president has a thin roster of speakers who can appeal beyond the party base. People like Gaetz and Trump’s kids and the St. Louis artillerists have little capacity to calm a shaken electorate. That sort of reassurance could come from party elders, authority figures such as John Kasich, John Boehner, Mitt Romney and Jeb and George W. Bush.

But those leading Republicans won’t be speaking on behalf of their party this week. Kasich already defected, endorsing Biden during a dramatic speech to the Democratic convention. And neither Romney nor Boehner nor either of the Bushes would speak even if asked. From what I’ve been told, none of them plan to vote for Trump this fall, and the chief reason they won’t say so publicly is they fear it would diminish their influence over the party moving forward.

That might sound strange, a bunch of Republican graybeards past their primes yet still playing the long game. Then again, the future of the party could arrive very soon. A Republican collapse this fall—Biden wins the White House, Democrats flip the Senate and hold the House—would trigger a reckoning within the GOP every bit as sharp as the one associated with Obama’s takeover of Washington in 2008. If that occurs, much of the party’s pent-up irritation with Trump (which often masks long-simmering disgust with themselves) will spill over, and the efforts to expunge this ugly chapter of GOP history could commence with stunning ferocity.

“We have an amazing ability to forget the past and to renew politically. And part of the reason is because we just love to kick out the losers,” said Arthur Brooks, the longtime American Enterprise Institute president who now teaches classes on leadership, business and happiness at Harvard. “So, if Trump loses, a lot of the people who were like, ‘We love Trump!’ are now like, “I never really liked them.’ And that’s just who we really are—political shape-shifters.”

There is no guarantee of this, however. Trump claims an intensity among his following that stacks up against any leader in American history. (“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Luntz said. “It’s like Elvis and the Beatles wrapped up in one.”) At the same time, a Democratic rout in November would come at the expense of Congress’s most moderate Republicans, leaving the GOP ranks smaller but far more concentrated with Trump loyalists. There would be little incentive for these politicians, hailing from the reddest areas on the map, to turn on a president their constituents adore—no matter how badly he loses the popular vote or Electoral College.

Overlooked is the real possibility that Trump could win. That Biden has not built a runaway lead despite enormous advantages—chief among them, the president’s poor playing of a terrible election-year hand—speaks to the effectiveness of Trump’s slash-and-burn mentality. Even as he has failed to win over a majority of voters, he has succeeded in giving them pause about his opponent. It is no small irony that while Trump’s party has no big ideas of its own to peddle, he relies heavily on the bold progressive plans of the left to caricature Biden—all while the Democratic nominee distances himself from ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

Brooks, who has so often been a lonely beacon of intellectualism on the American right, advocating a moral politics that emphasizes helping the vulnerable instead of wrestling the left, remains sanguine about the situation. However long Trump remains in office, whatever damage he does to the GOP, Brooks believes it will be temporary. It’s the “fundamental truth” of a two-party system, he said, that coalitions are constantly shifting, parties are continually renewing, politicians are eternally looking for ways to adapt and survive.

“I actually find it kind of reassuring. With McGovern in 1972, it was a colossal wipeout with a hugely mistaken candidate who was completely out of step with mainstream public opinion. Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter, an honest to goodness progressive, wins,” Brooks said. “I mean, Richard Nixon gets tossed out of office for blatant corruption. Everybody’s heading for the hills saying, ‘I never voted for him! I’m not a Republican!’ And six years later, Ronald Reagan wins and then gets reelected in one of the biggest landslides in history. These things can heal really, really fast.”

For Republicans, this might be the only silver lining of the summer of 2020. The meltdown we’re witnessing is foul and frightening. It could result in catastrophic losses up and down the ballot this fall. It could also result in Trump’s reelection. In either case, Republicans would do well to remember that he won’t be president forever, that his grip on the base will come and go, that win or lose there is urgent and essential work to do if the party is to be rescued from itself.

“Healthy parties need to build coalitions around a shared vision that speaks to all Americans,” Sasse told me. “Our current course is unsustainable. We’ve got a hell of a rebuilding ahead of us, whatever happens in November.”

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