Every time a political party takes a shellacking in a big election, pundits wonder if the losers can ever recover. Since the extinction of the Whigs back in the 1850s, though, losing parties always do bounce back. The question now, however, is whether Republicans can survive a victory: Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph last November.
A few GOP senators and a legion of establishment conservatives and veterans of past Republican administrations are in open rebellion against Trump, while many current Republican members of Congress privately express outrage and alarm at the president’s antics. Trump has stolen their party and they want it back. But the usurper in the Oval Office has one very big advantage over his Republican adversaries: A majority of Republican voters continue to perceive him as a bold, straight-talking deal maker, not the dangerous clown that the establishment believes he is.
It is telling that Trump’s loudest critics on Capitol Hill — Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — are not running for reelection. They are free to say what they truly think about the braggadocious buffoon who is now leading their party. In contrast, those who want to continue in office maintain a timid silence. They know that if they publicly point out that the emperor has no clothes, the emperor’s fans will run someone against them in the next GOP primary.
This worry is not unfounded. Trump’s self-proclaimed “wing man,” Steve Bannon, has joined forces with right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer to identify and support challengers to every Republican senator found insufficiently slavish in his or her loyalty to the president. Bannon’s key goal is to depose Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the ultimate representative of the GOP establishment, who is loathed by Trumpistas.
To borrow a phrase from the late, not-so-great Alabama Gov. George Wallace, “There is not a dime’s worth of difference” between establishment Republicans and the Trump administration on major policy issues. They all want to give tax cuts to rich people and large corporations, kill Obamacare, minimize regulation of the fossil fuels industry, loosen up rules for big-time financiers, sell off public lands to mining companies, give more money to the Pentagon, get tough on immigrants and do whatever they can to stifle abortion, same-sex marriages and efforts to deal with climate change.
This is not a sharp philosophical split like the one between the progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and conservative power brokers in his party who were in thrall to Gilded Age robber barons. Nor is it like the 1964 battle between Nelson Rockefeller’s Eastern liberal Republicans and Barry Goldwater’s upstart Western conservatives. There is almost no one in today’s Republican Party who cannot make a valid claim to being a solid conservative — unless it is Trump, who, not so long ago, was a Democrat.
The battle is really over the definition of conservative. To the establishment Republicans, conservatism is a set of political principles that favors business over labor, industry over environmentalists, corporations over consumers, Wall Street over Washington, low taxes over big government, and the Pentagon over social programs. To the angry crowds flocking to Trump rallies and buying into the alternative reality being concocted by Fox News, Breitbart and right-wing talk radio, conservatism is more of an attitude. Like their fathers and grandfathers who were electrified by the race-baiting, anti-establishment, anti-elitist rhetoric of the aforementioned Gov. Wallace when he ran for president in 1968 and 1972, the Trump conservatives feel as if the country they love is being overrun by brown-skinned immigrants, black-skinned protesters, morality-defying sexual deviants and godless urban hipsters. They are fearful and fuming and Trump is their unfiltered, unapologetic voice of rage.
Elected Republicans who do not share such attitudes may have to decide if keeping their jobs is worth the price of letting the party of Lincoln become a party in which George Wallace would feel very much at home.
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