Column: Sick of Trump? Blame our weak political parties
As the Trump campaign flounders under the accumulated weight of the pandemic, the economic crisis, the mass protests, and a Twitter account plugged straight into the president’s limbic system, I wonder: What if the parties mattered?
I’m a subscriber to a counterintuitive school of thought popular among some political scientists. Their belief is that partisanship is so strong today because our parties are so weak. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have become incapable of defining and protecting their long-term interests on a time horizon longer than the news cycle.
Prior to the “reforms” of the early 1970s, our democratic system depended in large part on the internally undemocratic nature of the parties. Under the pre-1972 system, independent socialist Bernie Sanders would never have been allowed to run for president as a Democrat and Donald Trump would never have gotten within a hundred miles of the Republican nomination.
Because we live in such an unthinkingly populist time, in which even the president can whine that the “system is rigged” without irony or fear of correction, it’s difficult for many people to grasp how totally democratized the parties have become.
Consider two examples. In 1968, then-President Lyndon Johnson beat Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, but by such a small margin — a mere 7 points! — that Johnson dropped out of the race. Yes, he wanted to avoid humiliation, but he also believed it was the best way to help his party and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the candidate Johnson preferred over McCarthy. McCarthy received 39% of the popular vote in the primaries. Humphrey? Just 2%. Humphrey got the nomination — because the party mattered.
On Aug. 7, 1974, a contingent of Republicans visited President Nixon to explain that, for the good of the party and the country, he should resign. He announced his resignation 24 hours later.
Fast forward to today. Right now, things look very bad for Trump. His coalition — which pulled an inside straight in the electoral college but lost the popular vote — has shrunk. In 2016, he won the suburbs by 4 points. In the current race, he’s losing them by 25 points, according to the latest NBC/Marist poll. His hold on white voters and older voters is eroding, too, though not as dramatically.
Of course, he can turn it around. As poll mavens like to say, the polls are just a snapshot. But the funny thing about that snapshot cliché is that people use it almost exclusively to make the point that things can get better. True enough. But they can also get worse. There are plenty of snapshots of the Titanic leaving port in Southampton.
Assume things do get worse for Trump. Maybe the pandemic will run rampant in red states, leaving Trump with the no-win choice of admitting failure or sticking with his wish-it-away strategy, as many core voters literally die off before they even get the chance to prove their patriotism by voting maskless and in person. The economy could tank again. He might even tweet a video of a supporter shouting, “White power!” — whoops, bad example.
Over the weekend, former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg told Politico that if Trump’s standing eroded much further, he’d be facing a landslide electoral college loss and “would need to strongly reconsider whether he wants to continue to run as the Republican presidential nominee.”
Nunberg’s right. But notice what he doesn’t say: that at some point the Republican Party would need to strongly consider throwing him overboard. In a sense it would be a silly thing to say, of course. Because no one thinks of the GOP as an institution capable of such a move. Also, no one but the most Kool-Aid-besotted loyalists think Trump is capable of putting the interests of the party — or nation — above his own.
If Trump were a somewhat normal president under similar circumstances, it would be easy to see Republican candidates breaking with the White House. But partisanship today doesn’t mean mere excessive loyalty to a party and its program. It generally implies a kind of secular faith. And on the right in particular it resembles a Trumpian cult of personality. “Undemocratically” defenestrating Trump for the good of the party would be like the Vatican firing the pope for the good of the church.
The Manichean logic of Trump’s campaign message is that the Democrats are so terrible and evil that patriotic Americans must vote Republican regardless of their qualms about the GOP candidate. A Republican Party that believed this was true but also cared about its long-term viability would recognize that this argument would work just as well for a Pence 2020 candidacy. But for a Republican Party that is merely a pliant vessel for the loudest bloc of its customer base at any given moment, such thinking is unthinkable.
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