Will the GOP’s future be shaped by Paul Ryan or Donald Trump?
Make no mistake, the Republican Party is doomed. With a lame duck, two-term Democrat preparing to leave the White House, conventional political wisdom would suggest that it is now the GOP’s turn to recapture the presidency, having already won majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. President Obama is not a universally unpopular figure, yet a stagnant economy and an increasingly unstable and dangerous world have given Americans an appetite for change much like the mood which propelled the charismatic Illinois senator to power eight years ago. As such, under ordinary circumstances the Republican Party would be on the front foot; indeed, in post-war America it has only once occurred that a two-term President has been succeeded by their party’s nominee, when George HW Bush won the 1988 election to replace Ronald Reagan.
Barring any major upsets between now and November 8th, it is almost certain that Hillary Clinton will join President Bush in this highly exclusive club, with the Democratic nominee enjoying a comfortable lead over her Republican rival Donald Trump in almost all major polls. Mr Trump’s impending defeat looks set to be substantial, and it will be a result that is entirely deserved. No modern presidential nominee has employed such shamelessly xenophobic, vulgar and hateful tactics, and instead of resisting Trump’s appalling campaign, the Republican leadership has fallen into line and embraced the overwhelming majority of his agenda. As such, Secretary Clinton’s upcoming victory is not just the fault of Donald Trump, but of all Republicans who have failed to denounce their party’s nominee.
Chief among the GOP invertebrates has been RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, a man who has bent over backwards to accommodate Trump and who now proudly boasts about their ‘great relationship,’ despite the fact that The Donald had threatened to dismiss Priebus during the primaries due to his concerns that the RNC was ‘rigging’ the process against his candidacy. One must also remember that it was Priebus who was responsible for an in-depth assessment of the future of the Republican Party following Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, with the RNC Chairman recommending that the party adopt a more inclusive approach in order to build up support amongst women, minorities and LGBT voters. At the time Chairman Priebus admitted that ‘there’s no one solution’ to the party’s problems, but rather ‘a long list of them,’ yet it seems highly unlikely that any of those potential solutions would have come in the perma-tanned form of Donald J Trump.
Trump’s presidential campaign has literally corroded the GOP’s outreach initiatives from day one, when the outspoken billionaire used his announcement speech to lambast Mexican immigrants as rapists, murderers and drug-dealers, and since then it has seemed as if every week has brought fresh controversy and embarrassment. At first, the Republican hierarchy attempted to reject Trump’s rhetoric, but once he started acquiring primary victories he proved more and more difficult to denounce. Chairman Priebus should never have allowed a candidate who routinely victimises minority groups to run under the Republican banner and his inaction ultimately proved to be fatal, allowing Mr Trump to successfully hijack the GOP brand and destroy the party’s chances of regaining the White House.
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan has announced that he is having nothing more to do with Trump’s campaign following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, instead focusing on the uphill struggle of retaining the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Speaker Ryan is a good and honourable man who has never embraced Trump in the way that Chairman Priebus did, yet his reputation has been hit by his endorsement of The Donald, an endorsement that he has still not officially taken back. Nevertheless, by announcing that he will not campaign for Trump between now and Election Day, Ryan has done more than most to put some distance between himself and the Republican nominee. Trump soon fired back, taking to Twitter to denounce Ryan as ‘weak and ineffective,’ and soon afterwards he claimed to be free from the ‘shackles’ of loyalty to his own party.
Trump’s unshackling from the GOP machine serves as a reminder of his lack of any real affiliation to the Republican brand. This is the man who has changed his party registration at least five times since the late-1980s and was a Democrat during the entirety of George W Bush’s administration, bankrolling prominent liberals including Chuck Schumer, the current leader-in-waiting of Senate Democrats; Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic leader in the House; and Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic nominee for President of the United States. In other words, all of the figures that the Republican Party is currently fighting against were once beneficiaries of Donald Trump’s largesse.
It is therefore unsurprising that such an unconservative individual has run such an unconservative campaign, one which deserves to be overwhelmingly defeated tomorrow. Donald Trump will almost certainly not win the presidency, but the real problem for the GOP lies in the aftermath of this election. In the weeks and months that follow Hillary Clinton’s inevitable victory, Republicans will have to decide where their party is heading and how it will rebuild itself as a credible party of opposition. This will require a process that goes beyond the shallow soul-searching presided over by Priebus following the 2012 defeat; indeed, the GOP needs nothing other than a full Reformation.
Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has slowly become more and more out of touch with modern America, failing to transition from the end of the Cold War to the new era of the 21st Century. Instead of exploring new ways to adapt conservative principles to the terrain of the internet age, the GOP has become sterile, extremist and dogmatic, a process which has been accelerated by the rise of the Tea Party but can be traced back to the bombastic leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Gingrich was the first Republican leader to reject compromise and pragmatism in favour of hardline posturing, and despite some progress under George W Bush, the GOP reverted to the Gingrich playbook following the election of Barack Obama.
Since then, any Republican that has advocated a bipartisan philosophy of ‘governing conservatism’ has been denounced as a traitor to the true faith, from John McCain and Mitt Romney to Eric Cantor and John Boehner. Even New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the onetime darling of the Republican right, was savaged by hardliners for embracing President Obama during a visit to his hurricane-ravaged state during the 2012 election campaign. For the Tea Party and its increasingly hysterical supporters in the worlds of talk radio and the online alt-right echo chamber, conservative orthodoxy must come before any other concern, including the need for effective and functioning government.
If the Republican Party ever wants to retake the White House, it must reject this hardline faction entirely. That obviously means completely scrapping the Trump agenda immediately after the election, but it also means moving away from the ideological purism espoused by the likes of Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and the House Freedom Caucus. It also means seriously rethinking its stance on issues such as immigration reform and same-sex marriage in order to create a conservatism that can appeal to a diverse cross-section of Americans. There is no reason why minority and LGBT voters should not be natural Republicans; indeed, the example of Britain’s Conservative Party shows that a modern, reformed conservatism can be attractive to people of all ethnic backgrounds.
The central plan of the Republican Reformation will not be the adoption of new principles, however, but the reclaiming of its traditional areas of strength. The GOP is traditionally the party of national security, yet it is currently led by a man who wants to undermine NATO and cosy up to the Kremlin. The GOP is traditionally the party of faith and the family, yet it is currently led by a serial adulterer who brags about groping women. The GOP is traditionally the party of free markets and trade, yet it is currently led by a man who opposes NAFTA and advocates a form of protectionist mercantilism. On all of these areas and many more, mainstream Republicans must seize the intellectual high-ground within their party and make the case once again for constitutional conservatism. Only the GOP can offer those timeless principles, and Trump’s candidacy is ultimately a betrayal of all those Americans who believe so passionately in them.
The central problem at the heart of American politics today was summed up by Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who claimed that the Democrats are selling ‘central planning in the age of Uber’ whilst the Republicans are ‘trying to make America 1950 again.’ For as long as both parties continue to hark back to the nostalgia of old remedies from a bygone era, the American people will continue to call for change and political renewal, for a movement which combines timeless principles with the realities and exciting possibilities of the 21st Century. A post-Trump Republican Party could prove to be that very organ of change, but it will require an ambitious process of reform that challenges the orthodoxies of hardliners and finally drags American conservatism into the modern age.