What does it mean to be a Republican?
Does Republicanism refer to the characteristic mistrust of a strong federal government? Does it entail a strident defense of individual liberties, even at the expense of greater societal advancements? Is it centered on a unifying foreign policy vision, perhaps tying back to Reagan’s concept of “peace through strength“?
Not anymore. Those are old values, dressed up and paraded about when convenient. The spectacle of the 2020 Republican National Convention has revealed the new central tenet of Republicanism in the United States: fealty. Fealty to President Donald Trump.
The 2020 Convention has been a carnival of Trumpism. Politicians accepting the party nomination — as Trump will do in a speech later tonight — typically only appear once during the four-day convention, usually as the keynote speaker on the final night. Trump has appeared almost every night. On Monday, he spoke for 54 minutes — more than double the length of Joe Biden’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last week.
But it hasn’t been a one-man show — the GOP wants to feature “everyday Americans whose stories are filled with hope and patriotism,” after all. We’ve heard speeches from such diverse figures as Melania Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Tiffany Trump, and tonight Ivanka Trump will be taking the stage as the warm-up act to Donald Trump. Everyday Americans, indeed.
All of these campaign events at the convention are undergirded by the party platform, typically a long, policy-forward document outlining an extensive wish-list of legislative and executive actions for the next four years. They aren’t pivotal campaign documents–how many voters actually read 50+ pages of dense economic policy?–but they offer a useful compass to understand the direction of the party.
The GOP compass is locked on Trump. Rather than updating their platform to accomodate the new crises of the coronavirus pandemic, economic collapse, and racial tensions, the Republican party opted for a one-page press release stating that the party will “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
But what is Trump’s “America-first” agenda? Even he can’t seem to say. When asked by Sean Hannity in June about his priorities for a second term, Trump pivoted to a rambling answer about experience, before launching into an attack on former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
A month later, Hannity gave Trump a second chance. This time, Trump talked about helping the US recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But how does he plan to do that? Is he going to work with scientists, hospitals, and laboratories to fund vaccine research? Is he going to use the federal government to organize distribution centers once a vaccine is ready? Is he going to promote mask-wearing and social distancing measures that nearly all medical experts agree are critical to preventing the spread of the coronavirus? He has not said.
The party platform would be the ideal place for Trump and the Republicans to lay out a positive vision of America’s future, to delineate their plans to address economic recovery, coronavirus prevention, and racial justice.
But they have no positive vision. What they have are misleading attacks and fearmongering rhetoric that paint Joe Biden as a bumbling oaf and the Democrats as anarchist sleeper agents devoted to Marxism and anti-Americanism.
In Joe Biden’s America, the economy will collapse and unemployment will skyrocket. In Joe Biden’s America, the pandemic will prevent you from enjoying your American dream. In Joe Biden’s America, protests for racial justice will shatter domestic tranquility and suburban security.
Yet all of these problems are happening right now in Donald Trump’s America. And his only response is flamboyant whataboutism, deflecting blame for his own failures by inciting fears of his opponent. He is an oppositional candidate leading an incumbent party.
In that sense, Trump is a good fit for the modern Republican party: neither of them know how to lead, only to oppose. During President Obama’s two terms, the Republican Party railed against every action taken by the President, with special scorn reserved for Obamacare and Benghazi. Yet they offered no conservative alternative to address the woeful state of healthcare in the United States; they offered no conservative alternative to addressing climate change; they offered no conservative alternative to the frightening number of school shootings. They attacked, attacked, attacked, and had no position of their own to defend.
Amidst this crisis of conscience came a breakdown in party loyalty, as the populist Tea Party Movement motivated conservative voters with an anti-establishment, anti-government message. In 2016, Donald Trump played into this anti-establishment rhetoric while grafting messages of xenophobia and nativism onto a veneer of economic resurgence. Donald Trump did not destroy the Republican Party — he is the parasite attracted to the rot.
The parasite is now in control — and Republican Party members seem fine with that. They are passengers on the Trump bus. They’re along for the ride, and Trump is driving the bus wherever he wants it to go. The passengers can get off at any time, but if they do the bus isn’t coming back for them–unless the driver wants to reverse and run them over just out of spite. If the passengers see the bus driver veering off a cliff, they can convince him to hit the brakes and steer the bus back to safety — but they cannot pry his hands away from the wheel.
This much power concentrated in the hands of a single individual is not healthy for a liberal democracy. The free-flowing exchange of productive ideas is the engine that drives liberalism and ensures active participation in our political society.
Take the modern Democratic Party, caught in a battle between young progressives desirous for change and moderates watering down their progressivism with pragmatism. Both broad factions have their merits; both have their drawbacks. Though the moderate wing is in the ascendancy with the nomination of Joe Biden, progressive thinking holds considerable influence within the marketplace of Democratic ideas. Regardless of the result in November, the next four years will see numerous feuds within the Democratic Party regarding policy and purpose. Does this damage party unity? To a degree. But it also creates a vibrant outpouring of new initiatives and ideas.
The ideologies and beliefs of the Republican Party should be internally debated and vigorously questioned in the same way. American voters should have a positive conservative option for their future, one that addresses and attempts to solve the indisputable problems facing our country. You might not agree with these conservative solutions, and that is fine — that is the beauty of democracy and liberalism. But the American people deserve a choice between two respectable options. When both parties see a victory for their opponent as nothing less than apocalyptic, internal divisions widen, perhaps irreversibly.
The sorry state of the Trump-publican party is not permanent. Despite his tongue in cheek suggestions that he’ll serve for twelve more years, Donald Trump can only serve for two presidential terms. The Republican Party will eventually have to chart a course without Donald Trump at the head.
That course is far from certain. They could operate like a monarchy, appointing an heir-apparent to take on the role of party leader and lodestar. Donald Trump Jr. would seem to be a likely candidate for this position; he inherited at least some of his father’s magnetism, and has a strong rapport with the grassroots members of the GOP. Matthew Gaetz, the brash antagonistic Florida Congressman, is certain to throw his hat in the ring as well.
If Trump is soundly defeated in November, perhaps the Republicans will try to eradicate Trumpism from within the party and seek solace in the establishment. Former UN Representative Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott would be likely players in this scenario, though Trumpism may be too fully laced into the cocktail of Republican ideology to truly repudiate it.
The most likely course if Trump loses in November is a balance, adopting some tenets of Trumpism while rejecting others. Mike Pence might be perfectly positioned for this. As Trump’s vice president, Pence can run on Trump’s record in much the same way that Biden is running on Obama’s. His evangelical credentials and experience in gubernatorial leadership should placate establishment figures concerned with a new Trumpist figure.
Pence’s position on the fence could backfire spectacularly, too. Establishment figures might want a clean break from everything associated with Donald Trump; his vice president would be the baby thrown out with the bathwater. While Mike Pence can speak to his time as Trump’s VP, he lacks the charisma and devil-may-care attitude that ingratiates Trump to the GOP base.
And there’s another, more troubling scenario. Should Trump lose in 2020, he would be eligible to run again in 2024. Even if he abstains, the fanatical support he receives from the base means he will be an influential figure in the party for years to come.
The Republicans have invited a parasite into their home. They’re about to find out just how hard it is to exterminate it.