Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “The Shock of Disaffiliation: On leaving the Republican party.” Today in his Impromptus, Mr. Nordlinger expands that piece.
Last year, when the presidential season got going, I made an observation: Donald Trump would often say “the Republicans” or sometimes even “you Republicans,” as though they were foreign to him, and he to them. Yet he was running for the Republican nomination. Which he now has in the bag.
Divorced people may tell you about a similar transition. For years, they said “we,” “our,” “us.” To revert to “I,” “my,” “me” can be shocking.
As I recall, I registered as a Republican as soon as I was old enough to vote. I certainly remember my first vote: It was cast in Michigan’s gubernatorial election of 1982. I voted for the Republican nominee, Richard Headlee, a businessman, reformer, and humanitarian. He lost — as many of my candidates would go on to do. The winner was Democrat Jim Blanchard, who, after serving two terms as Michigan’s governor, became President Clinton’s ambassador to Canada.
One time, I rooted for a Democrat. That was when John Silber, the Democratic nominee, ran against William Weld in 1990 for the Massachusetts governorship. I had lived in Massachusetts before. I would have voted for President Silber. (He was the president of Boston University, and a brilliant, tough conservative.) But I was gone from the state by then.
Like many a conservative, or other anti-collectivist, I’m not much of a joiner. But I did belong to the GOP, gladly. A few years ago, I wrote a little essay called ‘A Hopeless ‘R.’” I described and explained my hard-bitten partisanship. You never met a more partisan Republican than I — including the chairman of the RNC, whoever he happened to be at the time.
Many of my conservative brothers say, “I’m not a Republican, I’m a conservative.” I always stressed the importance of the party. A philosophy, such as conservatism, has to have a vehicle, if it’s to make headway in life. The way William A. Rusher, the late publisher of National Review, put it is this: Conservatism is the wine; the GOP is the bottle. You can’t have one without the other. Each needs the other.
I disliked the Democrats intensely. I thought they were right about practically nothing. In fact, let me quote from my above-mentioned, above-linked essay:
In 2000, I did some writing from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. For a week, I was soaked in the core of the Democratic party. I did not find it pleasant. One day, I said to a colleague (a fellow conservative), “Is the Democratic party right about anything? One half the country can’t be wrong about everything, right?” We went through the issues, one by one. “Well,” we said, “do the Democrats have a point about the environment?” No, we concluded. They were fanatics, while we favored a good and sensible stewardship.
After the convention adjourned one night, I hopped on a shuttle, taking delegates and others back to various hotels. Two women were having an animated conversation. One of them was upset about her new vice-presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman. “He’s for parental notification!” she said. What she meant was that Lieberman thought parents should be notified if their minors were having an abortion. “Yes,” said the other woman, “but that’s better than parental consent!”
For me, it was very much a Bolshevik-Menshevik moment.
Much as I disliked the Democrats, my Republicanism was not merely negative — not merely a reaction to the Democrats. I held the Republicans to be a boon to the country and world.
But then they nominated, or were poised to nominate, Donald J. Trump for president. And that’s where I get off. I ceased to be a Republican on the night of May 3, when the results of the Indiana primary came in. A party that thinks Donald Trump ought to be president is not a party I should belong to.
Think of it in different terms: If there were a party somewhere that thought Donald Trump ought to be president, would you belong to it? I wouldn’t. And that party exists: It is my old party.
“But Trump is only the presidential nominee!” you might say. “There are millions of other Republicans. Susana Martinez is governor of New Mexico, for heaven’s sake! She’s as different from Trump as a daisy is from an eel.” Yes. But a presidential nominee is the face of the party: its symbol, its representative, on the national stage and the world stage. Every party has its clowns, fools, and embarrassments. But if they are down-ballot, it doesn’t matter so much. In nominating someone for president, a party says, “This is who we are.”
Let me quote from something I wrote last month:
Many years ago, I worked in Washington, D.C., around a bunch of Democrats. They were often dismayed by Marion Barry. I delighted in referring to him as “the four-time mayoral nominee of your party.” I would point out that my party had nominated honorable alternatives, but the voters had always picked their nominee, the Democrat.
This bothered them (and shame on me for being mischievous).
During the Reagan era — 1984, to be exact — I was a student in Europe. Ronald Reagan may be remembered warmly now, but he was hated then, by a great many. After I landed in Luxembourg, I took a long train ride down into Italy. Sharing my compartment was a fellow American student. She said, “I’m hoping I can pass for German.” That’s how ashamed she was of being an American while Reagan was president.
By classmates and teachers, I was teased, baited, and mocked for being a Republican and a Reaganite. But I defended him with gusto. I was happy to be associated with that man, and his worldview.
So it was when the first Bush was president. And when Bob Dole was the Republican nominee. And when the second Bush was the nominee, and president.
I have worked in Salzburg, at the music festival, every summer since 2003. During the George W. Bush years, they said the worst things about the American president: that he was the Texas equivalent of Osama bin Laden, for example. I was often confronted on the subject of Bush. I was pleased — very pleased — to defend him and be associated with him.
Then we had John McCain and Mitt Romney — the losers to Barack Obama. The country was the real loser, I think. I admire both men, and am glad to be in armies or foxholes with them. McCain, to take just the former, may not be my political ideal. But I think his worldview is sound, and of his heroism, there is no doubt.
Except from the Republicans’ new nominee. At the beginning of his campaign, he said that McCain was “not a war hero” because he was captured. “I like people who weren’t captured.” True, McCain was shot down — on his 23rd bombing raid over North Vietnam. Then he endured five and a half years of torture. He refused early release, offered because his dad, Admiral McCain, was head of the Pacific Command.
Trump, meanwhile, received four student deferments. Many young men received deferments. But do they slam the service of McCain, of all people?
In 1997, Trump was talking with Howard Stern on the radio — about sleeping around, and the perils of doing so, given venereal disease. “I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world,” he said. “It is a dangerous world out there — it’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
People joke on the radio. I’m all for joking. I’m also for, “Lighten up, Francis.” But this sort of talk in light of Trump’s condemnation of John McCain … it’s hard to take.
In my view, Trump is grossly unfit to be president, in both mind and character — especially the latter. Even if I agreed with him on the issues — even if I thought his worldview sound — I would balk at supporting him, owing to the issue of character. But let me spend a second on the issues.
His tendency is toward big government. He says no to a reform of entitlements. He says no to free trade. He threatens to withdraw from NATO. He likes Obama’s unilateral opening to Cuba. He sings the praises of Planned Parenthood. And so on.
What he calls for, mainly, is strength, plus “winning.” This is not the mentality of a constitutional conservative or a liberal democrat.
Then, overshadowing everything, there is the issue of character. Trump mocks the handicapped — physically mocks them — for the enjoyment of his audience. He insults women on the basis of their looks. He brags of the women he has bedded, including “seemingly very happily married” ones. He mocks the religions of others. (Distinctly un-American.) He implied that Ted Cruz’s father had a link to the Kennedy assassination. And on and on.
By nominating him, the Republican party has disfigured itself, morally. Democrats won’t like to hear this, but for all those years, I thought the Republican party had the high ground, morally. I feel that this ground has collapsed beneath me. That is one of the painful aspects of this moment.
If someone now says to me, “Ha, ha, Donald Trump is the presidential nominee of your party!” I say, “No, he isn’t.” He represents the Republicans, who, on the basis of this nomination, are transformed.
I respect, admire, and love many Republicans, of course — I was their fellow party member until two seconds ago. But, to say it again, the presidential nominee stamps the party. He is the brand of the party. As I see it, or smell it, an odor now attaches to the GOP, and it will linger long past 2016, no matter what happens on Election Day.
We on the right — or in Conservative World — are in a schismatic moment. These occur every now and then. They are painful.
In the 1920s, the Sacco and Vanzetti case convulsed America. I will quote John Dos Passos: “The case left an immense bitterness between those who believed the men were innocent and those who believed they were guilty.”
Have some more of Dos Passos:
I remember receiving a letter from a man I’d liked and admired and been on friendly terms with in college formally breaking off relations. Since we hadn’t seen each other for many years, and he lived on one side of the country and I on the other, it puzzled me that he should have taken the trouble. Undoubtedly he felt he was doing his duty as a citizen.
In Britain, the Suez crisis of 1956 convulsed society. People stopped going out. They stopped issuing invitations and accepting them. Friendships were severed. Rancor filled the air.
Clarissa Eden, wife of the prime minister, was quoted as saying, “I have the impression that the Suez Canal is flowing through my drawing-room.”
This very moment — June 2016 — the Conservative party is being torn apart by the EU question.
May 3 — the day of the Indiana primary — was my Independence Day: the day I became an independent. Unlike the Fourth of July, it was not a happy day at all. I never wanted to be an indie.
Parties come and go, of course. The Whig party lasted about 20 years, no more. The Federalist party had listed for a bit longer than that. The Democrats and Republicans have been around for a long time. They have been competing against each other in presidential elections since 1856.
But, of course, they have shifted: in their views, their values. They have shifted on trade versus protectionism; international engagement versus isolationism; colorblindness versus color-consciousness.
Thirty years ago, I heard my colleague Mike Potemra enunciate his Jacksonian Theory of the Democratic Party: It had gone from Andrew Jackson to Scoop Jackson to Jesse Jackson. Today, the Democrats are well represented by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
When I joined the Republican party, it was a Reaganite party — and the clear descendant of Lincoln’s party. Now it is undergoing Trumpification.
Flux, flux, flux. That is the way of the world, and the way of politics, obviously. I often don’t like flux very much. One reason I’m a conservative, surely?
Almost anything can be normalized — and fast. Consider that the presidential nominee of the Republican party linked a rival’s dad to the Kennedy assassination. It seems kind of normal now, doesn’t it? Trump is indeed a “new normal,” as they say: a sick, wrong normal.
People will normalize, rationalize, accommodate, sweep under the rug … In the case of Trump, they already have. With stunning speed and conformity.
Trump made his remarks about Rafael Cruz and JFK on the day he won, May 3. That night, a new hashtag appeared on Twitter: “#ExGOP.” I do not want to wear that tag, but I suppose I do.
I have not yet bothered to change my party registration, formally. Too lazy, I guess, and too allergic to bureaucracy. But I have disaffiliated, mentally.
The most famous two-word message in American history, probably, comes from John L. Lewis. Withdrawing his miners from the AFL, he wrote, “We disaffiliate.” I disaffiliate, too.
Reagan changed his party registration when he was over 50 — about the same age I am now. We all know what he said, because we’ve heard it quoted for decades: “I didn’t leave my party; my party left me.” I know how he feels. Unlike him, I don’t have a party to jump to.
Why does my party affiliation, or non-affiliation, matter? It doesn’t at all, not even to me, all that much. The fate of the Republic does not hang on one man’s outlook and angst. But I offer these jottings because my fellow conservatives and classical liberals might find them interesting, in this weird, dislocating time.
“Sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” said JFK. That’s putting it mildly. And speaking of the dead president: Will a Trump administration prosecute, or at least investigate, Rafael Cruz? If not, why not? Trump supporters — and normalizers and rationalizers and lookers-away — might want to ponder that question.