The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg that tore through watertight compartments designed to make the ship unsinkable. If you’re not familiar with the details, the Republican party has been doing a dramatic reenactment, with Donald Trump in the villain’s role: the tip of the iceberg. Alas, that iceberg is a lot bigger than he is, and will keep wreaking havoc long after he is gone. The GOP has fallen apart, and there’s no telling what American democracy will look like when it’s put back together.
A harbinger of danger ahead has been the reemergence of political blacklisting among Republicans. At the Daily Beast, my good friend James Kirchick lists the top 25 “Trump collaborators,” arguing that their support of the Donald is unforgivable and that they should never be absolved. The list includes Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, the Republican National Committee, the Claremont Institute, and the Republican primary voters who voted for Trump. Max Boot has decided that he cannot support his friend Marco Rubio in 2020, while Erica Grieder was utterly dismayed at her friend Ted Cruz. Trump and his supporters, of course, have blacklists of their own, and they include some of the same people. Hundreds of GOP voters at a rally in Paul Ryan’s home state recently greeted him with chants of “Paul Ryan sucks” for not endorsing Trump ecstatically enough.
This is the latest disguise of a familiar monster. It’s the same fratricidal sentiment that paved the way for Trump in the first place. After the 2012 election, Tea Party elites got into a decidedly Jacobin frame of mind. Many of their deliberations recall those of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The goal of a pluralistic coalition was shelved for the higher goal of revolutionary purity. Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and my own beloved Texas Public Policy Foundation developed “action” arms to enforce ideological purity on legislators, thereby duplicating and competing with the function of party leadership. Conservative Republicans who deviated from the movement’s strict dictates have been tarred and feathered. Concessions to the reality of majority rule have been deemed treasonous; running at windmills, obligatory.
One could almost write a Parallel Lives of figures from the French Revolution and the Tea Party. Marco Rubio, a former darling of the Tea Party, could be Georges Danton, the jovial Jacobin leader sent to the guillotine by his fellows for the fatal flaw of being practical. Erick Erickson is another Jacques Hébert, the rabid sans-culottes pamphleteer who made his fame excoriating slightly less fervent revolutionaries in the pages of the radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne. Ted Cruz is immediately recognizable as Maximilian Robespierre, the severe, “incorruptible” Jacobin leader whose revolutionary conscience was so pure that he would send his friends to the guillotine to prove it. By wrecking the prestige of the party leadership, Erickson and Cruz and their allies inadvertently helped to pave the way for Trump, almost like the idealistic French Revolutionaries who inadvertently paved the way for the dictatorship of Napoleon.
No Enemies on the Right
Conservative Republicans of a Never Trump persuasion are making a big mistake by making enemies of Trump’s supporters — and vice versa. This is particularly true in the case of elected GOP officials who face a crushing dilemma of whether or not to endorse Trump. Even worse, the persecution diverts attention from the problem that has actually driven half the party’s base away from its platform and into Trump’s arms — namely, the dysfunctional progressive scheme of government-by-special-interests that has gradually replaced our original Constitution over the past hundred years, a scheme that is in its purest essence a racket of protectionism.
Many GOP politicians simply have no choice but to endorse Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s position is particularly painful. As Joseph Rago wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, with roughly a third of GOP House districts pro-Trump, a third anti-Trump, and a third somewhere in between, Paul Ryan “has been in a vise since Mr. Trump won the nomination.” Most GOP representatives, and virtually all senators, have large pro-Trump constituencies. For those facing tough elections this cycle, refusing to endorse Trump could be suicidal. Nor can those getting ready to run for president in 2020 easily afford to enrage such a large block of GOP voters. That explains why Rubio and Cruz endorsed Trump after spending the better part of a year trying desperately to defeat him. Outspoken Never Trump GOP members of Congress either aren’t facing reelection anytime soon, are in heavily anti-Trump districts, or are headed to victory this cycle with comfortable-enough margins that they can risk losing tens of thousands of votes.
Even if you think Trump would be a disaster, a general-election position of Never Trump has significant downsides for a Republican member of Congress, not least of which is that it makes Hillary Clinton’s victory all the more inevitable, and the larger her margin of victory, the more harmful will be the effect on down-ballot races. This is not the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was willing to embrace conservative proposals in the service of a broad majority agenda. Leading lights such as the brilliant Ira Magaziner, Bill Clinton’s muse, have been replaced by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, angry enforcer of hard-left ideology.
Our Endangered Constitution
With this increasingly leftward Democratic party, allowing Hillary to nominate the successor to Antonin Scalia would be one of the worst disasters in the Republican party’s history. It would give progressives a majority on the Court for the first time since 1986. Take a moment to think about the constitutional devastation wrought during the nearly 50 years of progressive dominance of the Supreme Court that began in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt intimidated the Court into abdicating its most solemn responsibility, that of protecting the Constitution’s limits on government power. It was then that the original Constitution was overthrown and replaced with the progressive scheme of protectionism for politically organized special interests, which was the point of Wickard v. Filburn (1942) and of its conversion of the Commerce Clause into an unlimited source of government power.
One result of that coup d’état was the relentless expansion of government that continues to this day. Conservatives behold the seemingly unstoppable accumulation of government power by an uncontrollable executive branch, and they understandably see the Supreme Court as the last best hope for saving what’s left of our Constitution’s protections of liberty. Conservatives should fight tooth and nail to keep Hillary Clinton from nominating a justice to fill that seat. Many conservatives see this as reason enough to endorse Trump, and arguably it is.
The other side of the argument, of course, is that Trump is himself a danger to the Constitution. One can hardly be blamed for worrying about this. Trump promises heavy government intervention on virtually every issue, and he doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with legal technicalities. He often strikes a decidedly authoritarian pose, and his supporters seem to love it. He threatens to change laws and interfere heavily in commerce, and he shows even less interest in the Constitution’s separation of powers than Obama has. Where the succession of power in American democracy has long presupposed magnanimity to one’s critics and opponents, Trump brags that he will go after his naysayers. He doesn’t wear a Fascist’s uniform, and his supporters aren’t organized in uniformed paramilitary cadres, but the nationalist, socialistic, state-heavy, strong-leader tendencies that led to Fascism and Nazism are clearly visible among supporters of both Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Starting with this election, every president will be a danger to the Constitution, chiefly because so many of the Constitution’s original limits on government power, and the president’s powers in particular, have disappeared over the past hundred years.
These are serious concerns, but the real question is whether the Constitution still has sufficient checks and balances to prevent a president from establishing a dictatorship. There are reasons to doubt it, and that problem, too, is much bigger than Trump. Starting with this election, every president will be a danger to the Constitution, chiefly because so many of the Constitution’s original limits on government power, and the president’s powers in particular, have disappeared over the past hundred years.
Related: Dictatorship, American Style
Democrats must accept a large share of the blame for this danger. They created the New Deal and the Great Society, in the teeth of sound constitutional worries. More recently, they have supported many Obama actions (e.g., the executive action on DREAMers, and the suspension of the business-mandate penalty in Obamacare) that not only are constitutionally dubious but also set precedents that have a high probability of boomeranging on them. What are Democrats going to say when a president Trump suspends statutory tax obligations for his friends and uses prosecutorial discretion to go after whole categories of people, holding aloft Obama-era precedents that they wholeheartedly supported?
impeachment: Trump’s Sword of Damocles
Still, the best outcome of this election, from the point of view of a traditional conservative Republican, is for Trump and the GOP to have a landslide victory and then for Trump to resign immediately in favor of Vice President Mike Pence, who is both eminently qualified to be president and a real conservative.
That’s not going to happen, but something similar could — namely, impeachment. For GOP members of Congress who can’t abide Trump, there is a very respectable alternative to the Never Trump position. It is this:
Endorse. The Republican primary voter has spoken and has elected Trump as the party leader and our candidate for president. As a GOP official, I will accept that judgment and campaign for the party’s victory in November. Trump has a chance to win, and he has a chance to be a successful, popular, effective president. Out of respect for his supporters and his primary victory, we should give him the benefit of the doubt and wish him success in the election and beyond. All Republicans should hope that Trump turns out like Shakespeare’s Henry V, who as a young prince pledged, “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” After all, with God all things are possible.
Pray. Like we used to do all the time over the dinner table in this country, I will pray for God to bless the president. I will pray for God to inspire in Trump the dignity, humility, and wisdom required of the most powerful office in our Republic. Any president needs inspiration from the Almighty, and we can all agree that even Trump might agree he will need it more than most.
Pledge to impeach. Should God elect to ignore my prayer, and should President Trump prove to be as bad a president as his detractors fear, then it is my duty and the duty of my fellow Republican members of Congress to impeach him. And I will apply that same rule to any president of my own party who fails to uphold the honor of the presidency.
GOP members face a painful dilemma in Trump, but there’s another side to that coin. GOP members of Congress have a unique power that nobody else in the land possesses — namely, the ability to pull the curtain down on a Trump presidency by impeaching him.
“High crimes and misdemeanors” is not a legal standard; it means whatever the House of Representatives wants it to mean, and there is clear evidence that the Framers considered a failure of duty to be a “misdemeanor.” The only thing standing between a president and impeachment is the loyalty of his or her party in Congress. Because the president and his party in Congress are usually in a state of mutual dependency, impeachment is normally not a viable prospect. But if someone whose GOP credentials are highly dubious (who for example scoffs at the conservative label) comes along and executes an essentially hostile takeover of the party, maintains hostile relations with the party leadership in Congress, flames out in a spectacle of incompetence, and sees his approval rating fall below 30 percent — all of which are realistic possibilities in the first year of a Trump presidency — then Republicans in Congress will start to jump ship.
At that point, impeachment becomes a highly realistic possibility. That’s why it’s so foolish for Trump and his supporters to pick fights with House Speaker Paul Ryan. If Trump wins the White House, he could easily find within a few months that his presidency dangles by a thread from Paul Ryan’s hand. There has virtually never been a major-party candidate so reviled within his own party as Trump is within the GOP. In that respect, a Trump presidency would be sui generis and extremely vulnerable to impeachment, particularly since he would be succeeded by Indiana governor Mike Pence, whom most Republicans would be delighted to see in the presidency.
United against Progressivism
Those conservatives lucky enough not to be running for Congress in this cycle can step back from the immediate dilemma of Trump and watch the entire train wreck happen in slow motion. But then the cleanup will begin. And it will fall to all conservatives to take on the daunting task of healing the schism in the base, of drawing Trump supporters back to the conservative platform and restoring the prestige and influence of the party’s establishment.
The purpose of the Tea Party’s attacks against the “establishment” was, after all, to change the establishment, not to destroy it forever. Conservatives can get what they want only from a Republican-party machinery that is well led and running smoothly — in other words, from the establishment. Conservatives need to avoid the temptation of that rabid Jacobin frame of mind that proved so disastrous for Republican unity in the years before Trump. Otherwise, the mutually reinforcing pressures of Trump and Never Trump will continue to crush the party like a vise.
Reconciliation will have to begin with the recognition that Trump supporters have legitimate grievances and should be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump will help them.
Reconciliation will have to begin with the recognition that Trump supporters have legitimate grievances and should be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump will help them. He clearly wants to help. He has a benevolent side that we never got to see because of his undisciplined penchant for taking offense at everything, but many supporters do see that side of him. Add to that a willingness to stand up and speak for them, at a time when nobody seems to be speaking for them, and that’s enough to make them vociferous in their support. And that support deserves the respect of other Republicans.
Meanwhile, it has been particularly rich to hear progressives who whine incessantly about Citizens United suddenly get the vapors over Trump’s charges that the electoral system is “rigged.” The system is rigged, though not in the way that any of the candidates suppose. The suffocating straitjacket of government-created cartels for the benefit of special interests is a by-product of the progressive scheme of government since the New Deal. Milton Friedman used to say that America has majority rule, but only of a very special kind: rule by majorities of special-interest coalitions that all scratch each other’s backs in a rent-seeking free-for-all that the public interest ends up paying for.
Listen to a Hillary Clinton stump speech. Does she propose to do a single thing that would benefit all Americans? Hardly. Every proposal she makes is a promise of a special benefit for some politically organized special interest or other, in every case at the expense of other people who need to “pay their fair share.” That special benefit is invariably either a direct subsidy or a hidden subsidy in the form of protection from competition– for example, the minimum wage. Another word for this is “protectionism.” Trump likewise shows no understanding of the connection between protectionism and the progressive scheme of government-by-special-interests.
The single most dangerous development in American politics today is the revival of the primitive economic nonsense of a hundred years ago as a basis for public policy. It is wrecking the GOP and restoring the Democratic party to its worst tendencies. America is forgetting the lessons that Milton Friedman brought into public discourse, almost as if the “Chicago school” of law and economics had never happened. The enormous impact that Ronald Reagan had on Democrats, which led directly to the conservative economic slant of Bill Clinton, is fading. If I had enough money I would buy every American a copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, with a bonus copy of Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox for college graduates.
The proper Republican position is that protectionism is progressivism. People who think they’re going to solve the problems of progressive government by enacting protectionist policies are misdiagnosing what ails the Republic. At some point, Trump supporters will have to realize that protectionism will only make their problems infinitely worse, but driving this point home will be an uphill struggle, as this election cycle has revealed. In the Obama era, the progressive state has become so suffocating and pervasive that people are starting to confuse it for free-market capitalism and constitutional democracy. That explains the disheartening spectacle of Trump showing up in areas of the country blighted by decades of Democratic misrule and protectionist rackets, only to blame the blight on free trade instead.
The listless employment and family-income growth of the past several decades is not the fault of free trade, but of overregulation and protectionist domestic policies. The slowdown has happened despite free trade, not because of it. To be successful, conservative leaders need the space to demonstrate the benefits of limited government and efficient markets, and the only way to win that space is by winning elections. To do that, conservatives will need Trump supporters. Indeed, they will need to prevail not just among Trump supporters, but among Democrats as well. The international consensus for low regulation, low taxation, and free trade, enshrined in the Bonn Declaration of 1985, later elaborated as the “Washington Consensus,” must be restored to its former state of acceptance among both parties.
The first step is to cut out the poisonous recriminations and return to a politics of inclusion and reconciliation. The only people who deserve to be on any blacklist are those who promise retribution against other Republicans. Rebuilding the party will be a lot of hard work, and it can’t begin until Republicans stop tearing the party down. What is wrong with the establishment today is the system of progressive government, not the party leadership. Progressive government is the target. Firepower directed at other targets is firepower wasted. If we fail to recognize this, the demagoguery of recent years could be but an early warning of much worse to come.
Trust in government is the lowest it’s ever been. As we know from the history of Germany between the world wars, that is a very dangerous state of affairs for a democracy. It is progressive government that has sapped popular trust in mainstream democratic politics, not the legislative compromise or party establishments or parliamentary procedure that are indispensable to the proper functioning of democracy.
To save our Republic, the Constitution’s limits on government power must be restored, and the leviathan of progressive government put back in its cage. To accomplish that, we are going to need a broad national consensus, and for that, we need votes. We’re not going to get those votes through displays of self-righteous indignation. Indignation is not a substitute for convincing a majority to agree with you. It’s time for Republicans to start practicing the same humility and magnanimity that we expect of our presidents. And recall Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”