Trump’s not becoming an independent. His deals with Democrats and Bannon’s threats are signs that the hostile takeover of the GOP is just getting started.
There is no precedent for President Trump’s political maneuverings at the expense of his own party. Only a president with no longstanding ties to the GOP or political experience would have even considered something like his astonishing ambush of the Republican congressional leadership last week, in which Trump cut a deal with the Democrats at the expense of his supposed allies.
Trump is unbound by any loyalty to the party that nominated him or to men such as House speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell. To the contrary, he regards them as foes in a cold war against a political establishment he neither likes nor trusts. As former aide turned independent cheerleader Steve Bannon noted on 60 Minutes Sunday night, Ryan and McConnell oppose Trump’s populist agenda that they rightly perceive as contradicting the conservative views that unite most Republicans.
But those who think that what is happening is a genuine revolution that will, as the New York Times put it in an analysis published on the front page of their Sunday edition, “Upend 150 Years of Two-Party Rule,” are mistaken. Trump is not a true Republican, nor is he anyone’s idea of a conservative. Nothing like Trump has ever happened before in American political history, and the long-term consequences of his presidency are still unknowable. But what is going on is not the birth of a third force in American politics, as George Wallace or Ross Perot intended when they conducted their third-party challenges to the Republicans and Democrats. Nor is it comparable to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive Party run for the presidency in 1912.
Trump wants to change American politics in some ways, but he is not seeking to end the two parties’ monopoly on power. Ryan, McConnell, and members of their caucuses may think that Trump’s “America First” ideas are alien to the party they’ve served and led. But Trump doesn’t have to invent a third party to get around the establishment. What we are witnessing is an attempt to expand upon last year’s hostile takeover of the GOP that will remake the pary in Trump’s image.
Can such an effort succeed?
Not completely. The scope of this challenge is far too great for Trump and allies like Bannon to achieve. Bannon’s plan to back primary challenges to Republican critics of Trump isn’t likely to result in a House or Senate populated by majorities of Trump true-believers. The weakness of many of the people Bannon may back, such as Kelli Ward in Arizona, whom Trump has already endorsed as a primary challenger to Senator Jeff Flake, will result in primary flops or seats lost to the Democrats in the general election.
But parties do change, and anyone who thinks what was a Reaganite conservative GOP can’t be transformed and rebranded under the same product name doesn’t remember what the Republican party was like only a couple of generations ago.
In the early 1960s the Republican “establishment” was composed of moderates and liberals whose leading platform was the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune and who regarded movement conservatives and National Review readers as marginal gadflies. Most of the establishment that Trump and Bannon now rail against is essentially composed of people, like Ryan, who are part of the second generation of conservative insurgents who transformed the Republican party over the course of a fight that lasted decades. It began with Barry Goldwater and didn’t truly finish until after Ronald Reagan’s presidency when Newt Gingrich led the effort to transform the GOP congressional caucus from a coalition that included many liberals and was led by moderates into the almost uniformly conservative group that it is today.
That happened only because grassroots Republicans were tired of a party whose elected officials didn’t reflect their conservative views. As disheartening and deeply unfair as it may seem to the conservatives now sitting in the House and Senate, they are regarded the same way by a not-insignificant number of rank-and-file Republicans.
The intense hostility that so many Trump supporters feel for Ryan and McConnell and most elected Republicans right now shouldn’t be underestimated. Part of it is rooted in the power of Trump’s cult of personality, which has replaced conservative fervor as the animating force of the GOP base in just the few years since the tea-party revolution of 2010. There are good reasons why the Republicans failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, and some of them have to do with Trump’s ineffectiveness and the scope of the mess Barack Obama created. But the public blames Ryan and McConnell. That some of the same people who were calling for smaller government a few years ago now back Trump’s non-conservative approach to governance is ironic. But it doesn’t change the fact that he and Bannon understand that the populist wing of the party has the enthusiasm that conservatives once took for granted.
Even in failure, Trump has sown seeds of dissension that will ensure that what follows is very different from what preceded him.
Conservatives may think Trump is leading the GOP to disaster in 2018. But even if that is true and is followed by Trump’s being defeated for re-election in 2020 — something that is far from certain but is a real possibility unless he reverses his catastrophic job-approval numbers — no one should be under the impression that what emerges after such a defeat would be a Republican party reclaimed intact by resurgent conservatives.
Even in failure, Trump has sown seeds of dissension that will ensure that what follows is very different from what preceded him. No matter how dysfunctional his presidency becomes, Trump and Bannon will blame all defeats on the wicked establishment and most of his base will believe them. The uneasy coalition of fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy hawks, libertarians, and social conservatives that elected Ronald Reagan and sustained Republicans in the decades since then may have been fatally fractured. Until the party has a leader around whom it can unite with a vision of Reaganite conservatism — something that probably can’t happen until 2024 — conservatives are fighting an uphill battle against an incumbent president who has already tilted the playing field against them.
“America First” may be an empty ideology that offers few answers to the country’s problems, but its appeal and the resentment it helps engender against conservatives will not dissipate just because Trump loses an election or two. The Times’ prediction notwithstanding, the two-party system is safe. We can’t know exactly what a post-Trump Republican party will look like, but we can be sure that it will be very different from the conservative party that nominated the Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney and that not many in the grassroots will mourn it.