For a tiny group of prominent writers and political operatives, the Republican party has become the moral equivalent of Ben Tre, the Vietnamese village about which a U.S. army officer said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” But for historian and columnist Max Boot, not even that awful yet memorable quote fits the current situation. In a Washington Post column published on the Fourth of July, Boot claims that, “Like postwar Germany and Japan, the Republican Party must be destroyed before it can be rebuilt.”
Boot’s is just the latest public declaration from the dwindling band of Never Trumpers that merely condemning Trump’s bad behavior or foolish policies is not enough. In their view, a Republican party that continues to support and sustain the administration must be punished for the sin of inflicting this president on the nation. According to people such as Boot, George Will, Steve Schmidt, and Joe Scarborough, that means voting for Democrats this fall.
Each gives various reasons for his or her apparent apostasy, but it all boils down to a belief that opposition to Trump is the single most important issue facing the nation. Do any of them really share the Left’s conclusion that Trump is destroying democracy and leading us to the brink of fascism, as Boot’s remark about Germany and Japan implies? That’s not the point here.
It is not accurate to say that the party has left them, as Ronald Reagan frequently said of the Democratic party, after he transformed from New Deal Democrat into a Barry Goldwater conservative.
As I wrote in March about Boot, and as Charles Cooke has also discussed with respect to Jennifer Rubin (another of my former Commentary colleagues), the issue isn’t so much about how Trump has changed the GOP as how Trump derangement has changed them. Both now take positions that are contrary to the stands they took prior to 2016. If Trump is for something, they’re against it even if they used to support it. If he’s against it, they’re for it even if they used to oppose it.
Republicans now support a president who is imposing tariffs and displaying a soft spot for Russia and a tendency toward isolationism — all positions that many in the party have long opposed and that most continue to dislike. On still other issues that once split the GOP, the majority has come around to backing an increasingly tough stance on illegal immigration. It’s also true that the tone of the Trump GOP — decidedly populist — is very different from that of the Reagan- and Bush-era party.
On the Middle East peace process, Jerusalem, and the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has followed the lead of the conservative base, not the reverse.
But if the overwhelming majority of Republicans have made an uneasy peace with Trump, it is because on most issues, it is the president who has changed, not the rank-and-file “sheep” that Rubin, Will, and Boot deprecate. Trump, the longtime liberal on domestic and social issues, is now Trump the tax cutter, the apostle of deregulation, and the fierce defender of religious liberty and constitutional conservatism. It may have taken a leap of faith for Republicans to vote for a man seemingly bereft of conservative principles or religious convictions, but he is keeping his promise to them that he would appoint conservative judges.
Even on foreign policy, where traditional GOP hawks such as Boot continue to have good reasons to worry about this administration, Trump has taken important stands that are in accord with the pre-2016 party. On the Middle East peace process, Jerusalem, and the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has followed the lead of the conservative base, not the reverse. If Boot now opposes Trump’s effort to roll back the gains the Islamist Iranian regime made under Obama, it is Boot who has changed his tune, not the approximately 90 percent of Republicans who support the president.
But there is a broader point here about partisan affiliation.
In countries with parliamentary systems that encourage a plurality of parties, ideological purity is not only possible but expected. But in a political system such as ours, which is predicated on two parties, that isn’t possible. As with choosing a church, synagogue, or mosque simply because you like the style of its spiritual leader or the social milieu of those in the pews, many of us are never entirely at home in either party but affiliate with one because we think the country would be better off with that group in charge — or, as is more often the case, we’re convinced it would be worse off with their opponents.
In the past 30 years, both Republicans and Democrats have become much more ideological. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are nearly extinct. Responsibility for this belongs as much to Reagan, whom Boot claims to admire, as it does to anyone else.
But even as the conservative–liberal divide seems more locked into place now than ever before, new issues and leaders have arisen. Basic principles must be defended, but no party can or should stand still if it wants to remain relevant. The populist tide that is sweeping through both parties is making some of us (those who, like Boot, had their political sensibilities formed by the Cold War and the debates about the welfare state) feel slightly out of place in a GOP that is led by a neo-isolationist.
Nonetheless, the basic divide between the parties is still there. This means that even conservatives who dislike Trump’s personal conduct and statements think that assisting the Democrats would be far a greater betrayal than learning to live with Trump.
Would America be better off run by a party that is ruled by identity politics and intent on promoting racial division and class warfare?
Boot concedes that a vote for the GOP in November would indicate support for tax cuts and conservative judges. However, on the downside, he says, it would also be “a vote for egregious obstruction of justice, rampant conflicts of interest, the demonization of minorities, the debasement of political discourse, the alienation of America’s allies, the end of free trade, and the appeasement of dictators.”
But does he really think the Democrats are less corrupt than Trump and his cabinet? Would America be better off run by a party that is ruled by identity politics and intent on promoting racial division and class warfare? Does he think, for all of Trump’s faults, that civil political discourse is the specialty of the party of Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Keith Ellison, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Is Trump alienating any more U.S. allies than Obama did when he largely abandoned both Israel and the Sunni Arab world, leaving them to the mercy of the Iranian dictators whom he sought to appease, enrich, and empower?
Nor will destroying the Republican party lead to its resurrection under a new Reagan. That party is never coming back in our lifetime. As Obama’s presidency showed, liberal governance leads to a vast expansion of government power, the trashing of the First Amendment, and a foreign policy that is indifferent to halting Islamist terror among other perils.
Some Republicans, including many who opposed Trump’s nomination in 2016, are still uncomfortable with the president. But if they not only remain Republicans but also aim to reelect a GOP Congress and Trump himself, it is because he has mostly governed as a conservative and because giving the reins to the likes of Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren would be a greater disaster than anything that could happen under Trump.
Making such a judgment doesn’t make ostriches out of Trump supporters. It is merely a rational choice in an imperfect world. The jump-ship contingent of the GOP seems so deranged by personal pique, rooted more in class than the issues, that they have lost the ability to assess the options and their consequences. They bask in the praise of a liberal media that flatter them for their “courage,” but it is the Never Trumpers who have abandoned conservatism. Meanwhile, most Republicans remain determined to make the best of a party that is still fighting for their principles, albeit under a problematic president.