Politics & Policy

Mend the GOP, Don’t Burn It Down

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Washington, Mich., April 28, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The most extreme of the Never Trumpers are ignoring Trump’s achievements and distracting from the work of real party reform.

Appearing on MSNBC on Thursday, former Republican political consultant Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s key advisers in 2012, called for the total destruction of his old political party:

The Republican party of Teddy Roosevelt and John McCain and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is dead. It’s over. It doesn’t exist anymore. It has been taken over, lock, stock, and barrel. For there to be any redemption of a right-of-center conservative party in the United States of America means the party of Trump must be destroyed politically.

It’s like a fire. Fires are a part of the ecosystem, part of the natural progress. And when the forest burns, it’s purified. There can be new growth. For there to be new growth of a conservative movement, of a right-center party, the one that I joined in 1988, it needs to burn to the ground.

In other words, Schmidt is calling for a purgative defeat of the Republican party. Knowing full well that this will give the Left vast leeway to shape public policy, he is calling for the destruction of the GOP so that, in its place, an anti-Trump conservative coalition can be reformed.

Schmidt is not the only one espousing views such as this. When I criticized Schmidt’s position on Twitter over the weekend, Tom Nichols — a professor at the Naval War College, author of The Death of Expertise, and prominent Never Trumper who urged Republicans to vote for Hillary in 2016 argued that “this GOP needs to lose its majority for at least a few years” (emphasis is his). Nichols maintained this view even when National Review contributor Liam Donovan pointed out that Democrats would probably do away with the filibuster if they took back the majority, eliminating the ability of a Republican minority to defeat liberal measures. Varhad Mehta joined the Twitter debate, asking, “You OK with the ACLU suing Catholic hospitals out of business because they don’t perform abortions? Because that’s what will happen if the Democrats get ahold of the judiciary.” Nichols replied, “I’ll chance it.”

Also this week, Rick Wilson — a Florida-based GOP consultant who served as Florida field director for George H. W. Bush’s campaign and who supported Marco Rubio in 2016 — released a new book with a title that neatly summarizes the current Never Trump position: Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real about the Worst President Ever. Since Donald Trump is the <insert worst possible description here>, his followers in government deserve nothing less than <insert worst political outcome here>. If you follow Evan McMullin — the former independent presidential candidate — on Twitter, you will know a thousand different ways to complete that sentence, for his feed is as hyperbolic as anything one would encounter while watching MSNBC’s primetime lineup.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, I was right there with many of these Never Trumpers. I even voted for McMullin in the general election. I remain chagrined by the low tone Trump has brought to the office, which needlessly alienates would-be political allies and coarsens our civic discourse. Nevertheless, I think the solution that many of the Never Trumpers are pushing is a terrible idea.

For starters, let’s take the subtitle of Wilson’s book, “A Republican Strategist Gets Real about the Worst President Ever.” Allow this political historian to get real: Donald Trump is not the worst president ever. It’s not even close. Franklin Pierce (1853–1857) and James Buchanan (1857–1861) were both northern presidents in a northern-majority nation when slavery was coming to be seen as the abomination that it is. Yet neither of them mobilized the North to battle slavery. Instead, they gave the slaveholders every opportunity to expand into the West. If you want to rank presidents, they are at the bottom.

Now, what about Schmidt’s recommendation that the GOP be destroyed, a view I’ve seen echoed in multiple places? This is similar to the irresponsibility and even nihilism espoused by some tea-party Republicans during the policy battles of the Obama administration. Frustrated by the “establishment” GOP, tea-partiers often called for helping the GOP destroy itself.

As the experience of the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare has surely demonstrated, it is much easier to prevent the Left from implementing policies than to undo or reform those policies once they are in place.

But if the Republican party “burns to the ground,” the Democratic party wins by default. I cannot believe the following needs to be said, but here we are: This would be a very bad outcome for conservatism! As we all saw during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats will not hesitate to use their majorities to enact sweeping changes. And as we have seen lately, Democrats are moving further left, away from Clintonian third-way triangulation, toward the social democracies of northern Europe. And as the experience of the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare has surely demonstrated, it is much easier to prevent the Left from implementing policies than to undo or reform those policies once they are in place.

Additionally, we must reckon with the fact that the Trump administration has succeeded in important ways. The president has exceeded nearly everybody’s expectations when it comes to the quantity and quality of judicial nominees — to date in his first term, he has had double the number of appellate nominations confirmed than those Obama or George W. Bush had confirmed by this point in their terms. A lot of the praise goes to Mitch McConnell, who has expertly shepherded nominees through the Senate, as well as think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, which has done excellent work in vetting potential candidates. But that still leaves a lot of credit for the president. And his administration, along with congressional Republicans, has used the Congressional Review Act to an impressive extent, rolling back the regulatory overreach of the Obama administration. While I have frequently lamented the low tone that Trump has brought to the office, these policy victories have to count for something.

And who is to say that, when the GOP is “burned to the ground,” we will like what emerges in its place? In my experience, it is often only after hard knocks that individuals are capable of learning lessons. But groups of people? I would say almost never. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn makes a point about scientific advancement that is widely applicable. When Copernicus offered his alternative to the Ptolemaic system, the Ptolemists did not accede. They never did. Instead, Ptolemists failed to win new converts to their cause, which is what finally secured the Copernican revolution. The same goes for all manner of human experience. People are just as likely to double down as admit error when they’re faced with failure, and when people are organized into a group, where they can reinforce one another in their wrongness, it is all the more difficult to get them to change course and see the light.

I also think the hyperbole of the remaining Never Trumpers is making it harder to fix what is wrong with the GOP. Such intemperate positions draw all the focus and alienate potential reformers who are more amenable to Trump. This makes it more difficult for those of us still actively inside the conservative coalition to bring about change, which for now can only come through encouragement and exhortation rather than extreme calls for razing the Republican party.

In general, the remaining Never Trumpers seem to have made the exact opposite error that the hardcore backers of Trump have made. While the MAGA crowd rejects the virtues of political aesthetics and manners altogether, the Never Trumpers have elevated them into a kind of political summum bonum. But it is not. Policy still matters, too. Or at least it should.

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Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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