Politics & Policy

The GOP Is Not Destined to Be Dominated by Cranks

President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., October 13, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It seems an act of hubris to say with absolute certainty what will come next.

In Delaware, Lauren Witzke is channeling the ghost of Christine O’Donnell. Witzke is the Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic senator Chris Coons, who has won his past two elections by double-digit margins in a state that has not sent a member of the GOP to the upper chamber since 1994. Following in the footsteps of O’Donnell, the controversial candidate who faced off against Coons in 2010, Witzke is doing everything she can to damage not only her own long-shot bid, but the GOP brand across the country.

Last Wednesday, Witzke tweeted “Most third-world migrants can not assimilate into civil societies. Prove me wrong.” This wasn’t the first time she made plain her disgustingly disparaging views on immigrants. On October 4, Witzke granted an interview to the white-supremacist website VDARE in which she lamented that “people are so worried about being labeled a white supremacist when we are giving our country away to foreigners” before going on to blame them for “dismantling our culture,” “taking down our historical monuments,” and “voting against our interests.” She’s also defended the QAnon conspiracy theory as “just a bunch of people who want pedophiles and sex traffickers to be arrested” and insisted that “there’s a place” for them in the Republican Party.

Witzke’s tweet commanded quite a bit of attention — Republican loons tend to command quite a bit more than their Democratic counterparts — and her brief, regrettable moment in the spotlight comes after the nominations of the similarly execrable Laura Loomer and Marjorie Taylor Greene for Congress in Florida and Georgia, respectively. My esteemed colleague Jay Nordlinger, responding to Witzke and recognizing a trend that he and I have both been discouraged by, asserted that “in all likelihood, there will be more of this, not less of it, in GOP and conservative politics.” Very rarely do I find myself in disagreement with Nordlinger, but I break with him on this prediction.

For old-school Reaganites, the past five years have been extraordinarily frustrating. Since 1980, the Republican Party has nominated standard-bearers that its voters could be immensely proud of, including war heroes such as George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain, and optimistic mensches like Reagan himself, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. That run of honorable nominees ended with Donald Trump’s ascension in 2016.

There have been many consequences — both good and bad — of Trump’s rise, but among the worst is the effect it has had on the quality of the GOP’s down-ballot candidates. His triumph over more articulate, experienced, and competent candidates such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush sent the exact wrong message to people considering running for office as Republicans around the country. That is: Good character is a liability, not an asset, in GOP primaries.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Donald Trump’s personality appealed to a certain segment of voters who relished his disregard for niceties and viewed him as the kind of blunt weapon they would love to see wielded against their political opponents. Unfortunately, after he pulled off an upset of Hillary Clinton in the general election, a popular myth grew into existence. Only Donald Trump — with his indomitable energy and willingness to say or do anything — could have won in 2016. Once he held power, it became more professionally convenient and profitable to espouse this view than to recognize that he was running against the most unpopular major-party candidate aside from himself in decades, as well as that the Democrats were at a disadvantage after having held the White House for eight years.

If Trump wins in November, the myth will be hardened. But if he loses — and particularly if he loses big (he’s down ten points in the RealClearPolitics national average as of Tuesday morning) — Republicans should expect it to be shattered somewhat. Of course, there will always be a segment of conservatives who consider themselves to be Trump Republicans. At an Orlando Trump campaign rally on Monday, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz declared that “this is Donald Trump’s party, and I am a Donald Trump Republican.” I suspect that Gaetz will cling to this identity long after Trump leaves office, but should he do so this coming January, most Republicans will not only stop reflexively calling themselves “Trump Republicans,” but also come to realize that embracing odious positions and conspiracy theories is a shortsighted electoral strategy.

Moreover, the Republican Party, while still predominantly white, is making gains and becoming more diverse. In Florida, some polls even show that Latino voters prefer the president to Joe Biden. For both practical electoral reasons as well as a natural result of the party’s increasingly diverse coalition, I don’t believe that the xenophobic wing of the party will ultimately prevail in a power struggle.

None of this is to say that parts of Trump’s agenda would be totally discarded. There are plenty of legitimate arguments to be had about the merits of immigration restriction, and I would predict that while a limited number of irresponsible voices will remain — especially in perpetually blue states such as Delaware — most Republicans who believe that the GOP should move in a restrictionist direction will make their case on the merits instead of predicating it on bigotry.

There’s a confidence in certain conservative circles that the GOP will continue to move in a particular direction. Tucker Carlson and Sohrab Ahmari, for example, seem to be sure that the party will move leftward on economics and to the right on immigration and most social issues. I’m skeptical of any straight-line projections about where the Republican Party will be two years from now, much less in a decade. In the past 20 years, we’ve seen compassionate conservatism, Tea Party spending hawks, and Trumpist populism all take their turns at the helm. It seems an act of hubris to say with absolute certainty what will come next, and especially unlikely to me that the Republican Party will be moving, over the long term, toward the repulsive faux conservatism of Witzke, Loomer, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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