Magazine June 13, 2016, Issue

The Shock of Disaffiliation

On leaving the Republican party.

Last year, when the presidential season got going, I made an observation: Donald Trump would often say “the Republicans” or sometimes even “you Republicans,” as though they were foreign to him, and he to them. Yet he was running for the Republican nomination. Which he has now cinched, apparently.

I myself have had to start saying “the Republicans,” and I find it very hard. Sometimes I slip up, saying “we” and “us.” Those words come naturally to my lips. I used them for so long. Indeed, I was a Republican a lot longer — decades longer — than Trump has been.

Divorced people may tell you about a similar transition. For years, they said “we,” “our,” “us.” To revert to “I,” “my,” “me” can be shocking.

I think I registered as a Republican as soon as I was old enough to vote. I remember my first vote, for sure: It was in 1982 for Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Richard Headlee. He lost (as many of my candidates would). I don’t believe I have ever voted for a Democrat, for any office. (Divorced from the Republican party or not, I’m not about to start now.)

Like many a conservative, or other anti-collectivist, I’m not much of a joiner. But I did belong to the GOP, gladly. A few years ago, I wrote a little essay called “A Hopeless ‘R.’” I described and explained my hard-bitten partisanship. Many of my conservative brothers say, “I’m not a Republican, I’m a conservative.” I always stressed the importance of the Republican party. A philosophy, such as conservatism, has to have a vehicle, if it’s to make headway in life.

I disliked the Democrats intensely. I thought they were right about practically nothing. But my Republicanism was not merely negative, i.e., a reaction to the Democrats: I thought the Republicans were a boon to the country and world.

But then they nominated, or were poised to nominate, Donald J. Trump for president. And that’s where I get off. I ceased to be a Republican on the night of May 3, when the results of the Indiana primary came in. A party that thinks Donald Trump ought to be president is not a party I should belong to.

“But he’s only the presidential nominee!” you might say. “There are millions of other Republicans. Paul Ryan is speaker of the House, for heaven’s sake! He’s as different from Trump as a daisy is from an eel.” Yes. But a presidential nominee is the face of the party: its symbol, its representative, on the national stage and the world stage. Every party has its clowns, fools, and embarrassments. But if they are down-ballot, it doesn’t matter so much. In nominating someone for president, a party says, “This is who we are.”

I was a student in Europe during the Reagan years — 1984, to be specific. That president may be remembered warmly now, but he was hated then, by a great many. After I landed, I took a long train ride. In my compartment was a fellow American student. She said, “I’m hoping I can pass for German.” She was ashamed of being an American while Reagan was president.

By classmates and teachers, I was teased, baited, and mocked for being a Republican and a Reaganite. But I defended him with gusto. I was happy to be associated with that man, and his worldview.

So it was when the first Bush was president. And when Bob Dole was the Republican nominee. And when the second Bush was the nominee, and president. I have worked in Salzburg, at the music festival, every summer since 2003. During the George W. Bush years, they said the worst things about the American president: that he was the Texas equivalent of Osama bin Laden, for example. I was often confronted on the subject of Bush. I was pleased — very pleased — to defend him and be associated with him.

Then we had John McCain and Mitt Romney — the losers to Barack Obama. The country was the real loser, I think. I admire both men, and am glad to be in armies or foxholes with them. McCain, to take just the former, may not be my political ideal. But I think his worldview is sound, and of his heroism, there is no doubt.

Except from the Republicans’ new nominee. At the beginning of his campaign, he said that McCain was “not a war hero” because he was captured. “I like people who weren’t captured.” True, McCain was shot down — on his 23rd bombing raid over North Vietnam. Then he endured five and a half years of torture. He refused early release, offered because his dad, Admiral McCain, was head of the Pacific Command.

Trump, meanwhile, received four student deferments. Many received deferments. But do they slam the service of McCain, of all people? In 1997, Trump was talking with Howard Stern on the radio — about sleeping around, and the perils of doing so, given venereal disease. “I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world,” he said. “It is a dangerous world out there — it’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

In my view, Trump is grossly unfit to be president, in both mind and character — especially the latter. Even if I agreed with him on the issues — even if I thought his worldview sound — I would balk at supporting him, owing to the issue of character. But let me spend a second on the issues.

His tendency is toward big government. He says no to a reform of entitlements. He says no to free trade. He threatens to withdraw from NATO. He likes Obama’s unilateral opening to Cuba. He sings the praises of Planned Parenthood. And so on.

What he calls for, mainly, is strength, plus “winning.” This is not the mentality of a constitutional conservative or a liberal democrat.

Then, overshadowing everything, there is the issue of character. Trump mocks the handicapped — physically mocks them — for the enjoyment of his audience. He insults women on the basis of their looks. He brags of the women he has bedded, including “seemingly very happily married” ones. He mocks the religions of others. (Distinctly un-American.) He implied that Ted Cruz’s father had a link to the Kennedy assassination. And on and on.

By nominating him, the Republican party has disfigured itself, morally. Democrats won’t like to hear this, but for all those years, I thought the Republican party had the high ground, morally. I feel that this ground has collapsed beneath me. That is one of the painful aspects of this moment.

If someone now says to me, “Ha, ha, Donald Trump is the presidential nominee of your party!” I say, “No, he isn’t.” He represents the Republicans, who, on the basis of this nomination, are transformed. I respect, admire, and love many Republicans, of course — I was their fellow party member until two seconds ago. But, to say it again, the presidential nominee stamps the party. He is the brand of the party. As I see it, or smell it, an odor now attaches to the GOP, and it will linger long past 2016, no matter what happens on Election Day.

Parties are not static entities (alas). I joined a Reaganite party. It was the clear descendant of Lincoln’s. Now it is undergoing Trumpification. The Democrats have undergone profound shifts, historically. Thirty years ago, I heard my colleague Mike Potemra enunciate his Jacksonian Theory of the Democratic Party: It had gone from Andrew Jackson to Scoop Jackson to Jesse Jackson. Today, the Democrats are well represented by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Flux, flux, flux. You eventually learn that this is the way of the world. I sometimes kick against flux, which is one mark of a conservative. You also learn that almost anything can be normalized. Even now — at this speed — it seems practically normal that the presidential nominee of the Republican party linked a rival’s dad to the Kennedy assassination. Trump is a “new normal,” as they say, but it is a twisted and wrong normal.

He made his remarks about Rafael Cruz and JFK on the day he won, May 3. That night, a new hashtag appeared on Twitter: “#ExGOP.” I do not want to wear that tag, but I suppose I do. May 3 was my Independence Day — the day I became an independent. Unlike the Fourth of July, it was not a happy day. I never wanted to be an indie.

I have not yet bothered to change my registration — too lazy, I guess, and too allergic to bureaucracy. I have simply disaffiliated, mentally. The most famous two-word message in American history, probably, comes from John L. Lewis. Withdrawing his miners from the AFL, he wrote, “We disaffiliate.” I disaffiliate, too.

Reagan changed his party registration when he was over 50 — about the same age I am now. We all know what he said, because we’ve heard it quoted for decades: “I didn’t leave my party, it left me.” I know how he feels. Unlike him, I don’t have a party to jump to.

Why does my party affiliation, or non-affiliation, matter? It doesn’t at all, not even to me, all that much. The fate of the Republic does not hang on one man’s outlook and angst. But I offer the above words because my fellow conservatives and classical liberals might find them interesting, in this weird, dislocating time.

“Sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” said JFK. That’s putting it mildly. And speaking of the dead president: Will a Trump administration prosecute, or at least investigate, Rafael Cruz? If not, why not? Trump supporters — and normalizers and lookers-away — might want to ponder that question.

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