Matthew Continetti is absolutely right that the Republican Party faces disaster by potentially nominating an obvious and reckless conman for president. It just isn’t clear that Republican political elites (in the form of government officeholders and party officials) have the legitimacy to take the nomination from Trump without alienating that plurality of Republicans who supported Trump in the primaries, and that majority of Republican-identifiers who have come to support Trump after he became the presumptive nominee.
The root of the problem is that, before Republican voters were taken in by the con artist, the Republican elites tried (ineptly) to con the Republican voters. It was the Republican Party’s elites (represented in the infamous Republican National Committee’s autopsy) that ignored the unpopularity of the party’s economic agenda.
The Republican leadership instead chose to move economic policy in an even more elite-friendly direction. They RNC supported “comprehensive immigration reform.” In Washington parlance, this includes a large expansion of future low-skill immigration. Expanding future immigration is a spectacularly unpopular policy. It is unpopular among Democrats, Republican and independents.
And yet, the RNC (and the Republican members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight) had the gall to present the plan as a matter of electoral necessity. This lie was just as audacious (and more consequential) than anything Trump has said about the alleged success of Trump Steaks.
Continetti is right when he calls on Republicans to embrace “this big, crazy, wonderful country that has made them literally the wealthiest and most entitled generation of human beings in the history of the world”. Too many conservatives just seem to want a comfortable corner of the media where they can sit and complain about the kids as they wait to die.
To be fair, it looked like Republican voters might have supported an inclusive and modern conservatism, but those voters were betrayed. Going into 2016, there were two insurgent candidacies that were being run by conventional politicians. Ted Cruz’s insurgency was self-consciously belligerent and insular. He was a conservative fighter who would fight for conservatism. But most normal people don’t care – and are right not to care – about how conservative someone is or isn’t.
Marco Rubio’s appeal was that he was an insurgent who could connect the older, whiter, Republican base with the rest of our crazy, wonderful country. He had taken on the Republican bosses by beating the slimy and obviously unprincipled Charlie Crist in the Florida GOP Senate primary, but he was also comfortable in a world with gangsta rap.
Instead of being an insurgent populist, Rubio betrayed his election promises and sided with the Republican elites on immigration – the issue that most bitterly divided Republican politicians from Republican voters. Rubio then insulted everyone’s intelligence with his shifting explanations for his flip-flops. Then a Rubio aide was caught explaining that one of the purposes of the Rubio-supported immigration plan was to free employers of the burden of having to hire American low-skill workers who “can’t cut it.” Rubio has never been held to account for how his behavior helped turn even the idea of a politician leading an inclusive, populist insurgency into a bitter joke.
Republican politicians poisoned the atmosphere first. They are in a weak position to call Trump untrustworthy because they proved themselves untrustworthy long before Trump announced he was running for president. Their problem isn’t Trump. Their problem is a lack of legitimacy with Republican voters. If Republican elected officials and party apparatchiks had legitimacy, they would have little trouble dispatching a presumptive nominee that was as erratic and despicable as Trump. If Republican elites had legitimacy, Trump would never have gotten anywhere near the nomination in the first place.
The first step is not replacing Trump – though I would gladly support replacing Trump. The first step is Republican politicians figuring out where they themselves went wrong. Then they could start rebuilding trust with Republican voters.
But I doubt that the Haley Barbours, Paul Ryans, Jeb Bushes, and Reince Priebuses think that they themselves have done much wrong. They think that the voters were wrong for rejecting a program of
tax cuts for the rich, expanded low-skill guest worker programs, and entitlement cuts growth, optimism and responsibility. If Republican elites could dump Trump, they would replace him with a candidate who supported an agenda that was rejected by two-thirds of the party’s primary voters.
In short, Republican elites can’t regain legitimacy because they can’t be honest with their voters about what went wrong. They can’t even be honest with themselves.