The GOP Needs a “Civil” War
Imagine if the Battle of Gettysburg didn’t end with Pickett’s Charge, but a joint statement. That’s what last week’s meeting between Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump felt like. A bloody showdown didn’t happen, but neither did a resolution of conflict. Instead, it was the start of a process that could resolve real differences relatively peacefully. As Ryan insisted, the outcome will not — and cannot — be fake unity. Still, the outcome is far from clear. What does seem certain is the process will either make the GOP a stronger party or it will lead to the creation of a new and stronger party to take its place.
One early sign that’s promising and indicates this war will, in fact, be civil is the absence of provocative tweets from Trump. In the few days following the meeting, Trump has done nothing to antagonize Ryan, nor has he repeated his pre-meeting threat to “go his separate way.” That fact, combined with the willingness of both camps to keep communicating, suggests this process is serious and not a perfunctory going-through-the-Washington-motions.
For Trump, this is a matter of survival, and he has good reason to be afraid. Trump may face an independent challenge regardless of how he handles his talks with Ryan. But responding ungraciously would only add momentum to that effort.
Regardless of whether the presidential race ends up being a two or three person contest, the GOP has to deal with a number of issues clearly and decisively if it’s going to survive as a credible institution. Real unity begins with grappling with real issues. I would submit two propositions for discussion:
There is no Trumpism, only Trump
For months, commentators on the Left, as well as some Trump supporters, have argued that Trump’s rise is a repudiation of Tea Party conservatism, “very conservatism”, Reaganism, Ryanism or some of other form of sincere and principled Republicanism. If you’re a progressive who wants to find comfort in the comprehensive failure of left-wing policy — stagnant wages, debilitating debt, and persistent poverty — this is an attractive conclusion.
But the Trump phenomenon isn’t about ideology. It’s about Trump. He’s the presumptive nominee because he connected with voters and convinced them he cared about them.
Talk about Trump winning a mandate or reshaping or redefining the Republican Party is just that — talk. While it’s true that Trump will end up winning the nomination by the same margin as McCain and Romney, his victory has little in common with those previous races. Trump locked up the nomination with 40 percent of the vote but his failure to embrace Republican ideas means his journey from 40 to 100 percent support will be far more difficult than either McCain’s or Romney’s. Even though McCain and Romney faced spirited challenges, Republican voters in 2008 and 2012 were more or less united around a traditional Republican agenda. Challengers like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and even Ron Paul weren’t radically outside the mainstream. That’s not the case with Trump.
Neither McCain nor Romney rejected core Republican ideas. Both men were patriots. But neither were nationalists. Neither suggested the United States should consider leaving NATO. Neither offered tacit support for the Chinese government’s handling of Tiananmen Square. Neither ran as neo-isolationist protectionists. Neither made hilarious but grandiose and impossible promises about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. Neither said higher taxes would be a good idea. Neither brazenly lied about our debt crisis or our ability to “grow our way” out of the impending bankruptcy of our safety net programs. And neither made bizarre jokes about female menstruation or mocked veterans and the disabled.
Again, in previous cycles, winning 40 or 50 percent of the Republican primary vote meant a near 100 percent consolidation of Republican voters because everyone was more or less on the same page. That isn’t the case this year. The 60 percent of voters who voted for someone other than Trump aren’t on the board with his agenda because they know there is no agenda, only a person they view as a con man. That’s why the Trumpstablishment’s commands to get on board the Trump train aren’t persuasive.
Trump Voters Deserve an Agenda that Will Work
Trump is a convulsion in American politics, not a corrective. In fact, much of what Trump says represents the worst aspects of the Washington “establishment” and the status quo that voters say they despise and revolt against. Pandering to voters and telling them things that aren’t true and harmful to their own wellbeing will make things worse.
Trump supporters have a hard time explaining what Trump is for because there is no there there. For instance, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham and others argue that because Ronald Reagan deviated from free-trade orthodoxy, Trump will be a good president. Ingraham is right that Reagan was more of a conservative pragmatist than a doctrinaire purist, but her conclusion is specious. Reagan, unlike Trump, had clear principles to deviate from. Trump is all deviation. And Reagan, unlike Trump, arrived in the White House with a fully formed world-view and set of principles. Sixteen years before being elected president Reagan delivered his famous “Time for Choosing” speech. Sixteen years ago Donald Trump was building casinos and dreaming of becoming a TV star.
Peggy Noonan, who is an authority on the Reagan years, says conservatives who are troubled by Trump have a responsibility to spell out exactly what they’re for and explain why our vision is superior. She’s exactly right. Fortunately, leaders like Paul Ryan and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have spent years doing just that. (Aside: Ryan and Coburn offered the first Obamacare alternative before Obamacare became law. During the campaign Trump’s understanding of health policy has been shocking superficial if not socialist.)
Ryan and Coburn, as well as writers like Arthur Brooks and Yuval Levin — the kind of people Trump denigrates as eggheads — have a more sophisticated and practical understanding of how to help Trump voters than Trump does. In fact, conservatives outside the Trumpstablishment have a very good idea of “what works” and how to apply true principles to today’s challenges without depending solely on Reagan nostalgia.
William Schambra, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, offered this concise explanation to Opportunity Lives: “The kind of conservatism that addresses the alienation and anger uncovered by Trump isn’t rooted in new programs or policy proposals, and cannot be artificially ginned up by Washington politicians or think tanks. It reflects a different moral vision, rooted in the reestablishment of spiritual connection, as people come together in their mutual brokenness to forge powerful new community ties.”
Schambra’s, and to a large extent, Paul Ryan’s view of “what works” is to identify and reinforce local doers and problem solvers on the ground. As a practical matter, this means getting the federal government out of the way while helping civil society groups and state and local government meet individual and community needs.
This kind of thinking is profoundly threatening to the status quo. It could expand opportunity and spur economic growth. And it doesn’t require an authoritarian strongman who admires Vladimir Putin to make it happen. In fact, diminishing federal power while empowering local economic and social entrepreneurs is the key fix we need.
This unsettled moment for the Republican Party wouldn’t be surprising to our founders. In fact, they expected worse. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
In today’s age we can disagree without bloodshed and violence. We don’t need to meet in Gettysburg. But let’s not pretend we agree. Let’s embrace the disagreement and let the best ideas prevail and then unify around those ideas. If we focus on protecting the republic the Republican Party will do just fine. But if we focus on protecting Republicans we’ll end up with neither.
Originally published at opportunitylives.com on May 17, 2016.