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As the Republican Party breaks up, what does it mean for America?



In no other space in America is the schizophrenia at the heart of the Republican Party on more garish display than in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In that jarring asylum, columnists have been utterly flummoxed by the Trump phenomenon. It quickly became clear that Rupert Murdoch was not a Trump man, and so, one by one, the writers—Rove, Noonan, Henninger, Strassel, McGurn—fell into line. These were second-rate hangers-on who had made their reputations trashing Democrats and drooling lasciviously around the ankles of Murdoch pets like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But when Trump threw Murdoch off his game, his writers also lost their balance. You could feel it throughout the past year, especially in Rove’s column, the most nakedly manipulative of them all. He loathes Trump, no doubt because the Orange-Haired One has no use at all for the political organization Rove runs. In fact, Trump took that organization and pummeled it to shreds. Ole Karl is pissed.

Still, Rupert and his team now have their Republican Party nominee. It’s a thing of beauty to watch them “gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Like a snake caught in a snake stick, their contortions to escape confinement are pitiful. Twist though they might they can’t quite find themselves able to thoroughly dump Trump or to thoroughly embrace him. The tone of the WSJ editorial pages in fact is an exact reflection of whatever is happening in the news, and especially the polls. When Trump looks headed to certain defeat, the team turns sullen and smug. “We warned you this would happen” is the subtext. Then a poll comes out showing Trump making up lost ground in North Carolina or Arizona, or with blacks, or having gone 48 hours without a howler, and suddenly Rupert’s monkeys can be seen scrambling back to their position of “Maybe he’s not so bad after all” and “Anyone but Hillary!”

However, not every day offers so clear perspective on what’s happening, and newspapers, after all, do have to publish every day. What’s a columnist to do when the horizon is murky? Bash the Clintons! That’s the route Rove took yesterday, with his demand to “Shut Down the Clinton Foundation Already.” Karl Rove knows as well as anyone that the Clinton Foundation has been a tremendous force for good. From climate change to Haiti relief, from tackling HIV/AIDS to combating deforestation in Asia, the Foundation is the singularly most effective social- and environmental-activist group in the world, a fact even Donald Trump—who has repeatedly called for a special investigation into the Foundation–himself recognized when he donated heavily—as much as $250,000—to it when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State (a fact that prompted one tweeter to wonder if Trump is not “calling for an investigation of himself”).

But then, the slur of Hillary Clinton’s “trustworthiness” has largely propagated in Karl Rove’s wheelhouse. It’s from P.R. chop shops like Kellyanne Conway’s that focus group-driven issues like that are edited; they then are adopted by propagandists like Rove to do the actual scribing (Goebbels operated much the same way), and then it’s a forward lateral to publishers like Murdoch, who supply them with page (or screen) space. Thus the modern version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex: the rightwing alliance of a Ministry of Truth and a gigantic media chain, joined together in unholy matrimony for unholy purposes.

But it wouldn’t be enough simply to hurl smears at Hillary Clinton. These must be conjoined with pocket book issues, because after all, it’s the economy, stupid. So, also in yesterday’s WSJ is yet another accusation that “the fastest way to kill [economic] growth” will be to elect Hillary Clinton. Never mind that under her husband the U.S. enjoyed its longest surge of job (and stock market) growth ever, or that Barack Obama, against unbelievable odds (including an obstructionist Senate and a super-hostile House), not only successfully overcame the Bush-caused Great Recession, but has himself now presided over a long period of growth. By contrast, the last two Republican presidents, Bush pere and fils, both had failed or flat economies. Where these Republicans get the cojones to claim that Democrats are bad for business is a head-scratcher. But then, for the final exercise in pointless stupidity in yesterday’s WSJ, you need only glance at the lead editorial, which unwittingly again displays the GOP’s schizophrenia. On the one hand it fundamentally blames Hillary Clinton for the high price of EPiPen (the anti-allergic reaction drug whose price hike has caused national revulsion). On the other hand it castigates her for having the nerve to propose “price controls” on Big Pharma. Go figure.

This huge and growing chasm within the ranks of the Republican Party prompted me to bring down from my bookself “The Republican Party: 1854-1964,” an old book about the GOP’s founding and subsequent evolution. The Party itself came into being in 1854-1855 during a period of unprecedented political chaos in America, when numerous parties—Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, Whigs and countless smaller local groupings—were grappling to fill the void in governance created as issues concerning slavery and immigration were coming to the fore. Except for the Democrats, the other parties all were swept away into the dustbin of history, as the new Republican Party arose. Is the same thing happening today? The Democratic Party, for all its own stresses, remains strong; the Republican Party as we have known it—the party of Reagan, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, McCain, the Bushes—seems to be in a slo-mo process of disintegration. I myself wouldn’t mind seeing it disappear forever, but the forces of darkness with which it has long dabbled, and into which it now has descended, remain; promising (or threatening) an extended period of chaos much as America saw in 1855, when both sides were lining up for a fight. And we all know what happened five years later.

Something, in short, has to give. It will be either America itself, or the Republican Party. My prediction is that it will be the GOP that eventually comes to its senses and expels the extremists, both evangelicals and a nativist, increasingly violent alt-right. Both sides have done, and are doing, so much damage, not only to the Republican Party, but to America. Let these two cults go their merry way, perhaps forming a pansexual folie a deux on the right, or more likely retreating to their respective fringes, where they can fulminate all they want without disturbing domestic tranquility. What happens when the Republican Party expectorates its extremes? It becomes a normal party again. That is what I hope for. You should, too.

  1. Bob Kelly says:

    Always read your blog and learned a lot from it. Now I am signing off. I am also 70 and have learned to not argue politics since rarely do people change their views in an argument. They just want to talk about what they read. Thanks Steve for a lot of entertainment.

  2. Ian Norris says:

    Hey Steve

    Good overview of the historical breakdown of the ‘multi party’ system and the rise of the two party hegemony.

    My guess (and it is a GUESS) is that we’ll see a more centrist GOP (akin perhaps to Bloomberg’s NY GOP or even certain elements of Kasich’s approach) in the future that will pick up the majority of the centrist Republicans (as well as more moderate Dems).

    The more extreme wings of BOTH parties (the Bernie Democrats, Elizabeth Warren Democrats, the Club For Growth Republicans, the Evangelical Republicans) will splinter off and – kind of – do their own thing. I would foresee this as causing a rise in independent voter registration(s) and maybe even a rise in elected independent representatives.

    In that regard, I sort of see this as a potential move towards a more ‘parliamentary’ style of government. If you look at the UK or Germany or Israel, there are DOZENS of parties representing the full spectrum of beliefs, from far right to far left. In the UK, Labour and the Conservatives hold the lion’s share of seats; however there are numerous other parties also holding seats in Parliament.

    Maybe this ‘fracturing’ of the traditional party structure will, ironically, lead to a more parliamentary-style representative system of government in which GENUINE coalitions have to be built among factions.

    This could be a GOOD thing.

  3. The problem is that there is no way for the GOP to “expel” anybody.

    The voters who bought Trump’s line of nonsense and invective aren’t going anywhere, except as they die off. They’ll continue to vote in Republican primaries. And as long as that’s the case, there will be candidates who will try to appeal to that segment.

    Even a crushing defeat of Trump in the general election won’t change that. Other candidates will reason that they can do better than Trump by copying his approach and just sanding off the roughest edges, i.e. not picking fights with Gold Star families or cozying up to Putin. And even if winning the general election on a Trump-like platform is a longshot, it’s still the best chance I’m likely to get, and anything can happen in a campaign.

    And that’s without taking into account the fact that some candidates will run on a Trump platform even if they don’t think they can win the primary. For a couple of cycles in a row now, we’ve seen candidates run in Republican primaries because it was a good way to sell books or get themselves a show on Fox News. That trend isn’t going away, so I think you can count on some folks to say “20% in the polls sounds pretty good to me, thanks.”

    So I think the best we can hope for is that the rest of the primary voters recognize that Trumpism is a dead-end and won’t talk themselves into going along with such a candidate next time. Arguably, the GOP had a stroke a bad luck this cycle in that the eventual alternative to Trump was the odious Ted Cruz — though there’s a reason things ended up that way, too.

  4. Three things–

    1. We cannot end up in a “parliamentary system” because we do not have one. The Constitution does make allowances for elections in which no one gets a majority but it does not give us a parlamentary system.

    2. The Republicans, to quote from Spamalot, are not dead yet. Assume, for a minute that Hillary wins in 2016, if she does not grow appreciably in popularity, then a Paul Ryan run in 2020 will place them front and center once again.

    3. It would be a good thing for a couple of lesser parties to emerge, and maybe even wine a few seats in the Congress. A cleaner version of Libertarian that is pro-choice, pro-marijuana, pro-school choice and recognizes that capitalism does not work at the margins could have increased support over time. The Greens aren’t going anywhere because they are one-issue and fringy.

  5. Now, this.

    I love being able to talk philosophy among non-political geeks where it is possible to share views without getting into ranting polemics and insult wars.

    Hope this place stays that way.

  6. Ian Norris says:

    Re: Charlie’s comment (above) I concur

    Also agree that we don’t have a ‘parliamentary’ system. My point is that – mmmaybe – the breakup of the 2 party monolith will lead to some more viewpoints being expressed (in Congress) via formal parties v. just having everyone have to kowtow to one or the other party even if their views aren’t properly expressed.

    Since this is (technically) a wine blog…the current system is basically ‘only’ cabernet and chard. There’s a whole WORLD of other wines out there that deserve representation : )

  7. Ian,

    The major obstacle to having more than two major parties is that the minor parties, and most of the pundits who pine openly for a third party, are usually focused single-mindedly on the presidency.

    If the Greens actually wanted to influence policy, they would be recruiting candidates to run in safe Democratic districts, especially in California where the “top 2 jungle primary” system means you could have a general election showdown between a Democrat and a Green. Instead, they’re only running candidates for less than 1 percent of offices nationwide.

    The only time I hear of the Greens is regarding Jill Stein’s quixotic candidacy. There are only two things that Stein can realistically hope to accomplish: act as a spoiler, or reach the 5% threshold to qualify the party for additional funds in the next election cycle. The latter only matters if they’re going to do something useful with that money, and I suspect all that will happen is they’ll buy a few more ads and open a couple more campaign offices for Jill Stein’s 2020 exercise in futility. As to the former, I have no idea why people continue to think that, if the Greens throw the election to Trump, the response of Democrats will be “gee, we better be nicer to those folks and let them and their 2% support dictate our policies,” especially given that there was no such impulse after Nader’s role in 2000.

    Pretty much the same analysis would apply to the Libertarians, though I understand they’ve made somewhat more of an effort at the state level.

    If a minor party could win mayoralties and city councils and school boards and show that they’re capable of governing instead of just complaining about the major parties, or at least get a few seats in legislatures and go about the tough business of actually trying to get things done, then maybe they’d be better able to convince voters that they deserve to be trusted, or at least considered for, higher office. But the obsession with the brass ring means that they’ll continue to be the home of protest votes and the subject of bickering about being a spoiler for the other side instead of a viable option for most voters.

  8. Nancy Weil Brown says:

    Wow! Civil and intellectual discussions about politics – how long has it been since we’ve seen/read anything like this? I loved the wine blog although not being in the business it left my head spinning sometimes. I’m glad you took your class act of writing to this blog and some of your classy readers along with you.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    I don’t discuss politics with folks for the obvious reason: no one’s opinion ever gets changed. (See next comment on “bias.”)

    But I do discuss business and economics.

    And on that front, let me cite today’s Wall Street Journal:

    “Economists Who’ve Advised Presidents Are No Fans of Donald Trump;
    In a WSJ survey, no former members of the White House Council of Economic Advisers — spanning eight presidents — openly support Mr. Trump”


    “‘I have known personally every Republican president since Richard Nixon,’ said Harvard University economist Martin Feldstein, who chaired the council under President Ronald Reagan.

    “‘They all showed a real understanding of economics and international affairs… Donald Trump does not have that understanding and does not seem to be concerned about it. That alone disqualifies him in my judgment.’ ”

    Marty ain’t no Lefty.

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