Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both left of center, but there is visible ideological distance between them regarding the scope of government. The distance between John Kasich and Ted Cruz is harder to spot. All the remaining Republican candidates want to cut taxes for the wealthy, defund Planned Parenthood, and resist minimum wage hikes. They even all agree on building a wall on the border with Mexico.
So why is the Republican Party the one that’s on the verge of cracking up?
A mere 51 percent of Republican voters would be “satisfied” if the current frontrunner Donald Trump is the nominee, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll. The numbers for Marco Rubio and Cruz are better, but not stellar: 62 percent and 65 percent, respectively. The Democrats are in stronger shape: Both Clinton and Sanders clear 70 percent.
With the Grand Old Party increasingly divided along Trump and anti-Trump lines, one camp will likely walk away from the Republican National Convention in July embittered. Either the #NeverTrump faction will follow through on its pledge to abandon the party nominee, or Trump’s loyal fans will rage at how the Republican establishment stole the nomination from their insurgent leader and take a pledge of their own.
The last time the party suffered a convention walkout was in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt and his delegates walked across the street to launch the Progressive Party. Then, the divide between Roosevelt and President William Taft was about the ideological role of government, a hard gap to bridge.
The Republican divide today is in some ways even harder to reconcile, because it is about race. As has become clear in the past few months—in the anguished columns and tweets of conservative figures like Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat, and Max Boot, among others—what divides the Trumpists from the anti-Trumpists is their approach to people outside the GOP’s core electorate of white voters.
Race has split a convention before. In 1948, then-Senate candidate Hubert Humphrey forced a Democratic convention floor vote on embracing civil rights in the party platform. He won, prompting segregationist “Dixiecrats” to walk out and mount a third-party campaign. But the Democrats were better off for it, winning the 1948 presidential campaign and putting themselves closer to the right side of history. This year, race may split the Republicans as they convene in Cleveland. They need not be afraid.
The ABC/Washington Post poll makes it plain: Trump’s proposal to “temporarily” ban Muslims from entering America neatly divides the GOP, with 52 percent supporting. His determination to forcibly deport undocumented immigrants does slightly better at 55 percent. Both proposals are flatly rejected by the broader electorate by nearly two-to-one.
While only 28 percent of Americans say “whites [are] losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics,” that number is 43 percent for Trump supporters. ABC poll analyst Gary Langer concludes, “This view is one of the strongest independent predictors of preference for Trump vs. his GOP competitors, along with … support for deportation and support for banning Muslims.”
Republican leaders have known for some time that the party needs to diversify in order to be electorally competitive in a demographically changing America, even admitting so in a public “autopsy” of the 2012 elections. But lingering racism among its rank-and-file has made that pivot impossible.
These rank-and-file members are not necessarily conservative, at least in the traditional sense of advocating limited government. In his book Too Dumb to Fail, the conservative writer Matt Lewis calls these voters “ideological immigrants” in the Republican Party coalition, who lack a deep understanding of political conservatism and put a detrimental “anti-intellectual” stamp on the GOP.
Rush Limbaugh has also acknowledged that the Trump movement is not rooted in conservatism. Indeed, he says, the conservative movement, broadly speaking, is not rooted in conservatism: “If conservatism were the glue, the belief and understanding of deep but commonly understood conservative principles, if that’s what defined people as conservative and was the glue that made the conservative movement a big movement, then Trump would have no chance.”
Limbaugh urges the GOP not to get in the way of the Trump train, on the shaky claim that he’s broadening the party’s appeal. Lewis’s plea is for the Republican Party to go in the opposite direction and stop letting “anti-intellectual” elements dumb down conservatism.
The Republican Party has already tried it Limbaugh’s way. He claims conservatives unite not around ideology, but “virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama.” And that’s what Republicans in Congress have practiced. But by reflexively opposing Obama’s agenda they have also retarded the GOP’s own efforts to become a more tolerant party.
It did not have to be so. Republicans responded to the failure of the Bush presidency with childish shenanigans instead of adult responsibility. Instead of developing new ideas that proved they learned the lessons of the recent past, they regurgitated the slogans of the Reagan-Bush era. Instead of working constructively with President Obama to show that they could still govern, they made maximum obstructionism their hallmark. They told themselves their midterm election victories meant they didn’t need to change, instead of chalking them up to the usual pendulum swings that cut against the president’s party.
Letting the unruly base call the shots, Republicans allowed their party to atrophy intellectually. But the rub was that Republicans found they could not oppose Obama enough to satisfy the grassroots. As conservative radio host Erick Erickson put it, “The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.” Or in Senator Lindsey Graham’s words, thanks to people like Erickson and Ted Cruz, “most people in the party believe that the reason we don’t repeal Obamacare is because of me and Mitch McConnell.”
The anti-intellectualism eroded the party at both ends. Those in the Republican base refused to accept that the Constitution’s separation of powers prevents them from getting everything they want whenever they want. Those in the elite refused to either end the gridlock or propose a compelling agenda for reform.
Most destructively, congressional Republicans flinched from resolving the plight of the country’s undocumented immigrants, which would have taken the issue off the table for 2016. They could have joined forces with Obama on immigration, and turned the Latino vote into a swing vote. Would there have been a political risk of right-wing backlash? Of course. Governing always comes with risk. But nothing could be worse than the backlash the establishment is suffering today; the unofficial slogan of the Republican primary voter is “burn it down.”
The impending trainwreck is cause for much hyperbole, but it should be remembered that the Republican Party survived its 1912 schism. The split initially paved the way for Woodrow Wilson and a Democratic victory. But the party reunited four years later as Roosevelt’s opposition to Wilson’s foreign policy prompted him to abandon the Progressives. Not only did Republicans reclaim the White House in 1920, but Taft’s decision to hold firm in the face of Roosevelt’s popularity assured that the Republican Party—not the Progressive Party—would be the conservative home for the next century.
Today’s Republican leaders should make a similar stand for conservatism, except instead of merely protecting the philosophy, they can rebuild it for the twenty-first century. Trump’s embrace of hate politics gives the establishment the necessary excuse to cleanse its party and its ideology of all vestiges of racism and bigotry.
Doing so would be logistically daunting, but it would not require significant changes to conservative ideology. While many on the left breezily equate conservatism and racism, as a literal matter this is not the case. There is nothing about limited government and low taxes that axiomatically flows into racial animosity, even if racial inequality has been perpetuated under the guise of those same principles.
There are reassuring signs that conservatives are eager to cut the albatross of bigotry. Mitt Romney slammed Trump for “misogyny” and creating “scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants.” “I don’t want Republicanism that’s served with an entree of racism and sexism,” wrote the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein in his case against Trump. Rick Wilson, a Republican operative, said, “I will not vote for Donald Trump, no matter how often his fanboys spam [me] with their delusional theories ranging from white genocide to chemtrails to the international Jewish conspiracy to Obama’s super-secret plan to impose sharia law during his third term.”
The bigots can perhaps be jettisoned in a brokered convention. If Trump wins the nomination outright, then Republicans leaders may need to jettison themselves, and build a new Republican Party out of the ashes of the old. Neither path offers any immediate political payoff; 2016 would have to be written off. But anyone who is #NeverTrump has already done so.
There is only one path for conservatives in a twenty-first-century America: Pivot toward America’s diverse center. Close down the Republican Party as it is currently constructed. Re-open at a new location, far away from the cesspools of hate.