In his campaign launch video, Joe Biden echoed a refrain common among establishment Democrats, retiring Republicans, and legacy media pundits since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. The story goes like this: Trump is a malign interloper who swept in and “hijacked” the Republican Party, leading it astray from its true, noble ideals. Biden implies this in his opening pitch, saying that once we are rid of Trump, all will be more or less well.
I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.
The problem, to Biden, is entirely the president. In the video, which runs over three minutes, the now-three-time presidential candidate does not once mention the party that nominated Trump, elected him, enables him, and still supports him at a 90-percent clip.
Biden’s thesis is apparently shared by former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart. “Mr. Trump has abandoned most of the core principles that have defined Republicans for the past century,” Lockhart wrote in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. “Fiscal conservatism [has been] replaced by reckless spending and exploding deficits.”
“What’s left of the party,” Lockhart argued, “is a rigid adherence to tax cuts, a social agenda that repels most younger Americans and rampant xenophobia and race-based politics that regularly interfere with the basic functioning of the federal government.” Lockhart, who also advised John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, insisted the president has transformed what was an honorable Republican Party into an organ of “Trumpism.”
This notion, that Trump is somehow an alien figure who has, Svengali-like, hypnotized the GOP, is a comforting fallacy. But the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not all that ails the country’s politics. Trump is just the symptom—the Republican Party is the disease.
It’s not clear which Republicans Lockhart is talking about, but “exploding deficits” (mostly as the result of debt-financed tax cuts for the wealthy) have been the distinguishing feature of every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan. It’s been almost a quarter century since Republicans started regularly shutting down the federal government as a political tactic. The Southern Strategy of exploiting racial resentment was first employed by “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater to win in the Old Confederacy in 1964 and has never been abandoned by the party. And there is a clear, direct line from Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Donald Trump’s Mexican “rapists.”
It was the Republican Party that chose Trump over a field of candidates including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich—not in spite of Trump’s xenophobia, but because of it. It was the Republican Congress—led by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan—that wrote Trump’s tax cut bill, the one that has exacerbated wealth inequality and created a $1.1 trillion deficit. (Does Ryan, the “fiscal conservative” have any regrets? No, he’s incredibly proud of it.) It’s the Republican Party’s elder statesmen such as Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley who are not only enabling, but also cheering on Trump’s executive power grabs and his refusal to comply with Congressional oversight.
If Biden thinks the GOP will turn into a responsible governing party as soon as Trump departs the White House, he’s completely forgotten the lesson of 2009. It was this conservative-controlled Republican Party that refused to grapple with the total failure of the Bush administration, and incubated and enabled the Tea Party as a vehicle to both erase Bush’s profligate legacy and fanatically oppose everything the Obama-Biden administration proposed.
Biden obviously believes the country needs a sane center-right party to function properly, and maybe he’s not wrong. But making Trump the problem will backfire. If Biden, Lockhart, other establishment Democrats, and some Republicans like Mitt Romney truly want to encourage the return of the party of Everett Dirksen, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney, they need to clearly and forcefully identify where the Republican Party went astray. The truth is, what hijacked the GOP wasn’t Trump, it was the conservative movement. And it didn’t happen in 2016; it happened in 1980. “Saving” the GOP will mean repudiating not just Trumpism, but Reaganism.
It’s something anti-Trump conservatives like Max Boot seem much more attuned to, arguing the only way forward for the country is to completely destroy the Republican Party as we vanquished Germany and Japan. It’s worrisome that Biden isn’t nearly as clear eyed.