In late August, Jonathan Chait authored an important essay in New York Magazine,arguing that the Republican Party must be saved from the Conservative Movement. As he admits, to modern ears, this sounds nuts: we all have been brainwashed into seeing “conservative” and “Republican” as different terms meaning pretty much the same thing.
That, however, is an ahistorical belief, and Chait reminds us that the GOP under, say, Eisenhower was a very different animal.
Chait characterizes the current divide among anti-Trump Republicans as an argument between those who just want Trump gone and those who have concluded that the whole party needs to be gone. He provides a memorable analogy for the latter group:
I have immense admiration for my colleagues at New York. Suppose, however, that we appointed an editor who lacked familiarity with terms like circulation and advertising, whose notes to writers were scrawled indecipherably in crayon, and who seemed more interested in filching office supplies than any other aspect of the job. And suppose the staff either actively defended this editor or deflected criticism by pointing to David Remnick’s various foibles.
Well, I would naturally conclude I had misjudged the place badly. And if this editor eventually left, I would be looking for work at a publication whose staff had not been trying to extend his term.
Chait’s point–with which it is hard to argue–is that it isn’t just Trump. but a party that wouldn’t “merely cooperate with but actually idolize” a grotesquely bigoted authoritarian. But rather than burning the party down, he advocates severing it from what passes for “conservatism” these days. As he quite accurately points out, the conservative movement was once a minority faction within the GOP that demanded an “apocalyptic confrontation that would roll back big government at home and communism abroad.”
Chait’s essay is long, but it’s worth reading in its entirety for its history of the radical/conservative takeover of the GOP. The results of that takeover can be seen in today’s party of Trumpists:
It would be an overstatement to paint Trump as representing nothing but the triumph of the conservative movement. In his personal defects, Trump is indeed sui generis. But the broad outlines of his agenda and his style do closely follow the trajectory of the American right: racism, authoritarianism, and disdain for expertise. The movement attracts disordered personalities like McCarthy, Sarah Palin, and Trump and paranoid cults like the John Birch Society and QAnon.
Above all, Trump follows the American right’s Manichaean approach to political conflict. Every new extension of government, however limited or necessary, is a secret plot to extend government control over every aspect of American life. Conservatives met both Clinton and Obama’s agenda with absolute hysteria, whipping themselves into a terror that rendered them unable to negotiate.
And in a particularly insightful observation, he notes that an inability to distinguish reasonable, well-designed government programs that address real market failures from Soviet-style oppression is a congenital defect in conservative thought. As he says, Trump is not even pretending to have a positive second-term program. His only goal is to stop the next Democratic administration because the next liberal program is always the one that will usher in the final triumph of socialism.
So–what should a successful reconstituted, post-Trump party look like? Chait points to the sort of “pragmatic center-right thinking being developed at the Niskanen Center and by some of the wonks at the American Enterprise Institute and a handful of other places” and he would jettison the conservative dogma that forbids any consideration of new taxes, spending, or regulation.
It will take more than one defeat for the party to abandon what its cadres have been trained to see as the only possible path. But the Republican Party will never stop being a danger to American democracy until it can see the problem clearly. The task is not to save conservatism from Trump. It is to save the Republican Party from conservatism.
Really, read the whole article.