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PHILIP MARTIN: Where has the GOP gone?

by Philip Martin | October 20, 2019 at 1:52 a.m.

"The more you know about Donald Trump, the less likely you are to vote for him. The more you know about his business enterprises, the less successful he looks. The more you know about his political giving, the less Republican he looks."

-- Lindsey Graham, March 7, 2016

We used to know who Republicans were.

They were squares, fuddy-duddies, in suits and ties and good cloth coats, overdressed on parent-teacher night. They knew about mortgage rates and not only kept their lawns mowed but maintained clean edges along the sidewalk. They were the bankers and the business owners, the ones who understood amortization and worried about the government just printing money to pay its debts. They were the ones who worried about governmental over-reach, who thought taxes to be unpleasant but necessary.

They were the ones who counseled you to never quit a job until you had another job in hand. They warned you about getting into trouble with credit cards. They were advocates of taking things slow and steady and accepting responsibility. They believed in the chain of command, in the wisdom of working hard and waiting your turn.

They weren't always right or much fun, but they weren't monolithic either. There was a time when "liberal Republican" wasn't an oxymoron. There was a time when Republicans stood for "good government," by which they meant government that wasn't corrupt or machine-run. There was a time when they could claim as a hero Benjamin Disraeli, the conservative prime minister who held that the "one duty" of those in power was "to secure the social welfare of the People."

("Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke," is something else Disraeli said.)

When people bring up "liberal Republicans" these days, they often call them Rockefeller Republicans, which alludes to Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York throughout the '60s and vice president under Gerald Ford.

But while Rockefeller was widely seen as the archetype, in fact Richard Nixon--who considered himself a conservative reformer in the mold of Disraeli (to the point of evoking Disraeli's "One Nation" in his first inaugural speech)--was arguably more liberal than Rockefeller on some domestic issues. And Spiro Agnew wrote that Rockefeller "was harder than Nixon, and a lot more hawkish about the mission of America in the world."

When the term Rockefeller Republican is brought up locally, Arkansans are more inclined to remember Nelson's little brother Winthrop, who was elected governor in 1966 when only 11 percent of Arkansans identified as Republican. You could argue that Nelson was actually elected by an ad hoc coalition of the decent, because the Democratic candidate in 1967 was Justice Jim Johnson, a diehard segregationist and rabble-rouser.

While perfidy knows no party, Democrats tended to run hotter, with more fire, bluster and color than Republicans. Democrats were the ones who looked to drive the country in one direction or another, while the GOP was more deeply invested in the status quo. The Republicans were the establishment, who understood how things worked and could summon great gravity and condescension.

They were not the party of the flashy and the fly-by-night; they were not so egalitarian as to admit pikers, grifters and arrivistes. You got the sense that the best of them didn't need the sort of low-grade celebrity and public attention that attaches to politics, that they were, by their lights, actually serving. Noblesse oblige, they called it.

On the other hand, the Democrats by necessity collected misfits and firestarters. They were the party of dreamers and scrappers, nominally interested in social justice, sometimes pandering, almost always defining themselves in opposition to the continued hegemony of the rich and powerful, even as they became or remained the rich and powerful. Anyone could join the Democratic Party; one was born a Republican.

That's how it felt at least; in any given election one could vote for the Republican or the Democrat in the race without really identifying with either tribe. Some people liked to pride themselves on voting for the individual, on making an electoral decision based on the perceived character and ability of the candidate rather than the colors they flew.

It's an over-simplification, I know. But there once was a time when Republicans stood for things other than servicing their richest and most powerful clients and consolidating their power by any means necessary. There was a time when they were the adults.

Now we have the spectacle of a party rallying behind a president desperately clinging to power to keep himself out of jail.

"We're on the verge of having someone take over the conservative movement who is a con artist," Marco Rubio said in 2016.

That same year Ted Cruz said Donald Trump was "utterly amoral," a "serial philanderer" and "narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen." Mick Mulvaney said he was a "terrible human being." Rick Perry called him a "cancer."

They were right. Trump may or may not be deranged, but it's clear he's intellectually and, more importantly, temperamentally unfit to be president. He's a nightmare boss whose only discernible talent is a certain brash ruthlessness from which TV-dazzled mooks can't look away. He accidentally attained high office as much through the incompetence of certain Democrats (another thing the Republicans used to be was "the competent party") as by building a coalition of the aggrieved and fearful, people angry with what they perceive as the erosion of their personal prerogatives.

Trump is a manifestation of white male rage, an incoherent, petulant and blind lashing out at the way America is evolving. He is a national tantrum, the personification of American brattiness, devoid of all grace, wit and self-awareness. He is a vain and petty man who now, finding himself out of his depth and deeply in trouble, has become genuinely dangerous.

He is exactly the sort of phenomenon I imagined the Republicans might be a firewall against.

This is not the first time I've been wrong.

Editorial on 10/20/2019


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