The evolution of the national Republican Party into the party of Donald Trump is changing the political landscape in the United States in ways that may not be reversible. Whether the changes stick or whether the party returns to its more traditional philosophy of government is yet to be determined.
Today, the character of the Republican Party is being tested as it adapts to Trump’s domineering leadership style and his erratic, often extreme policies that would be unacceptable in a more conventional conservative Republican Party.
In winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016, Trump defeated seven conventional Republican candidates who crumbled under his aggressive political attacks. At the time, senior Republican leaders declared Trump unqualified and unfit to be president, but today, most of them, fearful of the president’s base of supporters, are vocal defenders of Trump and his policies.
Imagine how conservatives would react if the roles were reversed, and Barack Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden or other Democratic leaders did any of the following:
Failed to respond to credible intelligence that Russia had put a bounty on killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan;
Sent federal civilian militias into American cities to confront protesters without the request or approval of the governor or mayor affected;
Publicly expressed well-wishes to a longtime acquaintance under indictment for the sexual abuse of underage girls;
Refused to expose his personal taxes or financial linkages to Russia and used the office of the president for personal financial gain;
Promoted racial division and confrontation in the country from Charlottesville to Black Lives Matter;
Used appropriated federal funds to coerce a foreign government into providing dirt on a political opponent for personal political gain;
Pardoned or gained the release of political cronies involved in federal crimes;
Took Vladimir Putin’s word over that of the U.S. intelligence community and publicly called for Russia to help with his election campaign;
Failed to take personal responsibility or to provide consistent leadership during a national pandemic.
Any combination of these acts would have created a howling political firestorm among conservatives had any Democrat president committed them. But they go largely ignored by the current Republican leadership and members of Congress.
The Trump Party cultivates two primary constituents for support. The first is the collection of wealthy donors who want tax cuts and federal benefits to corporations. The second is a base of very conservative whites who are uncomfortable with the pace of social change in America. Trump promotes fear and division to appeal to the most extreme elements of this latter group, including racists and militant anti-government fringe groups.
As a leader, Trump is intolerant of contrary opinions and surrounds himself with lackeys who twist and turn in the public agony of defending his shifting personal policies. Senior officials and a family member who worked closely with the president or know him well have produced a steady stream of interviews, articles and books describing an ill-prepared, impetuous leader and a dysfunctional White House focused not on policy but on Trump’s personal whims about how to influence television ratings and his future election.
A relatively small group of well-known conservatives—George Will, those in the Lincoln Project, Mitt Romney on occasion, John Bolton and others—are outspoken critics of Trump and his break with traditional Republican values, but the vast majority of Republicans in Congress, with the help of Fox News, continue to be loyal to the president.
The proud Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln is in transition. After four years as president, Trump has converted the optimism of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” to the fear and division of “American Carnage.” Conspiracy theories and mythology have replaced science and truth.
November is a time of reckoning for the nation and especially for the Republican Party. The nation needs a responsible, broad-based conservative political party, not a cult of personality, if the country is to remain a vibrant, competitive and accountable democracy.
Republicans as much as Democrats must decide in November if Trump’s Republican Party is what they really want for the country.
JamesPardew is a former U.S. ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations, a former career U.S. Army officer, and a native of Jonesboro.