What the Republican Party Has Rot


No, I don't mean "wrought."  I want to discuss the smelly variety of the word. Those who have observed the Republican Party over the past few decades should not be surprised by Donald Trump's rise to the top of the garbage heap. GOP policymakers are alarmed, but the pile has been building for a long time. Call the party's current dilemma a compost heap begun by Kevin Phillips, with spades turned by Nixon, Lee Atwater, Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, the Tea Party, Anton Scalia, and Dick Cheney. It's called the "politics of division" and it works like a Madonna or Lady Gaga concert–once you obliterate the bar of acceptability, the pressure is always on to take a bolder step in the next act. Sooner or later, though, the only step left is off the precipice.

Political parties must walk a fine line between principles and inclusiveness—a party must have policies, but it must also appeal to broad enough constituencies to compete nationwide. Hot-button issues can temporarily boost enthusiasm, but unless they go mainstream they do long-term damage. This is where today's Republican Party finds itself. It has long ridden angry white men, evangelicals, and bourgeois suburbanites, but the elephant is now on its last legs, no matter how hard the mahouts beat it. If I might torture the metaphor a tad more, there's not enough hay left to feed the elephant–dumb white dudes, zealots, and greedy suburbanites are no longer a majority. America is a multicultural society whether anyone likes it or not.

Explain, pray, how Republicans can attract women when it supports privacy rights on guns, but not for reproductive rights. How do they intend to attract Latino voters and support curtailing immigration? African Americans? If the GOP gets 10% of their votes it's a surprise; 15% triggers an automatic electoral fraud investigation. How many college-age folks–call them future voters–are attracted to the GOP's obsession with school testing and free-market solutions to the college debt crisis? They want no part of evangelical calls to repeal gay marriage or dismantle Roe v. Wade, and they
are positively apoplectic over the GOP's stance on global warming. It drives angst-ridden privatizers crazy, but a whole lot of Americans like Social Security and other federal programs. As Mitt Romney discovered in 2012, it's hard to catch up when you write off 47% of the electorate. Moreover, Obamacare is all that stands between millions of voters—that word again–and a Darwinian survival of the fittest. (Even many GOP governors grudgingly accept this.)

Many Republican leaders are concerned by the reactionary turn the party has taken. Listen to its fire-eaters, and it sounds like Republicans are devoted to restoring the rural, Middle American values of 1956. Good luck with that–81% of Americans dwell in urban areas. I could go on, but it boils down to the fact that the GOP has become the party of an overly narrow base. Single-issue voters can tilt local and state elections, but the only way the politics of division work on the national level is through fear or disgust. These too have lost their power. One of the things Rove, Cheney, Scalia, et. al. left in their wake is cynicism. Cynical people are not pleasant, but they don't scare easily. Fear of terrorism has run its course and most Americans simply want the USA to mind its own business. Plus cynics tend to put things together pretty well–like maybe there's a connection between shrinking job opportunities and reflexive support for free trade, business deregulation, and reckless investing. (Blaming unemployment on immigrants doesn't work so well with white-collar workers.)

The problem is simple: the GOP's divide-and-conquer strategies have mutated into the politics of greed—not the 1% the left trumpets; more like the 38%, which means you have to fool quite a few of the remainder. Donald Trump is the ultimate expression of the politics of greed, but the GOP has no internal answer at this point. Ted Cruz? He's even less electable and nastier, albeit a bit less crude.  And here's the ultimate GOP nightmare—regulars switch to Cruz, Trump sues that under Article I Section 2 of the Constitution that Cruz is a Birther hypocrite who is ineligible to be president, gets a district court to agree, and a 4-4 Supreme Court fails to overturn that ruling. Then what?

Things have gotten so bad that old warhorses like John Sununu, Bill Kristol, and Ben Ginsberg are talking about forming a splinter party. That's probably words over a bad hairpiece, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the mainstream GOP will jettison its dissident elements and reinvent itself. This is precisely what the Democrats had to do when it became clear that it could not be both the party of Dixiecrats and civil rights. That was a painful amputation that opened the door for the Reagan-GWH Bush era of 1981-1993, but Democrats have held the White House for 16 of the past 24 years and will have to be incredibly inept (even by Democratic standards) to lose it this fall. It's premature to speak of the death of the Republican Party, but it's not too soon to smell the gangrene.

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