Kirk Kovach is senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and is editor of the Carolina Political Review where this article was first published.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Thus is the plight of the Republican party. After capturing control of the entire government on the coattails of a charlatan, those still clinging to the vestiges of the old party ways should lament its loss. The party of Reagan is gone.
At least amongst primary voters in the party, populism is flourishing. The establishment, or governing, wing of the party wields nominal power, but they are only biding time, delaying the inevitable. If it was not clear before, the Trump phenomenon – Trumpism – transcends its namesake. Steve Bannon and his acolytes sought a vehicle for their nativist ideas, and Donald Trump was a fitting vessel. This strain of “conservatives” have run that ship aground and are willing to take the rest of us with them.
Take, for example, the GOP primary for Senate in Alabama. The establishment Republicans, plus Trump, endorsed their pick, Luther Strange. Bannon and his lot threw their support behind Roy Moore, a former judge who has a streak of bucking federal rulings. Although the nominal head of “Trumpism,” the president himself, supported Strange, Roy Moore beat him out handily. For as long as they are able, Bannon and his ilk will primary establishment Republicans and drive the party toward their own machinations.
It seems now that the only remnants of true Republican principles are within the intelligentsia; the columnists, writers and operatives who adhere to the traditional values that Bannonites eschew. It makes sense, though, that they are the ones who maintain ideological purity. Those who don’t have to answer to “the base” in voting booths can continue to lament the hostile takeover of their party, but are powerless to stand athwart history and yell stop.
Perhaps it is the fault of the elected politicians for surrendering their principles to win more elections over the last decade. Wingnuts and fringe candidates gained national platforms, slowly subverting the high-minded intellectual foundations of the party. Where before there might have been some dogwhistles, they were exchanged for bullhorns. William F. Buckley, Jr. was replaced by Ann Coulter, Bill Kristol for Tucker Carlson.
What these sacrifices amount to is a Faustian bargain; the relative success in the last decade for the party has come through a surrender of principle.
Although they wield the levers of power, they can hardly manage to legislate. This is because the undergirding of a proper political party is missing. American parties are big tent, but the expansion of that is not unlimited. The ideologies of Ben Sasse, Rand Paul and Roy Moore are undoubtedly diverse, but they all bear the “R” after their name. Out of those three, though, the Roy Moore types are ascendant, not ephemeral. The old form, characterized by types like Jeff Flake or Bob Corker, are retiring and out the door.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so too do political parties. A vacuum of ideology is no way for a national party to operate. This amalgam of characters can agree on parts of a plan but cannot take it through to its end. They all want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example, but have no collective solution once it is gone.
Without cohesive policy debates, our political fights move from substantive to cultural. The national dialogue rolls into the mud, at the expense of societal decorum writ large. No version of the word tribe connotes something modern or civilized, but it does, unfortunately, describe our politics today.
Yet, all the while, the Republican leadership submits its final fragments of principle, one last time, for the pursuit of a policy goal. It’s worth it for the Supreme Court seat; for tax cuts; for ACA repeal. If it really is worth sacrificing the future of the party for short-term gains, so be it. To me, it looks like the end of one Republican party and the birth of another.
These individuals, the Republican nihilists devoid of ideology or principle, are now the rule, not the exception. The remaining Republicans, like Ted Cruz, who would tell their more outspoken colleagues to be quiet and yield to President Trump, are hedging that this is all a temporary phenomenon, a storm to weather. They are likely wrong.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.