The Republican Party is in crisis. Although more than 70 million Americans voted for President Donald Trump in November, since the election there has been a slump in the number of Americans who call themselves Republicans – and that was before a pro-Trump mob has besieged the US Capitol.
There are three paths for the Republican Party, but only one path forward.
One option is to double xenophobia and protectionism, by recruiting more Marjorie Taylor Greenes, hoping to increase the base by stepping up the rhetoric. But there seems to be a cap built into this strategy: it attracts you passionate supporters but disables many others. Even at his most popular level, Trump’s approval ratings have never cracked 50%, and were mostly in the low 40s. He is set to step down as one of the most unpopular presidents checked in.
The second path is the one the party is on now, and the one it will stay on if it does nothing to distance itself from Trump. This is the path of a GOP split, and this option is actually in Trump’s best interests – perhaps even more than Path 1. What does Trump want after January 20? He wants attention, he wants income, he wants continued influence as a possible means of defeating lawsuits. It was his end of the game for the march to the Capitol. He knew it wouldn’t change the election results, but he could come out in glory, stifle the shame of losing, stoke the grievance forever.
Things didn’t go as planned, but Trump can come back by reviving old gatherings and rehashing the events of January 6 (“They just took selfies. Since when is it a crime to walk around the building of the Capitol? For a great cause, I ask his parents to join me on stage, great people… ”). You can already hear the roar of the crowd. Trump can use the events of the past 10 days to raise funds and scold and lead his supporters to vote for politicians who remain loyal to Trumpism, even if he is not leading himself.
And in doing so, he will keep the GOP divided, divided into centrist and Trumpist wings that struggle to work together. Breaking down the Republican Party is Trump’s new business model.
There is a third way. All Republicans have to do is emulate Ronald Reagan.
To explain how the party can move forward, we need to support and understand how the Republicans got here, how Lincoln’s party came to rely more on nationalist and racist slogans to unify its membership than on limited government, the free market principles. many Republicans have long believed these are the core party ideals.
The fundamental problem the Republican Party has faced over the past century is that Americans actually love great governments. They say no, but if you ask them what expenses they want to cut, they don’t want to cut anything. Social security and health insurance the biggest parts of the budget? Off-limits. Education, roads, research and development? Of course not. Even aid to the poor is popular as long as it is not called “welfare”. Republicans have never been successful in bringing government back to where it was before the Progressive Era, or before the New Deal, or even before Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. And they’ve more or less given up on trying to do it because they know they can’t.
So how do you run, and how do you run, as a party of small government in a nation that loves big government? For much of the 20th century, Republicans completely failed to answer this question, and Democrats controlled Congress for four decades after Franklin D. Roosevelt. The first successful response the GOP found under Reagan was a tax cut. If you could avoid talking about programs that might need to be cut, and if you could give the impression that it was possible to cut taxes without cutting programs, the tax cut won a vote. It worked for Reagan, even though he backed down when deficits surfaced. And it worked for George W. Bush, especially because by then Republicans learned that voters were not punishing them for running deficits.
The problem for Republicans now is that the repeated policy of lowering taxes has lowered taxes so low that Americans just aren’t so concerned about them anymore. The tax opposition is at its lowest levels ever since polls started asking questions about it in the 1950s. Plus, Republicans have cut taxes so much that it’s hard to implement a big tax cut that gets attention without cutting taxes, mainly for the rich. These are the dynamics that made the 2017 tax cut unpopular.
Who are the Republicans if they don’t have the tax cut magic that united their coalition? They are who they were before Reagan gave them a way to avoid running into the race. If the policy of tax cuts has worked, the Republicans are back to Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. This is how we got to where we are now: With the allure of tax cuts on the decline, Republicans have not been able to put together a free market platform that will make them feel better. actually brings votes, leaving the party vulnerable to a demagogue willing to do so. appeal to the lowest racist instincts of the electorate.
But even setting aside what a racist-based strategy does to the country, it is unlikely to be politically successful in the long term, and it is unpredictable even in the short term. The Republicans’ poor performance in the second round in Georgia made it clear. The truth is, many Republicans are uncomfortable with the substance and tone of nationalist, xenophobic, and protectionist politics, while Republican racism and extremism energize and unite Democrats and bring them to the polls.
Ronald Reagan has shown that there is another way.
I have spent a lot of time studying Reagan, and one aspect of his political trajectory that doesn’t get much attention is how much he and his rhetoric had changed by the time he won the presidency in 1980. When he ran for president (and lost) in 1976, he was complaining about welfare queens and welfare fraud, things many people thought was just racism in another guise. But the welfare queen’s rhetoric was gone by 1980, replaced by the sunny, upbeat promise of tax cuts, which drew in many, including core democratic constituencies like union members and Afro voters. – Americans.
The lesson is that while politics based on racism can always get you votes, it doesn’t give you enough. To form a stable new political coalition, Republicans need a strategy that reflects people’s hopes and self-interest more than their fears. The policy of lowering taxes has won over all areas – including racists, but not just them.
To repeat a Reagan-style party transformation, Republicans must come up with an alternative vision that is attractive enough to voters to replace the policy of lowering tax cuts.
It’s easier said than done, but there is a lot in the Republican toolbox that could form the core of this alternative politics. For example, one theme might be to focus on equal opportunity – a deeply American concern – by taking a big step forward on education, from elementary and secondary education, to vocational education, retraining and re-qualification, college access and affordability. The Republican Party could become the party of opportunity, of mobility, of wrestlers, of dreams. They don’t have to give up their opposition to “socialism” – the opposite of socialism is to put people back to work in one free economy. Policies that focus on improving the quality and accessibility of education can do just that, as would a push on parental leave that prevents the removal of workers from the workforce, or policies healthcare that makes workers more mobile and able to take entrepreneurial risks. , or jobs related to climate change that could rebuild the working class. These are policies that could be appealing to anyone, including working class voters who found themselves drawn to Trump.
Reagan has shown that it is possible to completely reorient a political party; just consider that before Reagan, the GOP was seen as the party most likely to increase the taxes. But we also should not underestimate how difficult it is to establish this new direction and communicate it to voters. Reagan and his allies like the late Rep. Jack Kemp spent years persuading, haranguing, and frowning, and at first they couldn’t even convince other Republicans.
For this reason, Republicans must not pass up the opportunity of this moment. One way to revive this shift today would be to make a dramatic move to move the party away from Trump. A survey on January 6, the day pro-Trump insurgents stormed Capitol Hill, 43 percent of Republicans opposed the attack. Just two days later, as more details emerged, another poll 71 percent of Republicans oppose the assault and 58 percent strongly oppose it. At least half of Republicans, in other words, know something is wrong with their party.
This is where Republican leaders come in. If a significant part of the Republican Party speaks out strongly against extremism, pleads to prevent Trump from returning to office, and is simply telling the truth about the election, many voters will pay heed. Many who are walking away from the party might be reassured enough to return, and ready to hear the Republican Party reset around positive proposals to rebuild the working class and create an economy that works for everyone.
It’s a time of peril for the GOP, but it’s also an opportunity that may not present itself yet, with Trump banned from Twitter, donors backing down, the entire nation outraged, with an election two years away.
When you don’t know which is the wisest course politically, you might as well do the right thing. If Republicans do, then forever Republicans can say that at the end of the day we told the truth, we risked our careers, we saved our party, we saved the country. The alternative is for the divided and demoralized Republicans to reconsider the 40 years they have spent outside the control of Congress. They may have plenty of time to read these history books soon.