Thursday night, after Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of the first high-ranking Republicans to disavow Trump, flubbed his debate with Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth– and flubbed it spectacularly. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Con-Man immediately tweeted some Schadenfreude his way. The Trump camp is eager to see Republicans like Kirk, John McCain (AZ), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Rob Portman (OH), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Pat Toomey (PA), and Joe Heck (NV)– each of who is in a competitive Senate race– lose. Same for House incumbents Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), Carlos Curbelo (FL), Tom Rooney (FL), Erik Paulsen (MN), Jamie Herrera Beutler (WA), Dave Reicjert (WA), Frank LoBiondo (NJ), Ann Wagner (MO), Adam Kinzinger (IL), Bob Dold (IL), Rodney Davis (IL), Will Hurd (TX), Kay Granger (TX), Steve Knight (CA), John Katko (NY), Mia Love (UT), Cresent Hardy (NV), Martha Roby (AL), Barbara Comstock (VA), Mike Coffman (CO), and Charlie Dent (PA). Trump's political operation has already backed fringe lunatic and white nationalist Kelli Ward– who got just 38% of the vote against McCain this cycle– in a bid to unseat Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in 2018.
As polls show Trump collapsing and as Clinton runs up a massive war-chest advantage over him for the final week– $153 million to $68 million– he's left sputtering in increasingly hyperbolic fashion about rigging and fixing– and about how he was stabbed in the back by the media and the Republican establishment.
Early Friday morning, Politico had Beltway types buzzing with the question, who could replace Paul Ryan?. Trumpists want him out of the Speakers chair, but does the losing camddiate– probably the spectacularly losing candidate with the psychotic neo-Nazi organization, get to tell the House Republicans who their leader is after the historic self-inflicted loss? John Bresnahan and Rachel Bade were determined to get to the bottom of… who, if not Ryan. Sure, TV freakshow Sean Hannity wants Texas freakshow Louie Gohmert, but the chances of that happening about about equal to Ann Coulter or Sarah Palin being brought in as Speaker. Bresnahan and Bade laughably suggest Kevin McCarthy, perhaps forgetting that the extremists like him– or at least used to– even less than they like Ryan.
Any of the alternatives lack the star power of Ryan and would probably have an even harder time corralling the unruly Republican conference. Plus, there's the major question of whether any of them can actually get to 218– the number of votes needed to take the gavel.
Their other candidates include KKK-friendly Steve Scalise, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (it's a girl, it's a girl, it's a girl), Patrick McHenry (crooked little closet case– oh, yes… please, God, yes), Mike Conaway (who?), Wall Street bankster candidate Jeb Hensarling, outright neo-fascist Jim Jordan, Rob Bishop (who?), Tom Price, Peter Roskam (IL), Mac Thornberry (who is “neutral” on Trump), corrupt sex-maniac Pete Sessions, the Koch brothers' employee Mike Pompeo and, everyone's favorite failed pinhead, Trey Gowdy. Looks like the only way the GOP's getting rid of Ryan is… if the Democrats put them out of their misery and give the job to Pelosi.
More to the point, though, is Julia Ioffe's piece in Politico about how the Republican Civil War isn't going away any time soon. Right-wing political scientist Peter Berkowitz, talking at a Hoover Institution conclave last week, said “Obviously the party and the conservative movement are very troubled, and there will obviously be a crisis whether Trump wins or loses. What are the core conservative convictions going forward?”
Another participant, Kori Schake, a Bush National Security Council member and a McCain-Palin campaign advisor pointed out that “If he wins, he will for all intents and purposes reshape what it means to be a Republican. We’re fumbling our way through, which I hope will lead us to consensus, but we’re nowhere near it now.”
This election, the conventional wisdom goes, has done tremendous damage to the American body politic, but nowhere is the damage as severe as it is inside the party that nominated the wrecking ball known as Donald Trump. Now the party of Ronald Reagan is being led by a man with no discernible ideological leanings, save for an affinity with some of history’s ugliest. In the face of mounting evidence that Hillary Clinton is set to dominate the electoral map on November 8, Republicans across the right side of the spectrum recognize there’s defeat coming. And behind the scenes, in conversations and closed-door venues– the Hoover gathering was not open to the public– the people who once considered themselves the heart, or at least the head, of the party have begun a very pessimistic reckoning.
As yet there seems to be no coherent vision for what kind of future November 9 brings for the Republican Party– or, for that matter, if there will even be a Republican Party they could support. “You’re assuming that ‘establishment Republicans’ are going to be Republicans anymore,” said Juleanna Glover, a GOP lobbyist and former staffer to then-Senator John Ashcroft.
“The likelihood of the Republican Party surviving this, of there being another Republican president in the future, is small,” said one movement conservative who served in the Bush White House. “I don’t think the Party survives.”
…[Y]ounger conservatives, some of whom have begun to use the word “collaborator” to describe the Republicans who publicly signed on with Trump as he steamrolled toward the nomination [are appalled]. “I know lots of high-value donors who have no desire to have any collaborators at the top of the ticket in 2020,” [GOP lobbyist Juleanna] Glover said of Pence. “That’s a commonly held opinion.” “Pence has disgraced himself in this election,” says reformicon archpriest Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former senior adviser to the younger Bush. “He has been making arguments that he can’t possibly believe, on behalf of the man he can’t possibly believe in.” To them, Pence made a pact with the devil, and says Wehner, “There should be consequences for that.”
With less than two weeks until election day, this is what Republican agony sounds like. “I’ve never seen so many really smart people at a loss for what to do,” says the head of one prominent conservative think tank. “They’re pulling their hair out, to the extent they have any hair left.” Douglas Heye, a former RNC official and Eric Cantor staffer, rejects the word “collaborator.” “I don’t like that language. I don’t think it helps,” he told me. “I’ve been watching a French TV series about World War Two, and now I’m watching the part about the aftermath of the war where they’re trying to figure out who’s a collaborator, shaving women’s heads, etc.” The echo scares him. “I would like to see us sort out our difference in non-punitive ways,” he says.
imagine Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Kellyanne Con-man, Laura Ingraham, Omarosa, Hope Hicks, Joni Ernst, Katrina Pierson, Scottie Nell Hughes, Renee Ellmers, Kayleigh McEnany, Betsy McCaughey, AJ Delgado…
Maybe that’s possible. But today, it sounds like wishful thinking. “There’s going to be an extremely tense and divisive and probably angry fight within the Republican Party to determine the future of the Party,” says Wehner. “These wounds won’t heal quickly, or at all.”
…There is pretty universal agreement in conservative circles that the immediate cause of death was blunt force trauma with a loud, orange object. “You cannot overlook the temperament of a candidate,” says [evangelical theologian Russell] Moore. “You cannot win a general election by antagonizing minorities.” But there is wide disagreement as to whether this was a sudden, unpredictable trauma– a piano falling on you as you walk down the street– or the result of deep-seated, sclerotic disease. And the answer depends on a Republican’s faction, age, and view of where the Party goes from here.
Take, for instance, Republican pollster and commentator Kristen Soltis Anderson. She is in her early 30s and a self-proclaimed fan of the reformicons like Wehner, Yuval Levin, and Ramesh Ponnuru. She feels that, with Trump, the Republican Party has shifted out from under her. “When he said he was a gentleman, that it’s not really sexual assault, that’s been driving me crazy, because people have said that about Republicans for a while,” she said of Trump’s response in the third debate to the dozen sexual assault allegations against him. “Great, you are everything that the left said you were!” It’s not a Republican Party she recognizes, she says; she sees it as an entity that has been perhaps permanently changed. “If Trump wins the White House, then he has redefined the Republican Party, and to the victor go the spoils,” she says. “It’s his party now.”
Wehner, considered a leading light among reformicons, said this has brought him to a certain realization about his own party, and that the forces that Trump represents are “forces that predated Trump forces and will outlive him,” he told me last week. “The ugliness of those forces is real. The number of people who supported Trump is alarming. It turned out that those forces within the Republican Party were larger than what I had imagined.” He sees “a moral necessity” to hand Trump a humiliating defeat and to scrub out the uglier things he brought to the surface of American politics. But, like Soltis Anderson, he recognizes that splitting the two may prove a Solomonic task. “Is there a way to repudiate the worst of Trump– the nativistic, racist, misogynistic elements– and appeal to people whom he brought because of economic anxiety?” he asked. “It won’t be easy because he has loyal following. If you morally repudiate him– which has to happen– those people may decide they don’t want to be part of that.”
Like other young conservatives, Wehner and Soltis Anderson are facing the possibility that, instead of being the Party’s intellectual vanguard and future leadership, they may no longer even qualify as Republicans. “I think the party will be too far gone from the party I joined,” Soltis Anderson says. “My Democrat friends are telling me I’m free to join them whenever, but I told them not to hold my space and I won’t be joining them any time soon.” Instead, she says, “I’d be an independent, and I’d be perfectly comfortable with that.”
She, like several other young Republicans I spoke to, cited Avik Roy, a Republican health care wonk who advised the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio, and who is now increasingly distancing himself from the Party. “These are people who are much more interested in ideas and policies than the jerseys they’re wearing, and, until now, the Republican Party has been best vehicle for their ideas,” Soltis Anderson said. “I think Avik Roy is the kind of model of where you’ll see people go if they feel the Party is not the right vehicle anymore. It has liberated folks who care more about the policy than about just getting Republicans elected.”
Eric Teetsel, a prominent young evangelical and the executive director of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration that trumpeted the sanctity of life and heterosexual marriage, expressed similar views to me in an email. “Not so long ago I stood in the back of an event in South Carolina watching Marco Rubio, Tim Scott and Nikki Haley together and thought, ‘This is my Republican Party,’” Teetsel, Rubio’s former director of faith outreach, said. “With Paul Ryan as Speaker, rising stars in the Senate like Ben Sasse, and the influence of Arthur Brooks and Yuval Levin, the future of the conservative movement is bright. Whether the Republican Party is the vehicle for that movement is to be determined.”
Rather than kicking Trumpers out of the GOP, in other words, these young conservatives may instead find themselves without a party. Some among them just think it’s time to start over. “If you can’t resurrect the Republican brand with less than half a billion dollars and spending four to eight years to get it done,” Glover, who is on the board of Roy’s new think tank, said, it might be time to think about starting something new. “The question is where do the brains and the billions go after this?” The party she envisions is one with “a Jeb Bush platform but with a 21st-century bolt-on acknowledging climate change, gay marriage, and campaign finance reform that’s First Amendment-compliant.” She believes that such a party “is a majority party and has vast support to get to the White House,” even if the dynamics of the 2016 GOP primary seem to indicate it would be the party of the one percent– at most.
…[T]here are people like Heye, who argues that Trump isn’t even the problem. The real problem was the split in the Republican Party that existed before him, and in fact allowed him to seize control. “I believed that the 2016 Republican primary was going to be a variation of Mom and Dad having the fight in front of the kids. Instead, the crazy uncle showed up and started a 17-person food fight,” Heye says. “People are talking about having a reckoning, a great purge, whatever, and there’s some truth to that, but we still haven’t resolved these differences even with Trump removed from the equation.”
These are the differences between the Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz/Rand Paul wings of the GOP, and they were raging years before Trump came down his gilded escalator. “There’s still that, and then there’s Trump,” Heye explains. “They’re not the same train track. You can recognize the danger of Trump and what he has wrought on the Party and the country, you can still think that’s terrible, and still disagree with your conservative brethren.” To some extent, Heye says, it can be boiled down to the following question: “You’re either one of the people that pushed for the shutdown or you didn’t.”
In essence, there’s a post-Trump reckoning that needs to happen, but there’s already a pre-Trump reckoning idling on the docket. “The fight hasn’t happened,” Heye says. “When the crazy uncle leaves Thanksgiving, and there’s food all over the living room, and Mom and Dad still haven’t resolved their differences, that’s a problem.” In other words, Trump could only have happened to a party that was already paralyzed by an identity crisis– one that still has to be dealt with in addition to the secondary identity crisis wrought by Trump.
People like Soltis Anderson and Heye recognize that there now three disparate factions that find themselves squabbling under the Republican tent—the Trump fans, the stand-pat establishment, and the conservative Jesuits—and, in order to form the coalition the think tank head described, they need a strong leader, a savior of sorts. “With a good leader, we can incorporate all three of those,” says Soltis Anderson. “At some point, parties tire of losing,” says Wehner. “It happened to Democrats in the ’80s. What happens? Along came Bill Clinton and the New Dems. Same thing with Tony Blair and the Labour Party in England.” These leaders reversed their parties’ losing streaks, Wehner argues, with “policy changes, stylistic changes, and key moments that signaled to the country that they were a different kind of party and different kind of candidate.” Trump is not that leader; he is a false Messiah. A better leader, hope Wehner and Soltis Anderson, will come along. “The hope is that they can merge and not become an incredibly fractious fight,” Wehner says.
But the outlook is bleak. The very fact that these debates are happening before Trump has even properly lost the election is itself deeply telling. To these Republicans, the only question is how badly he’ll lose, and what he’ll do after the election. Does he retire to his gilded den and lick his wounds? Does he continue playing politics, as he has already intimated he might, throwing shade at potential 2020 primary rivals? Does he start a Trump media company with Roger Ailes? What the orange dragon chooses to do after the drubbing Republicans are sure he’s going to get might be the difference between the final nail in the GOP coffin, and a revival. And again, few really believe in the latter, not even the stalwarts. “I have a feeling no one’s going to learn a lot from this campaign because of the unique nature of Trump,” says the think tank head. “I’m one of the people who is feeling a lot of angst.” If he starts a media company, says Ayres, “It will be far harder to heal the wounds that he opened up, and far harder to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Despite conservatives’ propensity to speak in the past tense about 2016, preparing glumly for a Clinton administration and doling out the blame, one uncomfortable fact remains: the crazy uncle is still in the room, and he may control the proceedings for quite a while longer. “It’s in Trump’s nature to continue to want to be relevant, to have people come to Trump Tower to lick his boots for years to come,” says the conservative who served in the latter Bush’s administration. “He’ll remain a force, unless someone takes him out.”
As for the people who hope Trump will simply melt away on November 9 and remove the threat of collapse from the Republican Party? “I appreciate but do not share their optimism,” says Soltis Anderson. “I feel like we are in for a pretty long civil war.”
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis