What is to be done about the Republican Party? Sixty years ago it was the party of Dwight Eisenhower and a dynamic suburban middle class putting an end at last to the long reign of the New Deal Democrats. This summer it became the pathetic captive of Donald Trump, a television performer professing to speak for a discontented and sullen middle class.
From Eisenhower to Trump in sixty years—this was a real trip to the bottom, make no mistake, a humiliation indeed for a once-powerful party. The Republicans had had ample time to avoid it. There had long been warning signs of a party slipping into irrelevance, but there seemed to be no Republican leader shrewd, charismatic, or brave enough to shake it out of its intellectual slumber.
Nelson Rockefeller had been purged years ago for association with Henry Kissinger and for opposing the thought of Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley, brilliant political writer though he might be, was only a journalist, after all. The Bush family, which had recently had a son elected president by the Supreme Court with one of its customary five-to-four votes for Republicanism, may have wondered if it would be worth disturbing the Court again to spare the party a little humiliation.
Whatever the case, what Trump saw when glancing at the arthritic Grand Old Party was the empty shell of a political machine, available for occupancy. Adding it to the world-famous assortment of properties and consumer goods bearing the Trump name—hotels, golf courses, gambling casinos, colleges, beefsteaks, and so forth—would not only give him some sorely needed political legitimacy but would also enhance his celebrity, always a serious consideration with Trump. He took it over.
For people who like their history adorned in high-flown nomenclature, this period might be called “the Trump Captivity,” and “captivity” describes the condition in which the Grand Old Party awoke late in the 2016 presidential campaign to discover it was wearing the Trump logo.
Equally surprising had been the discovery that Trump was running for president. This was odd because Trump had never seemed to be a political animal. No one thought of him as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. Having so little political identity, he surprised serious politicians in 2015 by declaring himself a Republican candidate for president and starting to play one on television.
His stage was a televised set of “debates” designed to show off the party’s presidential talent. These gave Trump an immediate advantage, since he was the only performer already known to millions, having played host on a popular TV “reality” show in which he tested people for business acumen and fired those who didn’t measure up.
Political experts who stay on top of the cable TV bulletins and know who is who in the blogosphere now assure us that Trump has never been interested in politics. It is a killer job: phone ringing all night with bad news, constant wars in distant unpronounceable countries, incessant funeral speeches to comfort next-of-kin after mass slaughters of the innocent by people exercising the constitutional right to bear arms. It didn’t seem a natural career choice for Trump, whose real ambition in life seemed to be enhancement of his own fame, increasing his own celebrity status, becoming ever more famous for being famous. In street slang he would be “a publicity hound.”
He quickly learned that playing the political eccentric was a sure way to become famous in the media, and he played it to the hilt. With his insouciant devil-may-care style, calculated to make the hicks gape at his daring contempt for serious politics, he enchanted the media, which delighted in spreading tales of his descent into swinishness.
Mexicans were vilified as rapists, NATO allies as chiselers too cheap to pay for their own defense. John McCain, an American war hero of the Vietnam era, was a “loser.” Vladimir Putin with his brutish KGB training was a praiseworthy example of the statesmen Americans should admire. President Obama, however, was not to be trusted: Trump had it on good authority that he was not even an American, just an African outsider criminally exercising power from inside the White House. These bizarre imbecilities flowed from Trump to the grateful media with almost daily regularity, and on some days with servings of cruelly personal insults aimed at the overweight and the victims of crippling medical ailments.
To the extent that it had any political content at all, the Trump Captivity might be described as a flare-up of reactionary demagoguery. There was obvious racism in the effort to deny Obama’s citizenship and a hint of more in the slogan about making America “great again.” This could not have been easy to swallow for a party one of whose founders was Abraham Lincoln, yet it submits quietly to the more blatant racism still flourishing in Congress with the do-nothing politics of Senate leaders like Mitch McConnell and the reactionary House faction that rules by terrifying two inert parties.
A few prominent Republicans, angry about the party’s humiliation, publicly declared Trump was unfit to be president and said they would not vote for him. They were a lonely few, however, until recordings of Trump’s vulgar sexual comments about women he had known and coveted produced a revulsion against his nomination. It was not Trump’s politics that fired this extraordinary uprising of party regulars; it was the vulgar crudity of his language. He was so obviously not a gentleman.
Whatever the election results, the Republican Party has lost its credibility as a political force. When the shock subsides, a few people who still care will have to decide what the party of the future will be, if any. At present it seems to be drifting passively toward oblivion. The campaign has made it clear that the party needs more than an overhaul. It needs reinventing. It needs ideas.