Opinion | No, Conservatives Shouldn’t Quit on the GOP

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After losing a national election, it’s natural that a political party goes through a period of soul-searching and internal turmoil.

The Republican Party, though, has taken it to another level.

President Donald Trump brought most of the GOP along for the ride during his outlandish, conspiracy-fueled attempt to overturn the election, ending in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

His loyalists have since been scouring the landscape searching for Republicans to censure or primary for insufficient loyalty to Trump during this interlude or his resulting second impeachment.

The most famous Republican House freshman mused not too long ago about a space laser associated with the Rothschilds starting the 2018 California wildfires, forcing an embarrassing debate about whether to sanction her.

And Trump has maintained his hold on the party seemingly effortlessly. He’s been deplatformed by social media companies and hasn’t done TV interviews, and still, you’d think he were running a highly polished 24/7 political operation, rather than relaxing at Mar-a-Lago.

This dismaying chapter has predictably led to declarations that the party is doomed or calls to split it up.

A former chair of the Washington state GOP wrote in an op-ed in the Seattle Times urging, as the headline put it, “Let’s form a new Republican Party.” He argued that “dissident Republicans could and should band together and partner with the substantial Never Trump community of Republicans who have already left” to form a new political enterprise.

This prompted a Chris Cilizza item at CNN headlined, “Should Republicans disband the GOP?”

There’s been a spate of articles by erstwhile Republicans announcing they are done. The former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards wrote one after January 6 saying he was quitting the party because it has become the “opposite of what it was.”

Jonathan Last wrote a piece in the New Republic titled, “The Republican Party is dead. It is the Trump cult now.” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker declared, “The party isn’t doomed; it’s dead.”

This seems a mite premature about a party that represents roughly half the country, and is on the cusp of a majority in the House, tied 50-50 in the Senate, and in control of the governorships in 27 states and both the governorship and state legislature in 22 of those.

If we are going to consider this geographically diverse collection of officeholders — whose careers in many instances pre-date Trump and will outlast him — a mere personality cult, the word “cult” has lost its meaning.

The fortunes of our political parties ebb and flow and their iterations change over time, but they are robust, deeply embedded institutions of our public life that endure even after electoral disasters and self-sabotaging wrong turns.

As Dan McLaughlin, my colleague at National Review, points out, the Republican Party has since its inception been a fusion of a classic liberal wing with a more populist, elemental conservatism.

As McLaughlin writes, “The party’s ideals were universal, but its culture was Midwestern and Protestant. Early Republicans wanted an even-handed government, but one that reflected their values. Those values — American nationalism, Christian moralism, economic self-reliance, law and order — run throughout the party’s history.”

What’s different about Trump is that he represents the ascendance of the populist wing after it had long been in a subordinate position in the party.

Populism was part of the appeal of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain and even the patrician George H.W. Bush in his winning 1988 campaign, but it was easy to miss. Trump’s populism was unmistakable, even as he retained key policy priorities of the traditional GOP, from tax cuts and judges, to religious liberty and abortion.

That said, the party does need to get beyond Trump, who has remained potent despite being a three-time loser now — in the 2018 midterms, in his 2020 reelection campaign, and in the Georgia special elections. In electoral terms, “all the winning” stopped circa November 2016.

At this juncture, though, it does feel as though the advent of the post-Trump GOP is coming … approximately never.

But American politics moves quickly. Richard Nixon won a landslide in 1972 and resigned in 1974, leaving the GOP in utter disarray — and yet Reagan won a landslide in 1980. The Tea Party didn’t exist when Barack Obama won an overwhelming victory in 2008, sprang to life almost immediately in 2009, and by 2016 had disappeared, subsumed into the Trump phenomenon.

There will inevitably be an overwhelming controversy in the Biden administration or a crisis that moves us beyond the politics of the Trump presidency and the immediate aftermath.

New issues will emerge, and so will new movements and players on the right. There are plenty of talented, ambitious Republican politicians who think they are better suited to win a presidential election in 2024 and to be president than Donald Trump 2.0. The incentives are for them to continue to keep their heads down and to slipstream behind Trump for now, but that won’t always be true.

The temptation to splinter from the GOP might be alluring to elements of both the populists and the Republican traditionalists, but this a dead end. It’s more realistic that the populists, with the passion and the numbers, could make a go of a new party, but they’d only be ensuring their own defeat and that of the GOP.

The Republican Party is the only plausible electoral vehicle for any sort of right-of-center politics in America. It is worth fighting over, and it will be. That struggle is sure to be toxic and unpredictable, except for the fact that at the end of the day the Grand Old Party will still be standing.

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