There are two figures in the Republican Party who best represent the state of the GOP in the Trump era. The first, of course, is Donald Trump. The second is Roy Moore. By the time Moore defeated Jeff Sessions’s replacement, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary for Alabama’s special election in 2017, he had already been a minor celebrity on the right-wing fringe for nearly 20 years. He had been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing to comply with federal rulings. He regularly made statements disparaging Islam and homosexuality. He had been a proponent of the theory that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and had led an organization that celebrated pro-Confederate holidays. True to form, Moore would go on to make comments suggesting an ambivalence about American slavery during his campaign—America was last great, he had said in response to a question at a rally that September, “when families were united—even though we had slavery, they cared for one another.”
In the months leading up to the election, the Republican National Committee seemed entirely willing to swallow that record and more to keep Sessions’s seat in the party’s hands. But that November, The Washington Post went public with startling allegations. Moore, a fervent public tribune of conservative family values, was credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl and pursuing several other teenagers. This, obviously, was a bridge too far for the party. Quickly, the RNC pulled its money and field support from the campaign. “The allegations were obviously very concerning, and concerning to the degree that we pulled our resources,” committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel explained to conservative talk show host John Catsimatidis. “The Alabama voters are going to have to be the judge and jury on this.” Her uncle, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was among the voices urging the party to abandon Moore. “Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation,” he tweeted. “No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.” At a press conference earlier in the month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Moore to step aside. “He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate,” McConnell told reporters, “and we’ve looked at all the options to try to prevent that from happening.” By early December, Moore had few open supporters within the party infrastructure beyond the Alabama Republican Party, which had secured Moore’s place on the election ballot.
But it had also become clear by then that Moore, who had dismissed all calls to drop out, retained plenty of supporters within Alabama’s Republican electorate—voters who defiantly disbelieved The Washington Post’s reporting and were loyal enough that polls continued to show Moore in a dead heat or even ahead of Democratic challenger Doug Jones. In an interview just over a week before the election, McConnell declined to condemn Moore again. “I’m going to let the people of Alabama make the call,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. President Trump, less reticent, officially endorsed Moore by tweet the next day. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts,” he wrote, “is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama.” In a statement afterward, the Moore campaign boasted that Trump had personally called to offer “enthusiastic support for Judge Moore’s candidacy.”
The inevitable followed. On December 4, 2017, the Republican National Committee endorsed a credibly accused child molester for U.S. Senate. Having decided his victory would be preferable to allowing a Democrat a partial and ultimately inconsequential term, the RNC resumed its financial support for the Moore campaign. In a column for USA Today, the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg stated the obvious. “The RNC pulled its support when they thought Moore could be forced from the race,” he wrote. “They renewed it when it was clear he lacked the decency to drop out. In other words, their real problem was with a potential loser, not a possible child molester.” In defense of its decision, the RNC issued a brief statement to the press: “The RNC is the political arm of the president and we support the President.”
The Moore saga feels as though it was an eternity ago, but the episode has taken on a new resonance in the wake of Trump’s impeachment. Over the past several months, leading Democrats in Congress, the Democratic presidential candidates, and pundits across the mainstream press have denounced the Republican Party’s defenses of the president, attacks on the credibility of impeachment witnesses, and attempts to undermine the impeachment process. In a representative op-ed for USA Today in December, California Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, admonished Republicans and urged responsible figures in the party to “stand up and be counted.” “Are they OK with this president’s undebatable abuse of power?” he asked. “Are they prepared for what America becomes if we accept it? Is this the conduct we want to be commonplace in our children’s America?”
A similarly beseeching New York Times column from the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Peter Wehner in September was titled, simply, “What’s the Matter With Republicans?” “Mr. Trump’s most recent abuse of power—pressuring the Ukrainian president to do his dirty work—is the latest link in a long chain of corruption,” he wrote. “If Republicans don’t break with the president now, after all he has done and all he is likely to do, they will pay a fearsome price generationally, demographically and, above all, morally.” Vox’s Ezra Klein, one of the loudest voices condemning Republicans’ unwillingness to hold Trump accountable, tweeted in November that the impeachment process had exposed much more than Trump’s willingness to abuse power. “I’m a broken record on this, but the impeachment process isn’t revealing what Trump did,” he wrote. “We already knew that. It’s revealing what the Republican Party will accept, and even defend.”
In truth, we knew that, too. As the RNC straightforwardly informed us during the Moore scandal, the Republican Party is the political arm of the president. Defending Trump’s effort to enlist a foreign power in the harassment of a political opponent has been an utterly trivial undertaking for a party not only willing to send an abuser of children to high office on Trump’s behalf, but also willing to sidestep and deny numerous allegations of abuse and rape against Trump himself.
The capacity of our political elites to be shocked anew by the Republican Party has been more shocking than anything Republicans have stooped to doing in the Trump era. It should be no surprise that a party willing to deny the reality of a climate crisis that imperils all civilization has given the presidency to a man who denied his black predecessor is an American. It is entirely logical that a party currently dismantling the right to vote has turned itself over to a man willing to undermine faith in the democratic process. Despite what the Democratic Party’s chosen rationale for impeachment has implied, the gravest offenses President Trump has committed against our country can be found not in the White House’s call logs but in the detention centers where the president has caged the children of migrant parents—children abused and traumatized in the service of a racist mythology Trump has crafted about the impact of immigration. The Republican Party has helped him promulgate it and stands ready to help him do worse, because Donald Trump, beyond holding office as a Republican president, embodies the very soul of the Republican Party.
Every single aspect of his administration has been foreshadowed not only by fringe figures within the GOP and voices in the conservative media, but also by the last Republican president—a man now embraced, sometimes literally, by liberal and moderate conservative figures decrying Trump’s conduct. Trump’s own rhetoric of division and exclusion was preceded by the 2004 reelection campaign for George W. Bush, which took advantage of homophobia to boost turnout from social conservatives. Before thousands of Puerto Ricans devastated by Hurricane Maria were forced by the Trump administration’s shoddy recovery effort to ask themselves whether they were really Americans after all, thousands of African Americans failed by the Bush administration’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina posed the same question to themselves. Trump’s intimations that the federal executive is above the law may well have been bolstered by the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance of the American people. Even Trump’s efforts to integrate his companies within the processes of the state were preceded by the Bush administration’s curious keenness for contracts with Halliburton, the company Vice President Dick Cheney ran before Bush took office.
The propaganda and misinformation campaigns that characterize what some have called a new post-truth era under Trump should, in fact, be quite familiar to those who remember the denialism that characterized defenses of the Iraq War and the hundreds of thousands of casualties it produced. The two Republicans who have occupied the White House in the first two decades of the new millennium have shared not only an address, but an enthusiasm for torture and war crimes, a zeal for using fear and the threat of terrorism to quash political dissent, and near-total support from the Republican political establishment.
In the years since the end of the Bush era, we have seen figures within the Republican Party denigrate African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and gender and sexual minorities. We have seen the Republican Party repeatedly back cuts to critical social programs under the pretense of fiscal discipline only to pass giveaways to major corporations, the wealthy, and an already gluttonous military. The character of the GOP is not an open question. Even those who suggest otherwise know it—the American political establishment meets each fresh stain the GOP leaves on the American conscience not with genuine surprise, but with performances of disbelief. Impotent in the face of a party that defied all political convention and wisdom with its victory in the last election, and unwilling to reshape a political order that offers them sinecures, political elites have only indignation and repetition as recourse. Their pearls, too often clutched, have been crushed into a fine powder. The straw has flattened the camel.
It’s left to the rest of us to face the truth squarely: Donald Trump is not a departure from the values defining the Republican Party, but the culmination of its efforts to secure power in this country. The question before us is not how much more the Republican Party might be willing to tolerate from the president but how much more we are willing to tolerate from the Republican Party. The GOP, founded by a generation of extraordinary men more committed to human freedom and the ideals expressed by our founding documents than the Founders themselves, has had a strange and improbable history. Built in opposition to the institution of slavery, the Republican Party is now a reliable opponent of equality and a malignant force in American life—a cancer within a patient in denial about the nature and severity of her condition. It should be not only defeated but destroyed—vanquished from the American political scene with a finality that can only be assured not by electoral politics or structural reforms alone, but by a moral crusade.
This might seem a startling supposition to liberal strategists and commentators convinced the Republican Party is digging its own grave. Despite Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, numerous pieces a year are written predicting that the GOP, dependent as it is on old and white voters, is headed for an inexorable decline, given the demographic changes set to reshape the country in the coming decades. “The numbers simply do not lie,” Axios’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote last summer. “America, as a whole, and swing states, in particular, are growing more diverse, more quickly. There is no way Republicans can change birth rates or curb this trend—and there’s not a single demographic megatrend that favors Republicans.”
This is the thesis underpinning RIP GOP, a recent book by veteran Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg. “[O]ur country,” he writes in its first pages, “is hurtling toward a New America that is ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, millennial, more secular and unmarried, with fewer traditional families and male breadwinners, more immigrant and foreign born, who are more concentrated in the growing metropolitan areas, which are magnets for investment and people.” These changes, for Greenberg, portend not only “the death of the Republican Party” as we’ve known it, but “the end of politics” proper. We will soon become “a country united and finally liberated from gridlock to address the nation’s most serious problems,” he predicts, and the transformation will begin with the Democratic Party’s certain victory in November’s election. “The year 2020,” he writes, “will produce a second blue wave on at least the scale of the first in 2012 and finally will crash and shatter the Republican Party that was consumed by the ill-begotten battle to stop the New America from governing.”
Forced into the wilderness by ascendant liberals, the GOP will either perish or adapt for survival, shedding positions and rhetoric that the new America finds toxic. The Republican Party will lose American women by devastating margins, Greenberg insists, unless “it accepts the sexual revolution and today’s working family.” Its denial of the climate crisis, we’re told, “associates the party with the past, with dirty coal, while leaving the green economy to the Democrats.” And the racial dog whistles that have risen to deafening volume in the Trump era—Trump’s description of African nations as “shithole countries,” for instance—will repel reasonable voters with the implication “that the GOP is a party for white people, just as the majority of the country who welcomes a multicultural America grows year on year.”
This is not exactly the first time the modern Republican Party has been pronounced dead. In 2002, political scientist Ruy Teixeira and journalist John Judis published a similarly optimistic book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. In it, they argued that the electoral map would come to advantage the Democratic Party not only through demographic change, but also through the rise of the postindustrial economy, in which even the auto industry in Michigan would be reinvigorated by “research and development and engineering” and white working-class voters would return to the Democratic fold in a diverse coalition with upwardly mobile professionals.
There wasn’t much evidence to substantiate this shift until the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was brought to power by what was dubbed the “coalition of the ascendant”—a left-leaning mix, as described by journalist Ron Brownstein, of “millennials, minorities, and socially liberal whites (especially college-educated and single women).” That victory replaced speculation about an “emerging Democratic majority” with articles heralding the arrival of a “permanent Democratic majority,” including a piece by Salon’s Alex Koppelman just over a week after the election. “The country’s changing demographics left the GOP with a choice—prevent Hispanics from forming a reliably Democratic bloc or face what could be decades of minority party status,” he wrote. “For the moment, the Republican Party has chosen poorly.”
Similar appraisals followed the 2012 election. “Barack Obama has just been reelected, the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win successive elections with more than 50 percent of the vote,” Teixeira crowed in The Atlantic that November. “In the face of considerable economic adversity, Obama won 332 Electoral College votes, nine out of 10 of the most hotly contested swing states, and a second term with coalition that was stunningly diverse.”
By then, Republican elites troubled by the party’s fortunes had begun pushing a change in strategy. After a postelection retreat, the RNC published a now-infamous autopsy report urging the party to back comprehensive immigration reform and drop the turn toward open xenophobia that had followed Obama’s rise and election. “America is changing demographically,” the authors of the report warned, “and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.”
But by 2015, Republican victories in Congress and at the state level were giving pause to the Democrats’ demographic triumphalists. In a piece for National Journal titled “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” Judis admitted that the specter of an emerging Democratic majority had been a “mirage,” and the Republican Party had made ominous gains with white middle-class voters in the Obama era. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait was among those who chided Judis for his about-face. “[T]he growing share of nonwhite voters in the electorate is what allowed Obama to win reelection with relative comfort in a tough economy despite registering Dukakis-level support among white voters,” he wrote. “It may be a long, long time until the Democrats’ national majority is wide enough to overcome the GOP’s structural advantages in Congress. But at the presidential level, the Democratic majority has already emerged.”
It had not. In a piece assessing Trump’s 2016 victory for The New Republic, Judis conceded again, sheepishly, that the predictions of the emerging Democratic majority had been “overly optimistic,” both underestimating the potential for white working-class defections from the Democrats and overestimating how quickly and dramatically a rising Hispanic share of the electorate would help the party. “Going forward, the real demographic question is not whether voters of color will combine with progressive whites to form a new American majority,” he wrote. “It’s whether Democrats, without abandoning their commitment to racial justice and to America’s immigrants, can succeed in crafting a message and an agenda that steers clear of the liberal version of racial stereotyping: assuming that people of color will inevitably vote alike.”
If it seems odd that the crude logic of demographic optimism has been revived among liberals like Greenberg so soon after Trump managed to defy political headwinds in 2020, consider that the American political establishment has long been remarkably ready to believe that the Republican Party is on the cusp of natural death. The defeats that followed Watergate in the late 1970s, for instance, prompted obits across the mainstream press. One, from The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Bureau chief Norman Miller in 1977, quoted “top professionals” in the GOP who believed the party to be “so sick it may not be able to recover.”
The next presidential election year, of course, saw the Ronald Reagan landslide that fundamentally reconfigured American politics. Demographic analysts would be correct to partially attribute the Republican Party’s resilience since then to the defections of whites—both working-class and professional—from the Democratic coalition. And Democrats have correctly taken an interest in bringing some of those voters back. But, as one Greenberg graph on the Republican Party and the 2000 election illustrates, the focus on demographic trends typically leaves pundits with a critical blind spot. “Newt Gingrich created the precedent for raising the stakes and shutting down the government, but he didn’t slow government or the growth of liberalism,” he writes at one point. “Vice President Al Gore won a plurality of the vote in 2000 and probably a majority of the Electoral College as well. The New American Majority had won.”
In fact, the New American Majority lost the 2000 election by a little over 500 votes in Florida—and a pivotal Supreme Court decision. In 2016, the New American Majority, having secured nearly three million votes more than Trump nationwide, lost the presidency, again, by fewer than 80,000 votes in a handful of states. And in 2020 and every subsequent election in our current system of choosing presidents, the New American Majority will lose, again, unless it manages to win the Electoral College by winning the vote in specific places—no matter how many ascendant and diverse Democrats and GOP defectors support them in other, bluer parts of the country. However inevitable an eventual liberal majority may seem given population projections, its success cannot be assured within a state-based electoral system designed specifically to thwart simple majorities.
Since Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016, liberals troubled by this and other structural problems have taken a renewed interest in democratic reforms—from the ongoing effort to abolish the Electoral College and establish a national popular vote through state legislatures with the passage of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) to proposals such as ending gerrymandering and establishing automatic voter registration. Beyond elections, the most challenging counter-majoritarian obstacle to effective left and liberal policymaking is the federal legislative process itself. The Senate filibuster effectively requires Democrats to obtain a supermajority to pass most legislation. And the Senate’s allotment of two votes for every state, regardless of size, structurally benefits smaller, more conservative states that can veto proposals that the majority of Americans support, from climate initiatives to gun control laws.
According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein, trends in population growth suggest that 30 percent of the American population will elect about 70 percent of the nation’s senators by 2040. Even as the more diverse regions of the country continue to grow, so will the power that the whiter, more conservative, and more rural regions of the country hold in the chamber. Bringing balance to the system would require, at a minimum, the elimination of the filibuster and the admission of new, Democratic-leaning states such as the District of Columbia and, assuming their voters were to definitively choose statehood, other territories like Puerto Rico.
Others have floated more permanent solutions to the problem the Senate poses. Shortly before his death in early 2019, Representative John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, became one of the most eminent figures to propose abolishing the chamber altogether. “The idea that Rhode Island needed two U.S. senators to protect itself from being bullied by Massachusetts emerged under a system that governed only 4 million Americans,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “Today, in a nation of more than 325 million and 37 additional states, not only is that structure antiquated, it’s downright dangerous.”
Every one of these proposals should be litmus tests for Democratic candidates moving forward. But the reforms liberal activists are pushing for will have to be passed and implemented within the very system they want to reform. Before the filibuster can be eliminated and before new states can shift the balance of power in the Senate, a majority in the Senate, dominated by the Republican Party and moderate Democrats, will have to support killing the filibuster and adding new states. The admission of D.C. in particular, given the constitutional provisions establishing the district, is certain to bring about a legal battle within a Judiciary and before a Supreme Court that the Republican Party has already successfully stacked with conservative justices. The same is likely true of the NPVIC effort. Getting rid of the Senate entirely—the reform that would do the most to rectify our system’s inequities—would require a permanent surrender of power from states needed to ratify the necessary constitutional amendment. As Dingell acknowledged, that cannot happen without “massive organizing, strategic voting, and strong leadership over the course of a generation.”
But commentators have been correct to label the Republican Party’s conduct—its defenses of presidential abuses of power, its efforts to undermine democratic processes, its willingness to exploit racial and cultural anxieties for political gain—as a national crisis, one that ought to be addressed, somehow, right now. Whatever hopes for the country that might lie in the population tables or proposals to retool American democracy, something must be done in the interim, to minimize and contain the damage the GOP can inflict on the nation. We cannot afford to wait the GOP out; its power is not a problem to be worked around. The only way to take on the problems posed by the Republican Party is to take on the Republican Party itself. The forces of demographic change and structural reforms must be joined with direct action.
Conventional wisdom holds that protest in the internet age has become unfocused and ineffectual. As easy as it has become to rally people around a cause, we’re told, it has become harder for contemporary protest movements to develop the structure, discipline, and focus necessary to bring about enduring change. But cynicism about the power of protest has been belied by the remarkable successes of the major movements we’ve seen this past decade. Occupy Wall Street, leaderless and listless as it often seemed, managed to place inequality at the center of political discourse and reinvigorated progressive politics in America by connecting organizers, activists, and writers, building networks that fed further activism on issues including student debt, bail reform, and housing inequality. Fight for $15 and teacher’s strikes around the country have proved that conventional labor action can still win major material concessions. A brief sit-in by the Sunrise Movement in 2018 put the Green New Deal at the center of climate policy discourse, and the activism of a group of high school students after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting reinvigorated the push for gun control. Perhaps most significantly, the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed attention its activists have brought to racial inequality have led to criminal justice reforms at the local, state, and federal levels and pulled the American public to the left on racial issues more broadly. A recent Pew survey indicates that a 61 percent majority of Americans now believes the country needs to continue efforts to give African Americans equal rights; meanwhile, in the General Social Survey, 41 percent of nonblack Americans now say that discrimination is responsible for poor economic outcomes among African Americans. Both of these figures have jumped more than 10 points since 2014, the year the landmark Black Lives Matter protests took place in Ferguson, Missouri.
Ironically, one of the most successful and potentially instructive direct action efforts for progressive activists over the past decade might have been on the right: Through demonstrations and disruptions, the Tea Party clearly played a significant role in pulling the Republican Party toward reactionary populism, making the Trump presidency possible. But the past decade also saw less publicized yet significant efforts to mobilize activists against the infrastructure of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. The National Rifle Association, already mismanaged by its leaders and marginalized by the improbability of gun control legislation in a Republican administration, has been further weakened by the boycotts of affiliated businesses that followed the Parkland shooting. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also led a surprisingly successful campaign to dissuade insurers and banks from working with the organization. Similarly, progressive activists organized a protracted corporate messaging campaign early in the decade targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit conservative coalition of legislators and private companies that works to craft state legislation, over the group’s promotion of Stand Your Ground laws, voter ID laws, environmental deregulation, and discriminatory immigration policy. Among the high-profile defectors from ALEC’s ranks were Coca-Cola, Amazon, and Walmart.
These campaigns should expand to meet the scale of the threat we now face—to target not only the vast network of groups and think tanks mobilizing conservatives and influencing the policymaking process from the right, but also the politicians and official bodies of the Republican Party itself. This past year, for instance, liberal activists and journalists like Judd Legum of the newsletter Popular Information have circulated lists of corporations backing the Republican lawmakers behind legislation like the abortion bans that have swept the South and the effort by the Wisconsin GOP to strip power from the state’s elected Democratic governor and attorney general. “In recent months,” The New York Times’ David Leonhardt wrote in 2018, “Legum’s reporting has caused Facebook, Google, Walmart, Major League Baseball and others to ask for the return of donations to politicians whose values the companies were not comfortable defending.”
Similar pressure campaigns could be mounted against firms that sponsor the GOP’s programs and events or provide the party’s organizations and campaigns with goods and services. Workers, particularly those employed in the hospitality industry, could walk out on jobs that would have them serve a party invested in suppressing their wages and curbing their rights. The objective, broadly speaking, should be to make doing business with the Republican Party more costly, and efforts to materially undermine the GOP could be particularly effective at the state and local levels against party organizations with fewer resources at hand than the national committee. Actions like these should be joined by rallies and demonstrations explicitly framing the Republican Party as a moral challenge for the country to defeat and overcome. At party offices and events, at state legislatures and town halls, in the streets of cities around the country and in Washington, protesters should take a stand against the GOP’s defenses of bigotry and inequality.
Those who commit themselves to nonviolent action against the GOP should demand too that Democrats comport themselves as a true opposition party, neither too daunted by electoral politics nor too compromised by the interests of capital to speak frankly to the broader electorate about what the Republican Party represents and what the Republican Party has done. In his December “No Malarkey” tour of Iowa, former Vice President Joe Biden delivered a new iteration of a stance he has offered repeatedly from the outset of his campaign. “[I]f you hear people on the rope line saying, ‘I’m a Republican,’ I say, ‘Stay a Republican,’” he told voters. “Vote for me but stay a Republican, because we need a Republican Party.” Biden went on to say that he would fear Democratic hegemony if the Republican Party were to fall. “I’m really worried that no party should have too much power,” he said. “You need a countervailing force.”
This view is widely shared. Bipartisanship has become a both particularly sacred and particularly destructive part of the American civil religion, a hollow and superficial virtue promoted by political elites responsible for the domestic and foreign policy failures the two parties have crafted together over the past 30 years—from the Iraq War and support for oppressive regimes abroad to the expansion of extreme poverty and the carceral state at home. But bipartisanship, as Biden knows, also remains appealing to the majority of the American electorate, including the majority of Democrats. The daunting task ahead for progressive activists is convincing ordinary voters that a major political party—prejudiced, venal, and unmoored from reason—can lose the right to govern. Because without a pressure campaign making it clear that Republican power is unsustainable for the country and the planet—that a party in thrall to a racist demagogue and aligned against the Voting Rights Act is not only disagreeable but dangerous—Democrats will never build the support necessary to structurally reform and rebalance the American political system.
Biden and the centrists of the contemporary political establishment are not the first generation of optimists to hope that the Republican Party might return from a period of shame to moderation and political respectability. Barry Goldwater’s catastrophic campaign in 1964 sparked widespread speculation among liberals that right-wing politics could never take root in America. But it was followed by a Nixon campaign in ’68 that set the template for the deployment of white grievance politics as an electoral strategy. The skullduggery of Watergate was followed by Reagan and the mythology of the welfare queen. And it was the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush, another establishment figure and policy moderate, that attempted to terrify white voters with the Willie Horton ad and dog whistles about race and crime. His son, having ridden into the White House on the promise of a “compassionate conservatism,” made opposition to gay marriage a centerpiece of his second campaign.
What this record suggests today is that even if the GOP leaves the rhetoric, excuses, and concerns of the Trump era behind for a time, Republicans—ideologically incapable of devising large-scale solutions to persistent problems—will eventually return to the easy politics of exclusion. We could be witnessing already, in the GOP’s efforts to disenfranchise African Americans in the South, the seeds of a resurgence in anti-black racism, particularly if the next Democratic administration is successful in expanding social programs aimed in part at addressing racial inequality. A revival of anti-Semitism on the far right has already claimed lives, but has yet to prompt any introspection on the part of a party willing to deploy conspiratorial rhetoric about the influence of George Soros and comfortable with backing a president who insisted that there were, somewhere, fine people in the crowds shouting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville. Beyond all this, it seems entirely possible that voices in the conservative media and Republican strategists, ever inventive, will furnish new scapegoats and invent new threats altogether. It is certain, in any case, that the Republican Party has been built for default to a political mode best exemplified by a remark not from Donald Trump, or Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Sarah Palin, but from Republican National Committee chair Rich Bond during the 1992 Republican National Convention. “We are America,” he told a reporter. “Those other people are not.”
It can be no real comfort to those whom the Republican Party targets and disempowers to hear from liberals that Bond and Trump are wrong—to be told, sunnily, that they are Americans, too, and on a path to power in due time, even as Republicans do all they can to make the lie true. As divisive political events often do, Trump’s impeachment has brought a durable antebellum quote from Lincoln—our first Republican president—back into vogue. “A house divided against itself,” he told an audience of Illinois Republicans in 1858, “cannot stand.” The words that follow are usually omitted. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” he said. “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
What we become in this decade and this century depends entirely upon what we decide to do with the Republican Party we have before us today. Either we will be a nation committed to prosperity and political equality for all—a new republic for the many and not the few—or we will not. Our choice is clear—and is, in fact, being made for us by the functionaries of prejudice and business as we speak. We must wrest that choice back and set the country forward. We must end the GOP.