After the Fire
Burn. It. All Down.
Those four words have been at the center of a debate among Never Trumpers. Should the goal be to just get Trump out of the office or is it to go after Trump and those in Congress who didn’t stand up to him? Is there a line that can’t be crossed or is there no line when it comes to the health of the Republic? NeverTrumper commentators Matt Lewis, David French, and Christian Schneider are all hesitant in rooting for the GOP to lose the Senate because that would put the Democrats in charge of everything in Washington. Peggy Noonan sent the “burn it all down” folk into fits of anger with her recent column that blamed NeverTrumpers for Trump’s rise.
The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes and the Lincoln Project are ready to light the match. I’ve reluctantly agreed with the “burn it all down” folks. While this debate about going after Senators or not leads to an even bigger question, one that has implications not just for the Republican Party, but for the nation as well. Will the GOP rebuild?
We live in an anti-institutional age where people are far more interested in lighting a match than picking up a hammer. President Trump was elected because so many in his base wanted to burn the political system all down. Trump is the perfect Demolition Man, destroying our norms and long-standing relationships. He is a man who has no need for institutions, especially political parties like the GOP or the federal government. He has committed arson by working to undermine Congress and the Justice Department. So, it’s not surprising that the Lincoln Project would fight back against Trump and the GOP by becoming just as ruthless as the object of anger. But what happens after the fires die down? Is anyone going to rebuild?
It would be easy to say that this is a question pointed at the more aggressive NeverTrumpers, but in reality, it is a question both sides have to answer. The usual argument from the anti-burn-it-all-down group is that you need to keep the GOP in power in the Senate in order to put a check on the Democrats who might have the White House and the House. That’s a pragmatic choice, right?
Writing in Arc Digital, Nick Grossman wonders what is the anti crowd’s end goal and he finds the answer wanting:
Former George W. Bush staffer Christian Vanderbrouk asks, “what’s the endgame for the anti-Burn-It-All-Downers?… How should GOP reckon with its Trump legacy? How will it win back women and the college-educated?”
They don’t seem to have an answer. As Vanderbrouk points out, the way to oppose Trump while supporting the Republican Party is to fight hard in primaries. Recruit candidates with good political values and character. Aggressively challenge every Trumpist representative and senator. But anti-burn-it-downers haven’t done that.
One reason is because you can’t oppose Trump and remain a Republican in good standing. French knows this as well as anyone, seeing as he and his family have faced harassment from Trump fans, and his name has become synonymous with squishiness to some on the right.
The anti-burn-it-downers’ plan appears to be this: Hope it gets better. Ideally, Trump loses — but without these conservative anti-Trumpers sullying themselves by voting Biden — and the GOP keeps control of the Senate. Average Republicans wake up, as if freed from a magic spell. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocks Democratic policies and liberal judges, various factions put aside their differences to oppose a Democratic president, and the party returns to its pre-Trump principles.
Grossman posits another scenario where Trump loses, but still has a strong influence on the party. The GOP decides to continue being the party of white identity politics. Potential 2024 presidential aspirants like Josh Hawley work to claim the Trumpian mantle? In essence, things march on as if Trump never left office.
Grossman makes a strong case with the shortcomings of the anti-burners. The main thrust is getting rid of Trump, but there is no plan when it comes to what the party does moving forward.
But none of this means the pro-burn side has any plans either. In a recent interview with the Dispatch, political consultant and Lincoln Project founder Steve Schmidt sees the post Trump era as a time to provide pragmatic solutions to national problems:
Schmidt hopes that NeverTrump Republicans like himself are seen as “strong allies in promoting a recovery agenda for this country.”
“We want to be strong allies in fixing a totally broken Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, election security issues, foreign interference issues,” he said. “There are so many enormous problems that demand pragmatic solutions, and we look forward to being a partner.”
But he foresees a long future in the political wilderness with respect to the GOP. “Fire purifies the forest, right?” he said. “The forest burns, and is regenerated.”
Do you see a plan here anywhere? Schmidt is basically hoping this will turn around after a resounding defeat.
The anti-burners don’t have a plan, but then neither do the pro-burners. Both sides simply hope for the best. The belief from Schmidt and others on the pro-burner side is that a “fire” or election loss is what will snap the party back from Trump. Losing doesn’t always focus the mind. Trump and GOP Senators losing might not pull the party back from the precipice. The conclusion could be that Trump was imperfect and they need to have a more polished candidate like a Hawley in 2024. Losing can make parties double down instead of changing course.
The problem with NeverTrumpers on both sides is that they don’t have an endgame. What you have currently is an argument about where to draw the line and nothing more. Trumpism won’t go away because people want it to. Hoping that things will change is not the way to bring about change. It can only go away when people in the party are willing to provide an alternative to Trumpism which can only happen by getting engaged in politics.
The point of Noonan’s article that sticks out at me the most is that the GOP is in need of change. Trump took over the party because he wasn’t offering the same old “zombie Reaganism” that everyone else was offering in 2016. Noonan believes it’s time to present a real GOP agenda for the 2020s:
When the Trump experience is over, the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt. It will have to begin with tens of millions of voters who previously supported Mr. Trump. It will have to decide where it stands, its reason for being. It won’t be enough to repeat old mantras or formulations from 1970 to 2000. It’s 2020. We’re a different country.
A lot is going to have to be rethought. Simple human persuasion will be key.
Rebuilding doesn’t start with fires, purges and lists of those you want ejected from the party.
Rebuilding means spending time thinking and dreaming about what the party can be in our current context. It means it can’t be the party of Ronald Reagan anymore, but something that is fitting for these times.
In November of 2019, Professors Steven Teles and Robert Saldin came out with paper for the Nisakanen Center titled “The Future Is Faction.” In it, they argue that moderates within both parties have lost power to the forces at the extremes. In response, they have placed their efforts on democracy reform (like ranked choice voting) or centrist third parties. But neither make that much of a difference and the extremes continue to grow in power. “In the American political system, there are no shortcuts around the hard work of organization, mobilization, and engagement in the sometimes unseemly business of party politics,” they say. For those who didn’t get it the first time they restate their sentence in more stark terms:
To put it more bluntly, moderates lose to those on the ideological extremes because their adversaries — to their credit — actually do the hard, long-term work that democratic politics rewards.
Further on in the essay, they say moderates have to create a brand within the party that is distinct from the larger party all the while remaining in the party.
There are two examples of this. On the extremes of the Democrats is the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA isn’t a political party, but an organization with the goal of weakening the power of corporations and building up working families. The DSA endorses candidates for various offices at the local, state, and federal levels. The most well known DSA member is Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York. The DSA has become a faction in the Democratic Party. They aren’t interested in the “Democratic brand” because they have their own brand. But within the party, they can exert influence, which they have been able to do by pushing the larger party to the left.
The other example comes from the 1980s and 90s and that is the Democratic Leadership Council. After enduring two substantial losses for President in 1980 and 84, moderates in the party created the DLC to steer the Democrats closer to the center after it was pushed left in the 1960s. It promoted more centrist and market-based solutions and also supported centrist candidates for president, which culminated in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
NeverTrumpers have to ask themselves an important question: what will they do come November 4th? What happens when and if Trump loses? If they think things will move on from Trumpism on their own, they should prepare to be disappointed. If there is no one offering an alternative vision like the old DLC or the current Democratic Socialists, then they shouldn’t be surprised if nationalist populism remains in power. Donald Trump might be out of the picture, but there are others who believe the messenger was flawed, but the message was correct. All they need is a Donald Trump who has the same politics of racial grievance and hostility to immigration, but a candidate who is knowledgeable and competent. Trump’s incompetence saved America from his more authoritarian impulses. A populist might come forward with some of Trump’s anti-democratic ideas, but with the competence to make those ideas reality. If there is no group to counter this Trump-like person, we might be in even more trouble than we are now.
I’ve been on the outer edges of the GOP for years and it’s been fascinating to see people who might have some interest in changing the party, get frustrated and leave. The drive to modernize the party is weaker than the elements that want to put up the “whites only” sign. I think that’s still true today. I just don’t see anyone that has that interest in building something positive from the ashes.
But what could happen if NeverTrumpers create an organization like the DSA? What if they created something called the “Conservative Association of America,” or “Whigs for America” that put out policy positions, endorsed candidates for office, and had a brand that presented a more tolerant and inclusive GOP?
Regardless of what side of the burn-it-all-down debate NeverTrumpers are on, they aren’t willing to play politics. At the end of the day, that’s what is needed to achieve those righteous ends. It means doing some politicking, give and take, carrot, and stick. NeverTrumpers have to practice some sort of engagement. You have to play politics in order to get things done. But as I said a decade ago, dissident Republicans are not really organized, and at times I wonder if they want to be.
But hope isn’t lost. Maybe change will come from people who in some cases aren’t even able to vote yet. Four teenagers from Massachusetts believe the party can be changed from Trumpism to something more inclusive and less divisive. GenZGOP is a group for this new generation coming of age and they have a vision of a party that reflects their values, one that cares about the climate change, welcomes immigrants, and inclusive of LGBTQ Americans. There is Millenial Benji Backer, a 22-year-old environmental activist who leads American Conservation Coalition promoting market-based solutions to environmental problems.
When the fires die down, there will be damage and wreckage. Who will be around to rebuild the party; NeverTrumpers or the populists? The answer is staring people in the face. If we want to place Trumpism on the ash heap of history, people need to have the courage to get involved and change the party.