I'm Still a Republican—and I'll Fight to Reclaim My Party

George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.

Jim Young / Reuters

This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.

His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?

Some have tried to levitate an independent conservative candidacy off the ground.

Others have speculated about writing-in Mitt Romney or spoiling their ballots.

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is only the latest and most public former officeholder to declare a willingness to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Will’s dramatic gesture, however, escalates the decision. Will is repudiating not just a single man, but the institution that accepted him—and repudiating it in a way that implies a separation lasting beyond Donald Trump’s likely electoral defeat. Will’s repudiation encompasses Speaker Ryan, leader of the GOP’s monied wing, as much or even more than Trump himself. Has Will set an example for others to follow?

For this one registered Republican, the answer is, “No.” I write my answer as a Republican even more distant from the mainstream of the party, as it has evolved since 2009, than George Will. I write, fully agreeing with Will that the looming Trump nomination represents an institutional failure: A healthy patient would not have succumbed to the opportunistic infection that is the Trump candidacy. The Republican Party is ill, and it has been ill for a long time. But quitting won’t help: An American political party can only be reformed from within.

Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus were presented with an impossible problem by the rise of Donald Trump. If they enabled him, he’d lead the party to disgrace and defeat. If they battled him after he’d won the most delegates, they’d split the party—and accelerate defeat into disaster. Blame them for choosing wrong—but don’t forget that the circumstances of their choice were not created by themselves, but by millions of voters, most especially the right-leaning independents allowed to vote in GOP primaries. (Trump tended to lose primaries where only registered Republicans could vote, and to win primaries open to anyone who cared to cast a ballot, except Texas and Ohio, the home states of rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich.) That old saying, “The people have spoken, the bastards,” was the background fact against which all leadership decisions had to be made. Once Trump had secured the nomination, leaders had to execute a complicated strategy of hoping to lose at the top of the ticket—without in any way being seen to sabotage a nominee they disliked and distrusted—while doing their utmost to protect the rest of the ticket. And they had to execute all this in full realization that complicated strategies usually don’t work.

There’s a lot for which to blame Paul Ryan. His ideological radicalism from 2009 to 2015 pushed the party in directions that made it unelectable at the presidential level. The Republican rank-and-file wanted more health care and less immigration; the GOP congressional leadership consistently offered exactly the opposite. It opened the market opportunity that Donald Trump exploited. Arguably too, some of its members also allowed their personal animosity to Ted Cruz to sway them against supporting the last available alternative to Trump. (Not that Cruz helped. If Cruz had asked them to put aside their personal feelings, and do what’s best for the party and the country, they might plausibly have replied: “When did you ever do that?”)

Yet in the end, Trump is a creature not of the congressional leadership, or the Republican elite, but of the voters upon whom any future center-right presidential candidacy must be based. One can disavow Trump. But if one disavows Trump’s voters, one has effectively surrendered any hope of a center-right alternative in national politics.

I’ll concede: If you define your right-of-center politics as anti-statist politics, maybe you don’t care. The big reveal of 2016 (it was visible to see for much longer than that of course, as I’ve been arguing since 1994) is that Republican voters aren’t anti-statists. People who aspire to lead those voters must recognize that fact and respond to it. If your principles won’t allow you to do that, then you belong not in a political party organized to compete for power, but in an intellectual movement aimed at influencing elites. That’s not a criticism, by the way! Such intellectual movements can change the world, as the environmentalists have done, and the gay rights movement, and gun advocates. Libertarians have won arguments in the past (deregulation of transportation), and they may win arguments in the future (marijuana legalization). But while such movements can shape and bend politics, they cannot form it, because they are inspired by a unitary ideological doctrine and most human beings are not. True parties must be run by politicians, and politicians must make concessions to the refractory and contradictory demands of non-ideological voters.

You support one party or another, if you do, because you share enough beliefs with enough other people that you can accept all the ways that those people also differ with you. If I had $100 for every time a fellow-Republican has ordered me to just go ahead and call myself a Democrat, I’d have more cash on hand than the Donald J. Trump for President campaign at the end of the last reporting period. I’ve disagreed with most of my party’s domestic program since 2009. I favored making a deal on universal health coverage. (Universal health coverage is not a human right, but in an advanced wealthy democracy, the lack of it is a great human wrong.) I thought it was futile to keep trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act once passed. I favored monetary and fiscal stimulus to mitigate the Great Recession. In a slow-growing and increasingly inegalitarian society, it becomes more necessary to preserve the existing American social insurance system: shutting down the government—or even more horrifyingly, threatening to default on America’s obligations—seemed to me a reckless and dangerous means by which to pursue unachievable and undesirable ends.

But I look to the Republican party as the party more sympathetic to creative business enterprise, more respectful of work and achievement, more cautious about social experiments such as mass migration, and more committed to preserving American world leadership. So I stay. And when people who claim to be the membership committee tell me that I’ve flunked some ideological purity test, I reply that I don’t accept their jurisdiction.

Not everybody needs to belong to a political party, of course. There’s a credible case that writers and intellectuals, in particular, should not belong to one: American public discussion is too often deformed by rote repetition of party talking points from people who should be thinking for themselves.

But politics in a democracy is inherently a team sport, and parties are the most important of the teams in the game. Team sports never offer the option of playing alongside only people you like. To effect sustained political change, you have to build broad coalitions. Tea Party Republicans invested great energy in the first Obama term trying to drive out of the party all who dissented from their extremist minority program. They largely succeeded. They built just what they wanted: an extremist minority party. Their hope—and Paul Ryan was very much a proponent of this fantasy—was that they could mobilize a majority coalition for a minority program. To their surprise (but nobody else’s), they have failed. The mission ahead for conservative Americans is to open up their closed ideology enough to attract a majority that agrees on some things, but not on everything. Governing parties can never be doctrinaire parties—and a better memory of the actual record of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher confirms the observation.

Broadening the coalition does not imply unwavering loyalism to every bad party decision. George Meany’s AFL-CIO declined to endorse George McGovern for president in 1972. What it does mean is remembering that a party is more than its presidential nominee, more even than its organization and its organizational leadership. It’s a vast national network of men and women inspired by a shared ideal and impelled by common interests. Those networks are not easily built, and they are even less easily replaced.

And if they are replaced, any new network would soon become as messy and inconsistent as the previous, because that’s the nature of political networks in a vast, complex, continent-spanning society. To say, “We’ll blow up the Republican Party, and build in its place a new party under a new name that would never do anything like nominate Donald Trump” is to mistake the problem. If the new party is open to the same members as the old, it will replicate the behaviors of the old. And if the promise is that the new party will not replicate old bad behaviors because it is purer and more principled, that implies that it will also be smaller and even less competitive than the old.

Much easier than reconstruction of a new network is migration from one network to another. Much of the recent history of American politics is the history of these kinds of political plate tectonics: urban ethnics drifting from the Democrats to the Republicans and suburban professionals drifting from the Republicans to the Democrats; southern conservatives moving one way, northern liberals the other. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 electoral map looks like Al Smith’s of 1928, only turned upside down. Alf Landon’s best state in 1936, Vermont, was Barack Obama’s best state in 2008, after his native Hawaii and the District of Columbia. The term “neoconservative” was applied to a band of Democratic-oriented thinkers and writers who crossed the aisle to support Richard Nixon against George McGovern. With few exceptions (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ben Wattenberg), they never returned to their original political home. The process endlessly repeats itself. I know more than a few Republicans who cast a Democratic ballot in 2004 to protest the Iraq war, then did it again in 2008 in reaction against the Sarah Palin vice presidential nomination, and only after that realized they had discovered or created a new identity for themselves.

None of this is to rationalize a vote for Donald Trump in November 2016. I won’t cast such a vote.

But once safely excluded from the presidency, Donald Trump will no longer matter. His voters, however, will. There is no conservative future without them. There is no quitting the questions: How to win them back? How to deliver them solutions that will actually improve their lives? How to speak to other Americans too, enough to form a presidential majority again? How to remain true to core convictions while emancipating a great national party from the radical dogmas and crass self-seeking of a narrow-minded few? Hard questions all. The right answers win the right to govern—a right more precious and more precarious than all the grim consolations of “I told you so.”