How to Rebuild the Republican Party

Incorporate the best of Trump’s insights, while discarding his volatile personality and noxious attitudes.

Jason Reed / Reuters

Bravo for the forward-looking team at Commentary. Unburdened by illusion that Donald Trump can or will “turn this thing around,” they have proceeded straightaway to the next important conversation: What comes next for America’s battered Republican Party? Noah Rothman writes: “Reunification and a recapitulation of something resembling a national governing coalition must be the foremost priority.” That’s clearly true!

How to do it?

Rothman’s answer is to try to reconstitute conservatism as it used to be, refined by the famous “autopsy” of 2013.

Anti-Trump Republicans need to remember the lesson of the “autopsy” as much as do pro-Trump Republicans: electoral politics is a game of addition.

That being said, the coalition cannot be reformed around two competing ideas. Trumpism exists at odds with conservatism, and the party as reconstituted in 2017 must be one built up around conservative ideals of limited government, free trade, an internationalist foreign policy, and an unqualified rejection of identity politics. In short, Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed. That’s the price of admission, and it’s a modest one given the great costs associated with sacrificing a winnable race for the White House.

The problem is that pro-Trump Republicans may not agree that Trumpism failed. They may not be amenable to a reconciliation based on acknowledging that they, uniquely, were wrong—and that their defeated party opponents were in the right all along.

Their guy did win 4 million more votes in the 2016 primaries than Mitt Romney won in 2012—despite the 2016 runner-up winning more than twice as many votes as the 2012 runner-up.

Their guy easily bested every challenger against him: the hugely well-funded Jeb Bush, tough guy Chris Christie, the winsome and bilingual Marco Rubio, the true conservative Ted Cruz, the tough-as-nails Scott Walker, fellow outsider CEO Carly Fiorina … a gamut of styles and talents.

Their guy exposed the weakness of would-be Republican powerbrokers and veto-wielders, from the pro-life movement to the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Unless their guy loses to Hillary Clinton in a 2008 style deluge, Trump backers will be much more likely to blame traitors inside the party for his defeat than their own bad judgment in supporting him. Pro-Trump media outlets and personalities (Sean Hannity; Ann Coulter; Laura Ingraham; and have gained audience. Anti-Trump media outlets and personalities lost viewers, listeners, and readers. Trump will almost certainly win more total votes than either George W. Bush in 2000 or John McCain in 2008. He could easily match Mitt Romney’s 61-million-vote, 47-percent-vote-share performance in 2012. If that happens, Trump himself may not go away so quietly, instead continuing to dominate the political stage to insist that he was right and all his critics were wrong, stupid, losers.

Meanwhile, anti-Trump conservatives will be thrust back into exactly the position they held from 2013 to 2015: exponents of an ideology that does not command majority assent even within the Republican coalition, never mind the country as a whole. Repeal Obamacare; end the Medicare guarantee for people under age 55; offer big tax cuts to corporations and the richest taxpayers; pass constitutional amendments to stop abortion and same-sex marriage; back immigration reform that increases the flow of low-wage labor into the economy; take no action on climate change or other environmental concerns: that message has been tried and found wanting again and again since 2009, and it’s not going to appeal any more strongly after November. Whatever else Donald Trump did, he confirmed that a majority of Republican voters also want a message that secures health coverage, raises middle-class incomes, and enforces borders and national identity.

I’ve been writing and tweeting about Donald Trump’s many, many deficiencies as a candidate and human being since he took first place in the Republican contest in July 2015. I could write another 18 paragraphs right now, had my editorial colleagues at The Atlantic not already done the job for me. But for all Trump's many faults and flaws, he saw things that were true and important—and that few other leaders in his party have acknowledged in the past two decades.

Trump saw that Republican voters are much less religious in behavior than they profess to pollsters. He saw that the social-insurance state has arrived to stay. He saw that Americans regard healthcare as a right, not a privilege. He saw that Republican voters had lost their optimism about their personal futures—and the future of their country. He saw that millions of ordinary people who do not deserve to be dismissed as bigots were sick of the happy talk and reality-denial that goes by the too generous label of “political correctness.” He saw that the immigration polices that might have worked for the mass-production economy of the 1910s don’t make sense in the 2010s. He saw that rank-and-file Republicans had become nearly as disgusted with the power of money in politics as rank-and-file Democrats long have been. He saw that Republican presidents are elected, when they are elected, by employees as well as entrepreneurs. He saw these things, and he was right to see them.

The wiser response to the impending Republican electoral defeat is to learn from Trump's insights—separate them from Trump’s volatile personality and noxious attitudes—and use them to develop better, more workable, and more broadly acceptable policies for a 21st-century center-right. That doesn’t mean inscribing Trumpism as the party’s new orthodoxy. The GOP needs less orthodoxy, not more! What a wiser response to the defeat does mean is joining what can usefully be extracted from Trumpism to the core beliefs of the Republican Party: individual initiative, a free enterprise economy, limited government, lower taxes, and a proud defense of America’s global role.

Instead of drawing up lists of the people never to be forgiven for their roles in 2016, Republicans should be thinking about how they can work more harmoniously. If nothing else, Donald Trump pulled down the final curtain on the politics of the 1980s. So many Republicans have been yearning for one final hurrah for what worked 35 years ago. But as one of the shrewdest of small-c conservatives warned a century ago: “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” Policies become dead not only because they have failed, but—maybe even more!—because they have succeeded, and thus eliminated the problem they were adopted to address. The way to inoculate the Republican Party against another Trump is to address the new problems that most Republican leaders ignored, and that Trump therefore could cunningly exploit.

The democratic world today is roiled by a tide of nationalist populism. Trump is just the local American variant of a trend that has expressed itself as Brexit in the U.K., the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany, and so many other movements from Minsk to Madrid. The way to respond to a political tide is not to command it to halt, but to divert and channel it.

The United States in the 1930s—and western Europe after the Second World War—defeated revolutionary communism not only by standing against subversion, but also by building social-insurance states that alleviated the discontents on which communism battened. By mitigating the terrors of unemployment and poverty and the anxieties of sickness and old age, our grandparents transformed proletarians into conservatives. It’s our job now to do the same thing with the dislocations caused by mass migration and the economic rise of China and India. Successful conservatives know when to yield a little in order to preserve more. If Republicans can take just that from the strange career of Donald Trump, we may yet owe him and his supporters some thanks.