The recent election offered voters a chance to correct Donald Trump, and they took it. But it also left the Republican Party in disarray, and in a way, showed that there isn’t a party to speak of anymore—at least not in the sense of an organized coalition of like-minded political actors with a defined policy approach. There was no policy agenda proposed by the Republicans. Instead, we have a chaotic assembly of people, an anti-party really, who combine some mixture of anxiety for the future and disdain for the Left.
At the center of this mess is Donald Trump. The election showed that while he still galvanizes some, he repels the affluent suburbanites who reluctantly voted for him in 2016. But Hillary Clinton was no longer on the ballot. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Az.) recently offered the opinion that “Trump just overwhelms and takes all of the oxygen out of the room and it’s all focused on him.” While there’s plenty of reason to criticize the source—from one primadonna to another, it seems like high praise—this only diagnoses part of the problem.
Trump offers nothing in the way of leadership. As Reihan Salam puts it, “Trump is singularly ill-equipped to drive the Republican agenda in new directions.” Apart from supplying the judicial branch with originalists, he can offer his supporters nothing but constant flashpoints in the culture war. Beyond that, it’s hard to identify much in the way of genuine policy achievement, and that has come at a steep price, particularly in affluent suburbs that overwhelmingly rejected Republican candidates in places once thought well-established bastions of conservatism.
Our president is a man defined by the desire to own the libs. But even when he’s achieved this, winning isn’t everything. As a tactic for advancing very limited goals, Trump’s tried and tested method of government-by-distraction is dishonest, and it deprives the public of an open argument about the challenges we face, and the real alternatives that we might embrace. Salam is right to say that there is a great deal of electoral potential for the GOP in “a creative and unifying new nationalism.” The Right’s old fusionism won’t do, and a permanent minority status awaits the Republicans if they cannot find a better way forward.
Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has received the lion’s share of media attention in the past weeks, two small indications that the Republican Party may yet find life after Trump stand out—and in particular address the issue of who will provide the ideas that will sustain a new balance of power in the party, and the moral leadership that will require.
One thing Trump does well—and that offers a key to understanding his success—is that he never assented to the premise of any attack. This is something that Republicans did all the time, and like Charlie Brown to the media (and Democrats’) Lucy, they were left at a disadvantage every time.
Enter Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw. The subject of a bad joke on Saturday Night Live, Crenshaw now-famously departed from the usual script in these matters, and tweeted “I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended.” He followed this up with a heartfelt monologue calling for national unity on Veterans’ Day and in an op-ed at the Washington Post asked readers to consider a return to public debate in good faith:
For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much. But there is a difference between attacking an idea and attacking the person behind that idea. Labeling someone as an “-ist” who believes in an “-ism” because of the person’s policy preference is just a shortcut to playground-style name-calling, cloaked in political terminology. It’s also generally a good indication that the attacker doesn’t have a solid argument and needs a way to end debate before it has even begun.
This isn’t idle talk: on Sunday, Crenshaw sparred with a panel of recently-elected Democrats on Meet the Press, asking for arguments rather than labels, and offering some of his own.
In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) offered up a warning at the end of his first term in the House: Congress is in much worse shape than most of the public realizes. Gallagher tells a tale of disillusionment: He came to Congress believing that the issue with the body was the people, and two years later, has reached the conclusion that the problem is institutional.
Unfortunately, a structural problem is harder to fix than a people problem. In the House of Representatives, we have an opportunity to get rid of bad people every two years via elections. Reforming the legislative process and realigning incentives is more difficult. The reality is that Congress cannot get anything done because it is not equipped to get anything done. It is no longer a tool suited to its original purpose of making laws and providing oversight. It has instead become a theater used by both parties to stoke the outrage of their base.
Gallagher offers several suggestions for reform and a touch of humor, and anyone interested in practical ways to restore Congress to its proper place as an equal branch of government ought to read it and hope he finds supporters.
If the Republican Party finds its way past the Trump-inflicted losses of November 6 and those to come, it will be politicians like these that accomplish it. I say this not because of any particular policy they embrace—at first glance, they may well be opposed on a number of issues.
Bringing voters back will require something more than just the right policies: The task demands virtues that Trump’s immediate circle does not appreciate. Politicians will need to be willing to have serious arguments within the party and with the Democrats—and demonstrate the ability to compromise. Such a project needs leaders that can engage the public’s attention without prompting a culture war at every tweet. And to win back affluent suburbanites, Republican leaders absolutely require the good humor that both Crenshaw and Gallagher display.
They and other-like minded members of Congress might open up paths previously closed. They could press for reforms like those Gallagher proposes, ones that might reinvigorate Congress as a co-equal branch. Both have signaled a willingness to discuss and debate issues with their opponents, and this is an important start. They accept that political conflict is an essential part of our system in a way that many before them did not, and they model the ways that one can offer real opposition to the Left without surrendering to Trump’s odious style.