Suppose you’re a Republican. The White House and both houses of Congress are yours. So are 34 governorships, matching a 1922 party record. The Republican Party has complete control of state government in 26 states, and full legislative control in 32 states. Next year, Senate Democrats will have to defend 25 seats. Just eight Republican incumbents are up for re-election. The Supreme Court retains a conservative majority. The Dow keeps hitting record highs, and the economy is finally growing above the 3 percent mark. The prospect of Donald Trump being removed from office? See above. The prospect of Trump inflicting permanent brain damage on Democrats? Outstanding.
Liberal strategists used to write optimistic books with such titles as “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” The Republican rebuttal could be called “What, Me Worry?” with a foreword from Alfred E. Neuman.
So why is your party in such obvious disarray? Why can’t it pass its signature bills? Why can’t your congressional leaders control their caucuses? Why can’t an incumbent Republican senator publicly endorsed by an incumbent Republican president win his primary battle against his nutty opponent?
Maybe you’re tempted to answer that all would be well if only the party hadn’t been stabbed in the back by a handful of self-infatuated GOP moderates — read John McCain and Susan Collins — supposedly more concerned about their reputation on the Sunday talk show circuit than with the welfare of their constituents back home. Welcome to the Dolchstoßlegende, 2017 edition.
Yet party “saboteurs” come in many colors, including the phony conservative purists Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as well as the genuine conservative crazies of the House Freedom Caucus. The basic test of any leader, Republican or Democratic, is to get a grip on the inevitably fissiparous elements of his political herd. Republican leaders — President Trump most of all — have thus far failed to get that grip.
There’s a simple explanation for this: They can’t. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have the parliamentary skills but not the political authority. Trump has the authority but not the skills. Probably not the desire, either: A tight-lipped numbers nerd like Ryan must be about as congenial to the president as a tax auditor in Mar-a-Lago. Their shotgun political marriage has all the sincerity, and passion, of Charles and Diana.
Still, the GOP’s problems aren’t mainly a matter of personality. They’re a matter of mentality. And they’re part of a pattern that’s worldwide.
We are living in an era of party failure, especially on the right. The Trumpkins sacked the GOP. The Brexiters humiliated the Tories over Europe. Marine Le Pen’s fascists have supplanted the Gaullists as the face of the French right. Germany’s own nasty alt-right, the Alternative für Deutschland, humiliated Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in last weekend’s election.
The high-toned explanation for these serial rebukes of the establishment by the base is that the former has failed to address the anxieties and disgruntlements of the latter: immigration and culture shocks; wage stagnation and the stresses of a globalized world.
But globalization, immigration and changing social mores have been with us for a long time without producing awful political outcomes. What’s new is the existence — and metastasis — of the fury factories of the right, from Fox News to Breitbart to Frontpage Mag.
Opinion journalism is meant to influence and inflame, and it does. Especially in an age in which civics is taught poorly (and, increasingly, rarely), people are politically suggestible. Bill O’Reilly is now the right’s historian, Mark Levin its go-to legal expert, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham its moral conscience. These are not ideas guys. They’re anger guys. Their specialty is the communication of rage to an audience prone to histrionics. It can feel awfully good to be awfully mad.
Should it be any wonder that a Republican Party with almost complete control of government has turned so fiercely on itself? Dominant parties often do that when they have little to fear politically from the nominal opposition party.
Should it be any wonder, either, that in the intramural fights the Donald Trumps and Roy Moores of the party are winning? As in economics, so too in GOP politics: Gresham’s law applies. Bad money drives out good. Bad Republicans drive out good ones. When nastiness sells, the worst rise. Political gerrymandering doesn’t help, but that’s a separate column.
The political paradox of 2017 is that a Republican Party that cannot seem to lose also cannot seem to govern. Anger is an excellent emotion for pushing ratings and winning elections and a terrible one for agreeing to compromises and crafting legislation. This won’t end as long as Trump is in the White House. Whether it won’t also be the end of the Republican Party as a functional institution is another question.