The bedside vigil for the Republican party unfolds in real time in this space. Many who write or read here at The Bulwark have debated whether the GOP could, or should, survive President Trump. It’s critical that it does, but it cannot be rescued from within.
Recently Bill Kristol questioned whether the GOP, if wiped out on November 3, would stop being “the party of Trumpism.” Kristol argues, and I agree, that the case for fighting for the Republican party—rather than giving up on it—is to route it away from the “nativist / proto-authoritarian / nationalist-populist party” it is now. He offered that perhaps we should root for its rescue even if “it will likely have to be done by people who have been complicit in Trumpism.”
Yet even as polls tell the dire story of Trump’s failure, the poisonous abetting among elected Republicans hasn’t even paused, let alone reversed. Mitt Romney found Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence to be “unprecedented, historic corruption,” and was, as usual, outraged alone. Trump last week, twice in one moment, wished Ghislaine Maxwell “well.” Only Rep. Chip Roy, now in a toss-up race in Texas, was upset. Since the revelations that the Russian government offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the lives of American soldiers, Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger expressed concern in tweets. Now weeks have passed and not one Republican has condemned the commander-in-chief for failing—and shame on the White House press corps for failing to ask about it—to offer one word of support and resolve to men and women in uniform and Gold Star families who have lost family in battle there, let alone punish Russia.
There is no amount of Clorox injections or hydroxychloroquine that can cure the infected of their hypocrisy and sycophancy to render them fit to resuscitate the Grand Old Party.
Is it too much to ask that an impressive, accomplished and uncompromised outsider entirely unpolluted by Trumpism do this instead? Mock me—there is no such white knight, white whale or unicorn, right? But this is a big country; the odds are that there is someone, somewhere far more qualified than Donald Trump and his wannabe successors to lead the Republican party back. Maybe a person with a successful business career—not a fake one—who could champion competence and integrity in governance, and reject nativism, nepotism, kleptocracy, the coddling of dictators, white grievance, grifters, and conspiracy theories.
Bob Iger, executive chairman of Disney, wanted to run for president last year. There is interesting buzz about Ginni Rometty, executive chairman of IBM. There must be several business leaders not named Oprah, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg who can fit this bill.
A coalition of center-left and center-right has emerged in the Trump era to hold the preservation of the system itself—of power sharing within three separate and co-equal branches of government with robust checks and balances—above policy priorities. Trump’s willingness to discard our Framers’ structure has brought left and right together to fight not only for our constitutional order but also the post-WWII international order our forebears built and fought to preserve for more than 70 years.
A post-Trump GOP should focus on leadership. Many independents and Republicans are willing to back former vice president Joe Biden for the sake of returning to normal. Yet Biden is a pause, a known before an unknown, and the party’s unity behind defeating Trump could be the last thing Democrats agree on for years, whether he is elected or not. There not only needs to be a post-Trump political coalition but a post-Biden one as well. A temperate Republican focused on respect for governance, institutions, and national unity should also expect—should the Democratic party lurch far left under a Biden presidency and suffer significant losses in the 2022 midterms—that centrist Democrats will be open to a reformed GOP candidate over a progressive in 2024.
The definition of being a Republican in 2020 is whether or not one supports President Trump; presumably, the definition will loosen once he is out of office. During the Trump administration, support has grown for free trade, the Affordable Care Act, legal status for Dreamers, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
A new agenda for the Republican party would not only return to core principles on free markets, limited government, and debt reduction, but also tack to the middle on immigration and health care and police reform. The right candidate will have flexibility as long as he or she avoids, when possible, the extreme or binary positions that the wings of the party cling to. A business leader clearly will appeal to the business wing of the Trump GOP—the wing that always knew better but went along with Trumpism anyway. Would they want to follow Josh Hawley into more regulation of Big Tech? The business community knows better than the rest of the coalition how badly U.S. competitiveness has been hurt by political polarization, and that innovative approaches are required not only for health care and education but the overhauling the drug-supply chain, launching a clean-energy revolution, mitigating our cybersecurity liabilities, and repairing our alarming infrastructure deficit.
The outsider should address those Americans in the new, wider center who fear the emboldened right and left wings of each party. This candidate must call out the new illiberalism of the right and left—one that denies science, destroys governing norms, and undermines the rule of law, while the other wishes to defund the police, police the New York Times op-ed page, and cancel the Fourth of July.
The presumptive 2024 bench of Trump’s party cannot make the GOP competitive again, whether Trump wins or loses this fall. Those who helped Donald Trump break a party that once stood for limited government, debt reduction, free trade, free markets, global leadership, and the rule of law do not intend, and lack the moral authority, to rebuild it. The ones plotting their presidential campaigns in 2024—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Rick Scott—are competing to inherit Trump’s base, not reform the GOP.
An outsider candidate must call out the complicity of each bag holder. They are on record supporting a president who, since his inauguration, has been impeached for extorting a foreign nation into helping him win re-election, credibly accused of obstruction of justice, and credibly accused of rape. He is also an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony crime and the subject of a criminal investigation by the state of New York for which he could be indicted after leaving office.
There have of course been other ethical, policy, and rhetorical atrocities along the way, but the enablers’ most sinful water-carrying came in the form of their defense of Trump’s delusional denial of a deadly pandemic that has taken 146,000 lives and destroyed the livelihoods of millions of Americans infected, grieving lost loved ones, traumatized on the front lines of a ravaged health care system, unemployed, struggling financially, and outraged over how badly their children’s wellbeing and education has been damaged. Trumpkins who deny this won’t be fit to lead in 2024—or ever.
The non-Trump Republican world has shrunk to nothing—basically Romney and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is considering a 2024 run but also said he has not ruled out voting for Trump in November. Hogan told the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins that he’s not sure the GOP has a future: “People ask me what my plans are for the future. I say, ‘I’m not that concerned about what my future is in the Republican Party, but I’m really concerned about having a future for the Republican Party.’” Trumpland has now turned on Liz Cheney, who cannot hope to become the next GOP House speaker without many of its participants. Will she separate herself from Trump if he loses, and will she do so if he wins?
The time of choosing could come sooner than Republicans think—on November 3 and the days that follow. Trump will likely declare victory on election night, even if Biden is ahead, as he has already signaled he will discredit any mail-in ballots that come in for Biden as fraudulent. None of this has been subtle, and no Republicans have publicly challenged him. “Saying the polls are fake helps in laying the predicate for claiming the election is rigged,” as Kristol described to the New York Times last week. Trump’s “brand going forward depends on his being a victim of a rigged system, not accepting defeat.”
No Republicans are calling this out now, not even Hogan or Romney. An outsider needs to rescue the GOP, which would—in turn—rescue the Democratic party, and therefore our political system. Let’s hope one of them steps up soon.