Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), right, shakes hands with the chair of the National Constitution Center's Board of Trustees, former vice president Joe Biden, after receiving the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia in October 2017. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Opinion writer

The descent of the Republican Party into the nativist, know-nothing party of President Trump has taken the GOP into a political cul-de-sac and moral wasteland. It can appeal only to an aging sliver of a shrinking part of America (rural), so it tries to stave off extinction by suppressing nonwhite voting. This is not a recipe for success. It cannot run on its actual agenda (tax cuts for the rich, repealing all of Obamacare), so it must disguise its agenda and instead resort to fear-mongering and xenophobia. That, too, is not a recipe for success. It advertises itself as the “law and order” party but dismisses violations of federal laws as no big deal and smears law enforcement. That’s also not a recipe for success.

The question to date among many thinking men and women on the right has been what party they can find to reflect their conservative views. But frankly, the right is no longer conservative but reactionary, nor is it interested in policy innovation or intellectual debate.

The better question then is whether the right as it has come to be known — distinguished by its hostility to immigrants, indifference to wealth inequality, embrace of a small-government ideology (for which there is no real constituency) and a unilateralist (either as bully or victim) foreign policy -- can or should survive. If not, what’s the alternative to the left-wing infatuation with super-centralized government, anti-capitalism and retrenchment?

The suggestion I’ve put forth over the past few years envisions a coalition from center-left to center-right that favors market economics with a robust safety net; pro-work and pro-economic mobility domestic policies (e.g. expansion of the earned-income tax credit, investment in human capital); robust legal immigration and free trade with ample cushion for those displaced by creative destruction; ethics reform (including an end to cronyism); a values-based foreign policy that recognizes American leadership is necessary to our own prosperity and security; reinforcement of democratic institutions; and emphasis on civic literacy and civic virtue.

There have been several recent efforts to suggest this sort of agenda in domestic policy. The most recent and ambitious of these comes from the Niskanen Center. “The Center Can Hold” articulates a philosophical baseline (“individualism, understood as the belief that the ultimate standard for judging laws and policies is the dignity and welfare of actual, living, individual human beings; pluralism, or the recognition that there are many different conceptions of truth and the good life and that disagreement among reasonable people is therefore an inescapable fact of life; the rule of law; representative democracy; a competitive market economy; and a government that secures those collective goods that private efforts cannot supply well”). It also lays out a set of policy principles. (“We need both greater reliance on market competition and expanded, more robust, and better-crafted social insurance. We need more government activism to enhance opportunity, and less corrupt and more law-like governance. To clearly see these needs and how best to answer them, it is necessary to use a new ideological lens: one that sees government and market not as either-or antagonists, but as necessary complements.”) Fighting against “regulatory capture” that benefits the rich and powerful, promoting market-oriented measures to combat climate change and championing measures that promote productivity and innovation are all part of Niskanen’s vision.

Its greatest contribution might be in its recognition that “small government” is a slogan and a canard, and too much effort in the right is spent (intentionally or not) on policies that inhibit widespread prosperity. The world is not as it was in 1950 or 1980, and a governing philosophy that refuses to acknowledge social, economic and political challenges of the past 30-plus years — or worse, seeks to turn back the clock — has no justification (moral or economic) and contributes to the rise of right-wing populism.

On the foreign policy front, one sees once more that the unbridled enthusiasm for military intervention is as unacceptable and unwise as the noxious “America First” (or in Trump’s vision, “Dictators First”). Here, too, there have been smart attempts to set foreign policy on surer footing, recognizing that we are the indispensable nation. (“Despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest,” writes Jake Sullivan.) Connecting foreign policy to American prosperity and security must be the aim of responsible policymakers. (“If you believe in a free and open society based on the rule of law, whether you are a constitutional conservative, a centrist, or a progressive, you cannot just mind your own business at home," Thomas Wright wrote recently. “Your vital interests are directly threatened by this competition of models. If you want to protect your democracy or a free press or the rule of law or an open internet or the integrity of critical infrastructure or nongovernmental organizations or countless other things, actions at home are necessary but not sufficient. You need to support a competitive foreign policy that pushes back against neo-authoritarianism.”)

How do we get from here to there? Democrats, if they choose wisely in 2020, can set a course that might incorporate many of these ideas; alternatively, a new party or movement unencumbered by the moral failures and intellectual blinkers of the current GOP might be necessary if the Democratic Party goes hard left.

As an initial matter, however, we must bury the party obsessed with fostering racial and ethnic divisiveness, shutting the United States off from the world and intensifying economic inequality. The preconditions for positive policy movement are defeat of Trump and Trumpism and a full accounting for those who betrayed the country’s deepest values and ideals. Next comes a presidential candidate who at a minimum understands the obligations of office and possesses the intellectual, temperamental and moral fitness to lead. (Many Americans at this point would settle for a decent human being, grounded in reality and able to read more than a teleprompter.)

If we get that far, then perhaps Americans of good faith from a relatively wide ideological spectrum can sift through the sorts of policies and proposals that have been circulating. First, however, the Trump era must come to a quick and decisive end.

Read more by Jennifer Rubin:

Horrifying indifference to children’s lives

All the things Trump didn’t count on

Not even Republicans want a shutdown

Trump was in the room where it happened