Trump is, no doubt, in a perilous political situation. The activist right wing of his party has seized on social distancing as the health-care equivalent of socialism. The tea party fundraising machine has lurched into loud, clanking motion, trying to manufacture outrage against epidemiology. Some pro-life and pro-family groups have joined in the ill-timed promotion of social anarchy.
The president seldom defies the right-wing populists, and his immediate response was to identify with their anger. But this is a different political circumstance from any Trump has faced. In this case, pleasing the most vocal portion of his base puts another important constituency — older voters — at additional risk of painful, suffocating death. It is difficult to play both sides of this issue. And there are indications in recent polling that seniors have grown increasingly critical of Trump’s pandemic response.
Yet none of this is likely to change the minds of partisan Republicans. Some ignore or dismiss Trump’s cruelty and deception because conservative judges need to be appointed and the culture war needs to be fought. Some embrace his cruelty and deception because conservative judges need to be appointed and the culture war needs to be fought. And Trump naturally takes continued Republican job approval as an endorsement for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. In this way, Republican tolerance for Trump’s ineptitude and ignorance has made these traits more lethal.
It is sometimes useful to stare the worst possible political outcome full in the face. If Trump were reelected in November, he would place his stamp on Republican identity for a generation. The purges of dissidents would accelerate. Resistance within the party would dwindle from rare to vanishingly rare. A party of angry white people would head toward its demographic doom. And even then, Trump acolytes would probably reject ideological and racial outreach, preferring their resentments to the possibility of deliverance.
A reelection defeat for Trump would open up a small space for ideological reconsideration and renovation. Trump and his clan would not disappear. They would do anything they could to claw their way back to power. But if Trump loses, it will be because he alienated the suburban Republicans and independents that his party lost in the 2018 midterm elections. This would provide a window of opportunity for Republican leaders to combine a concern for the legitimate needs of rural and working-class whites with an agenda of upward economic mobility and minority outreach — and to do this while embracing the high cause of effective governance, capable of acting boldly to defend the health and security of the country.
For the past 150 years in American politics, ideological renewal has come through party factions. In the 1990s, center-left Democrats such as Bill Clinton did not found a third-way party. They created a New Democrat identity within the Democratic Party. Center-right Republicans are in desperate need of a similar effort.
For many, being center-right means combining a commitment to free-market economics with tolerant social values and strong national defense. That would be a large improvement over Trump’s combination of populism, nativism, racism and mercantilism.
For some of us, the ideal is more on the model of Christian social teaching — solidarity with the vulnerable, respect for value-shaping institutions, care for creation, the embrace of refugees and immigrants, and support for government that seeks the common good. This was basically the ideological framework for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign (read his Philadelphia convention speech for proof). This was also once characteristic of a certain kind of Catholic Democrat.
Neither political party currently measures up to this ideal, nor cares to. But Joe Biden was shaped by it. While his policy views can be quite liberal, his political muscle memory comes from the Catholic social-justice tradition. He is, as his critics charge, a throwback. But to a saner time, with superior options. The beginning of reform for Republicans might be a vote for the Democratic candidate.