It is that “period” that more moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) dispute. In essence, they are saying: Our job is to deliver for the American people in ways that don’t unduly frighten moderate voters, break the bank, undermine the economy or come back to bite us.
This type of disagreement — progressive vs. moderate, ambition vs. incrementalism — is sometimes described as dysfunction. In fact, it is the beating pulse of a healthy party. There are people of influence within the Democratic Party who provide ideological energy, and people of influence (including Manchin and Sinema) who realize that governing means balancing. The latter group sees the inherent tension between liberality and fiscal prudence. It understands the conflict between a dramatically higher minimum wage and the health of small businesses. It realizes that ending the filibuster could empower the teetering Democratic majority in the Senate — but also unleash the destructive power of a second Donald Trump term with GOP control of Congress (a horrifying but not impossible prospect).
I watch these Democratic arguments with envy. Post-Trump Republicans have generally lost their standing to engage in these debates. Fiscal prudence? You’ve got to be kidding. Trump increased the national debt by some $7.8 trillion — nearly double the aggregate debt of Americans (not including their mortgages). Executive overreach? Come now. Trump was impeached for inciting a mob to attack the Capitol in an effort to overturn the constitutional order. Elected Republicans who cheered Trump are not just hypocrites on these matters. They are jokes.
From an ideological perspective, the Republican Party is a patient without a pulse. The only real question: Are we ready to declare time of death?
It wasn’t that long ago that GOP libertarians engaged in spirited debates with GOP communitarians — between those who sought to eliminate and privatize government functions and those who sought to reform them. Then came the tea party movement, claiming to defend a “constitutional conservatism.” But its stated goal of returning the U.S. government to the scale and role of an 18th-century agrarian republic was so absurd that it guaranteed disappointment. At that point, many Republican activists — marinated in talk radio and other conservative media — found their real unifying goals were attacking outsiders and “owning” liberals. Eventually, Trump intuited and embodied this pure negativity.
If the test of an ideology is the ability to set limits and prudently balance competing goods, Trumpism utterly fails. Some thinkers have tried to give it an intellectual structure. But there is a fundamental difference between the application of political principles and the rationalization of destructive passions. You can have principled discussions, for example, on immigration policy that try to balance compassion and security. Nativism, in contrast, has no limiting principle. There is always another immigrant to slander, always another refugee to defame. If the entire goal is to provoke the anger that unifies your followers, discussion, disagreement and even truth are irrelevant. The same applies to targets such as socialists, globalists, multiculturalists and liberals more broadly. The objective is not to debate opponents; it is to smash them.
In this sense, Trump’s Jan. 6 speech was the most important and revealing of his presidency. He did not try to persuade his opponents with arguments. And he did not merely engage in political trash talk — the genre of presidential rhetoric he pioneered. He defined a lawless, scheming enemy on the verge of destroying the United States, who his followers must defeat by any means necessary, including intimidation and force. The speech was either the summary of a mercifully short political career — or the inaugural address for a Weimar America.
This reduction of politics to the contest of incited mobs has an undeniable appeal to the activist base of the Republican Party. Even worse, it has not seriously alienated the mainstream of Republican voters. There seems to be little demand for a principled conservatism, offering policy arguments and policy alternatives in the real world.
That type of conservatism still exists, in offices at the American Enterprise Institute, among idealistic Capitol Hill staffers, and in state governments around the country. My advice? Given the entrenchment of the two-party system, the best option seems to be remaining in the GOP as long as conscience allows. Sometimes you struggle to win. Sometimes you struggle to keep something important alive. Both are noble callings.
Meanwhile, I wish we had arguments in the GOP.