Are we witnessing the implosion of the US Republican Party?
The Grand Old Party is going through some of its darkest hours since its creation in 1856
Just days after the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Republican Party is on the verge of explosion. The Grand Old Party, as it is commonly referred to in the United States, is going through some of its darkest hours since its creation in 1856. A presidential race is usually a unique opportunity for a political party to display its strength and rally behind its champion for the highest position in the country. Yet after leading emblematic politicians such as Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower to the White House, the Republican Party is now crumbling because of the obnoxious behavior of his own presidential nominee.
Less than a month before the presidential ballot, the defections are adding up within the conservative ranks. If the Bush family had always refused to back Donald Trump after his aggressive behavior towards Jeb Bush in the primaries, other key representatives took their distance over the last couple of days and the revelation of Trump’s offensive comments on women, condoning sexual assault, as incompatible with the family values dear to most moderate republicans.
Mitt Romney immediately withdrew his already lukewarm support by stating he was both “dismayed and offended” by the sexually aggressive and crude comments. The most recent Republican presidential candidate regularly promoted his respect for family values and his Mormon faith, both incompatible with the shameful Trump comments. His predecessor in the 2008 elections, Senator McCain also withdrew support for the business mogul in a much-awaited move. His support to Trump until last week had surprised observers as the 2016 Republican nominee had publicly belittled the retired commanding officer several times, minimizing his record as war hero.
Yet, if losing the support of every Republican nominee this century (Bush, McCain and Romney) is uncanny for Trump, none of them has more than informal influence on the Republican Party. Three men hold the operational control of the party today: Mitch McConnell at the Senate, Paul Ryan in Congress and Reince Priebus who heads the Republican National Committee (RNC).
Anyone hoping for united leadership must be disappointed however as all three opted for drastically opposed reactions, increasing confusion within the GOP. Ryan’s reaction was swift, immediately requesting that Trump cancel his participation to a meeting in his home state of Wisconsin the day following the scandal. Unlike Paul Ryan, the Senate GOP leader McConnell kept a low profile as the nominee’s campaign nosedived while Priebus reaffirmed his unconditional support to Trump.
As always in American politics, allegiances depends on three variables: money, local primary races and personal ambitions. Money, because disavowing Trump for another candidate at this point in the race – a far-fetched yet still possible alternative - would be very expensive for the GOP and Priebus, overseeing the RNC budget, knows it very well. Moreover, Trump has had the good idea for the RNC to spend considerably less than his predecessor, half the expenses of Mitt Romney in August, much to Priebus’ satisfaction.
Primaries, because local candidates’ calculations is the main driver for their political statements. McCain is the perfect example. He faced a tough Tea Party opponent, Kelli Ward, who vilified him for his moderate views on immigration in Arizona. As a result, McCain had to remain loyal to Trump to win the support of his local followers until he ensured the party nomination. Then he welcomed the opportunity to turn his back on the presidential candidate to reconquer the 30 percent Latino voters in his state, alienated by Trump’s speeches. Trump’s supporters remain however very influential in other Senate races which explains why McConnell hides away from issuing any global recommendation as Senate GOP leader.
Ambition, finally, because several Republican leaders have already conceded defeat and are positioning themselves accordingly for the 2020 elections. Paul Ryan in particular who is eager to dissociate himself from a raucous sinking ship and not endorse responsibility for the fiasco. Mike Pence’s calculations are similar but with the opposite result. The governor of Indiana needs exposure and his presence on the presidential ticket offers him the seeds for a first row seat in the rebuilding of the Republican Party. Consequently, he needs to show loyalty although ironically the candidate for vice presidency who described himself as “a Christian, a Conservative and a Republican in that order” must have done some serious soul searching to accommodate Trump’s brash and insulting comments with his Christian conservativeness, thus securing his ambitions inside the Republican Party.
Yet, beyond politicians’ individual calculations, the surprise is that Trump continues to draw large crowds at his rallies. He remains the man who gathered the most Republican votes under his name in the history of Republican primaries. His discourse is appealing to the most fanatic and xenophobic fringe of the GOP supporters. Decades of populistic statements on immigration, security and racial divide have dumbed down the militants of a party whose identity has been eroded.
The Republican Party has lost track of what used to constitute its DNA: fiscal conservatism, free enterprise, traditional values and ambitious foreign policy and security agenda. The Tea Party movement and Trump’s aggressive populism have diluted those values and replaced them with the blind defense of antiquated dogmas (gun laws, obsolete protectionism and racial/religious profiling). As a result, the Republican Party is at a crossroad and whoever holds the reins after Trump’s likely defeat will have a hard time conciliating its antithetic internal ideologies.