Back in 2016, I remember many Trump supporters arguing in favor of “burning it down.” At the time, “it” was the bloated federal government and lobbying system that they saw as corrupt. Four years later, it is Trump critics who are saying “burn it down” but now the target of the arsonistic tendencies is the Republican Party itself.
It is no secret that I have never been aboard the Trump Train and I would be among the first to project my profound disappointment and anger at today’s Republican Party. The Republicans of 2016 who promised to hold Trump accountable have instead aided and abetted him for the past three years.
Republicans covered for Trump when Robert Mueller’s report showed Trump’s attempts to obstruct the investigation. They hemmed and hawed when the president abused national emergency authority to perform an end-run around Congress’s power of the purse. They preened about how the president would never engage in a personal quid pro quo for military aid to ally under attack and tut-tutted when it was revealed that this was exactly what Trump had done. Most only managed strangled “no comments” when Trump fired not one but five inspectors general who were critical of his performance. Even separating immigrant children from their parents brought only muted condemnation from congressional Republicans. The list of Republicans abandoning traditional conservatism and making excuses for the man they promised to hold accountable is long, but you get the idea.
Now Trump is lagging in the polls, his lack of competence having finally caught up to him as he faces the triple crisis of the pandemic, the recession, and racial tensions and handles all three badly. The sharks have caught the scent of blood in the water and are circling to attack. The question for conservatives who have escaped falling under Trump’s spell is how far they should go since the Republican Party appears to be on the ropes.
Some, such as the Lincoln Project and The Bulwark favor a burn-it-down approach. Others are concerned about the consequences of going all-in on leveling the Republican Party.
Many Trump supporters deride the burn-down-the-GOP point of view as “saving conservatism by voting for Democrats.” In truth, there is a certain amount of logic to the idea.
Donald Trump is uniquely bad as president. In fact, “bad” doesn’t fully communicate the existential danger that Trump presents to the United States. Beyond the obviously bad handling of the pandemic, the pointless trade war, and the president’s numerous attempts at global retreat, Donald Trump has shaken the very foundations of the American Republic, undermining constitutional institutions, checks-and-balances, and traditional norms.
The precedents that Trump has set are dangerous because they will be used and expanded upon by future presidents, just as Trump learned from and expanded Barack Obama’s abuses of executive power. From this perspective, it is imperative that voters reject Donald Trump and the party that has enabled his abuses. Can anyone really trust the congressional Republicans who looked the other way through four years of one of the most corrupt presidents in our history? From this perspective, it would be justifiable to burn down the Republican Party and salt the earth where it stood.
On the other hand, Democrats are not to be trusted with power either. It was Barack Obama who paved the way for Trump. Back in 2009 and 2010, we saw Democrats ram through massive bills like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform with little or no input from conservatives. Democrats abetted Obama’s attempts to bypass Congress, just as Republicans did for Trump.
There would be benefits to razing the Republican Party and starting over. The Republican brand has been seriously damaged over the past few decades, even before Trump came on the scene. George W. Bush was historically unpopular due to missteps in the Iraq War, the prevalence of conspiracy thinking among the Republican base took off during the Obama era, and the party’s reputation as a white party goes back even further. Creating a new party without all that baggage might be a blessing for conservatives.
However, burning down the Republican Party will not destroy the voters who first elevated Trump to power. Nor will it destroy the Republican partisans and principled conservatives who supported Trump while holding their noses. If the Republican Party goes away, whatever entity that replaces it will have to deal with all the disparate factions of the old GOP. A new party would also, by necessity, attract many of the experienced political professionals who are currently Republican. In other words, if the Republican Party ceased to exist, whatever replaced it would be largely the Republican Party under a new name and new management.
What conservative Trump critics should really be aiming for is divided government. There is no doubt that Donald Trump needs to lose and lose bigly for the good of the country. This is not a pro-Biden statement. It is a rejection of Trumpism’s incompetence and corruption and a call for a return to traditional conservatism and Republicanism. That will not happen if Trump is reelected. If the president is rewarded with a second term, the GOP will go even farther down the dead-end road of Trumpism and the eventual and inevitable backlash will be even worse.
The best solution is for voters to reject Donald Trump but maintain Republican control of Congress. Republicans would do a much better job of holding a Democratic president accountable than they have of Donald Trump. A Republican Congress would also serve as a brake on the progressive agenda and preserve the filibuster for at least a few more years. The combination of a practical Democratic president and Republican Congress worked relatively well for the country in the 1990s.
Republicans look to be heading towards an electoral cataclysm of historic proportions and, make no mistake, they deserve the thrashing that they are about to get. But as much as President Trump and the Republicans need to be punished for their actions of the past three years, Democrats don’t need to be rewarded with unfettered control of the government.
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