Almost all observers agree that the Republican Party and conservatism are in desperate need of a reset in leadership, ideology, philosophy, strategy, and policy. Yet the party seems stuck in a decaying straight jacket of decaying Reagan-era ideas and tactics, and unable to come to grips with present-day realities.
The causes of this morass are many, but a contributing factor is President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) the party’s nominal leader. Part of the problem is Trump’s almost complete lack of interest in ideas, ideology, or philosophy. The president has articulated no philosophy or ideas and exercised little moral leadership.
Trump has No Ideas
Trump has taken vague and often contradictory stands on issues. For example, he favors diplomacy and negotiation with North Korea but takes a hard line against Iran on the same issue – nuclear weapons.
Trump has promoted policies such as reducing immigration, and raising tariffs but offered no ideas to back them up. The President assures us that trade and immigrants are bad but he does not say why. Part of the reason why the Donald’s economic nationalist agenda has fallen flat is that he has not promulgated a philosophy to justify it nor a strategy to achieve it.
Beyond that Trump’s personal unpopularity, bigotry, ethical problems, and obnoxious personality make it impossible for him to promote ideas. Even if the ideas were good, vast numbers of people would refuse to listen.
One is reminded of President Richard M. Nixon (R-California) who promulgated an innovative social policy that would have greatly benefited most Americans. Tricky Dick promoted single-payer healthcare and basic income in the 1970s. Almost nobody paid attention because of Nixon’s loathsome personality and scandal-prone administration.
Why there will be no Progress until Trump is Gone
The President is too weak to make any changes on his own, but he is just strong enough to block any change. There is no other Republican leader popular enough to challenge Trump directly which silence many potentially constructive critics.
All this indicates that constructive change of any sort in the Republican Party might be impossible until Trump is gone from the stage. That is either discredited by political failure or scandal or simply out of office.
Nobody knows how or when Trump will exit the stage, but Republicans must prepare for the day he goes. For all his faults, Trump is providing some leadership to the party; mostly bad, but that is better than no leadership.
New GOP Leadership is needed because the Democrats appear to be going to through the painful process of generational and ideological reset. When that reboot is done, a Democratic Party more in line with American realities and more capable of appealing to today’s voters and winning elections is likely to emerge.
What the Republicans Need After Trump
The GOP needs to restructure its policies, programs, strategies, and ideas to reflect 21st Century realities.
Just a few of the changes the Republicans need include:
- Realistic social policies for a country in which the free market is not meeting the basic needs of many citizens.
- A realistic foreign policy for a world in which the United States is no longer the only superpower.
- The recognition that many of the GOP’s middle and working-class voters are dependent on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare for survival. Any effort to cut those programs, or restrict their growth will only help Democrats.
- Recognition that the vast majority of Americans strongly supports the public school system, and will oppose any effort to dismantle it.
- A military and defense policy that does not involve policing the world or waging permanent war.
- A cultural agenda for a majority secular nation that protects the rights and respects the beliefs of people of faith.
- An agenda that protects historic American values and traditions, without offending citizens of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
- An agenda that respects the culture of white Americans without promoting racism or bigotry.
- A realistic strategy for bringing nonwhites into the party that respects the white working class.
- A realistic law and order agenda that does not involve mass incarceration and trampling of the rights of minorities or the working class.
- An effective agenda for dealing with the reality of climate change that does not compromise the party’s values. The present agenda of “hope the scientists are wrong about global warming” is neither realistic nor responsible.
- Some strategy for attracting new voters and winning office in “blue states” -especially California. Bashing California; like some politicians in Colorado are doing, or avoiding it like Trump and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) did in their presidential campaigns, are knee-jerk reactions, not strategies.
- An effective set of safeguards to prevent a repetition of the kind of ethical mess we have seen in the Trump White House. For example, rules, requiring candidates to make tax returns public and cease all business activities once in office.
- A foreign policy for a world in which the United States is not the only superpower and incapable of forcing its wishes on other countries.
- An effective strategy for attracting urban voters that will not drive rural residents away.
What will the Post-Trump GOP look like?
The to-do list is ambitious but it is no more daunting than the set of demands that faced Republican leaders in 1964 or 1976. They eventually came together; restructured the party, and figured how to win elections and implement effective policies.
This brings us to the Grand Old Party of the Future, what will it look like and how will that organization function? Here are five potential scenarios for post-Trump Republican Party:
- Reaganism 2.0. – This is my favorite Republican future, a return to the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, ethical, realistic, and sophisticated conservatism we enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Such a revival is unlikely because it would require leaders the caliber of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. (I see none in today’s landscape). The popularity of pseudo-conservative propaganda outlets like Fox News and Breitbart demonstrates that there is no appetite for traditional or honest conservatism among voters.
- A White Christian Nationalist Party – Basically a GOP that only looks out for the interest of white, evangelical Christians and nobody else. This would lead to a party that is both unethical and unelectable. White Evangelical Christians make up just 17% of the population, and that number is in decline, The Public Religion Research Institute reported in 2017. There is simply no way a party that appeals to just 17% of voters can win either the White House or a Congressional majority in any sort of fair election.
- A populist or Economic Nationalist (Trumpist) Party. That is a party dedicated to protecting and strengthening America’s economic power and little else. There is some support for this; around 40% of Americans oppose free trade agreements according to the Pew Research Center. The problem here is that trade and immigration seem to be the only issues the populists have. They will need a far greater agenda to achieve a real majority and true influence. A greater dilemma is the lack of effective organization and leadership. The populists are an army with no general and no strategy, which portends defeat.
- A working class party. That is a party dedicated to the interests of the working class or lower-middle class. For this to work, the GOP would have to broaden its appeal to the nonwhite working class; especially Hispanics. Any such outreach is likely to drive away many of the white-working class voters Trump energized. Successful working-class outreach would also require a strong commitment to public education and entitlement expansion; both of which would drive away many conservative voters.
- A libertarian party. A party dedicated to small government and a high level of personal freedom. Even though some libertarian ideas; like low taxes and marijuana legalization, are popular this would be a very tough sale to voters. Most Americans like the idea of an activist government that works in their interests and provides lots of benefits.
- 21st Century Eisenhower Republicanism. This is the most likely scenario. That is a moderate, pro-business party that pays lip service to conservative values, but strongly supports a powerful government and expanding the welfare state. It would be a return to the Republican Party of the 1950s, which was willing to live with high taxes and expanding government as long as the private property was protected. This scenario will win because it will attract the most votes.
The bottom line is that the Republican Party will have to change completely if it is to survive the Post-Trump World. That will happen and it will create a new Party that most present-day Republicans can live with but will not be very comfortable in.