NBC News reports that America’s Republican Party finds itself in two binds.
The first is called Donald Trump. The party can either nominate him and lose the general election. Or it can stop him at the convention, infuriate Trump and his nativist supporters, quite possibly split the Republican coalition — and still lose the general election.
President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court poses a similar dilemma.
Republicans in the Senate can either relent, knowing that continued opposition to the relatively moderate Garland hurts their vulnerable colleagues in swing states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Or they can satisfy the hard right, which doesn’t want to give an inch — even if it means the court could end up with a more liberal judge when Hillary Clinton wins the election in November.
It looks increasingly likely that the party will surrender to its rightmost voters on both fronts.
If it does, James Fallows was right when he wrote in The Atlantic last year that the Republican Party “is going through a push to the extreme unlike anything that is happening to today’s Democrats and unlike anything else that has happened in politics since at least the Goldwater era and probably since long before.”
Fallows wasn’t the only one to see it. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein argued as early as 2012 that the Republican Party had become an “insurgent outlier” in American politics.
“It is ideologically extreme,” they wrote; “scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Mann and Ornstein also warned that when one of two parties moves so far from the mainstream, governing will become virtually impossible.
The writing has been on the wall for a while.
Mann and Ornstein gave the example of Florida congressman Allen West, who once said that dozens of his Democratic counterparts were secret members of the Communist Party.
Eric Cantor, the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives at the time and by no means a centrist, was driven out by a primary challenger from the far right in 2014.
John Boehner, the mildly pragmatic speaker of the House, resigned in desperation at the kamikaze tactics of some of his colleagues the following year.
The nomination of extremist or simply unqualified candidates like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell — who were all cheered on by the populist “Tea Party” — denied the party winnable Senate seats in Delaware, Missouri and Nevada.
And throughout the Obama presidency, fear of the far right has kept Republicans in Congress from doing their jobs: passing budgets, raising the debt ceiling in time, confirming ambassadorial and judicial appointments.
Some of the blame goes to Democrats, who held up spending bills in the Senate, for example.
It’s also not just Republican voters who have vacated the center. The Pew Research Center has found that both parties have become more ideologically homogenous in recent years and hence less willing to compromise.
94 percent of Democrats are now to the left of the median Republican voter whereas 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat. Twenty years ago, the figures were 70 and 64 percent, respectively.
27 percent of Democrats say Republicans are a threat to the country. Among Republicans, as many as 36 percent think Democrats are dangerous.
Leftwingers who — rightly — complain about some of the anti-Obama vitriol that has come from the right may want to recall some the things the far left said about his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
But there is a difference.
John Sides, a political scientist, has reported that many Republicans don’t seem to believe there is an electoral penalty for being strongly conservative. Many Democrats, by contrast, understand that a strong liberal will be penalized in a general election.
Hence Bernie Sanders isn’t doing too well in the Democratic primaries. Leftwingers may like him better than Hillary Clinton; they recognize that the former secretary of state is more likely to win in November.
But nearly one in two Republicans believe Ted Cruz, the far-right senator from Texas, could defeat Clinton in a presidential election, which is patently absurd.
Stranger yet, relatively moderate candidates like Jeb Bush (who dropped out in February) and Jonn Kasich are perceived by conservative activists as the least electable.
Part of the reason is that some rightwingers have convinced themselves that they lost the last two presidential elections because they nominated candidates who weren’t sufficiently right-wing — a myth that is peddled by the likes of Cruz.
But even Cruz, despite being ranked as the most reactionary candidate in this year’s primary election by FiveThirtyEight, isn’t seen as a hardliner by his supporters. Which goes to another part of the explanation for their extremism: these voters don’t know what extremism is anymore.
A YouGov survey conducted last year asked Americans to place themselves and the presidential candidates on an ideological scale from 0 (very liberal) to 100 (very conservative). Cruz scored 72, just above the Republican average of 71.
The rise of Trump has only made Cruz more acceptable to middle-of-the-road Republicans whereas many Trump supporters will see even Cruz, who has made a career out of exasperating well-meaning legislators with his take-no-prisoners attitude, as part of the “establishment”.
Stab in the back
There is no pleasing some people. If even Cruz, who is probably the most obstructionist Republican in Congress, isn’t anti-establishment enough, what else is there?
Some people don’t want be satisfied. The fact that some of self-described conservatives are switching to Trump shows they don’t really care about ideological purity or policy after all. Trump wasn’t even a Republican until a few years ago. He has taken positions on both sides of issues Republican voters are supposed to care deeply about, from abortion to property rights. Trump has no discernible principles. Nor does he have concrete policies other than building a wall on the Mexican border and assassinating the families of terrorists (a war crime).
Mainstream Republicans have been complicit in some of this. As Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein argued last year, the Americans who are drawn to Trump have been told for years that there are easy solutions to complicated problems and that the normal frustrations of politics are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.
Worse, many conservatives who should have known better have helped convince voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause.
Mona Charen, a conservative columnist, has blamed right-wing opinionmakers who “have ceaselessly promoted the false narrative that the Republican ‘grassroots’ have been betrayed by the Republican leadership in Washington.”
“There has been a flavor of ‘stabbed in the back’ to these accusations,” she said.
Look up Dolchstoßlegende if you’re not sure where that leads to.
Let them go
What can well-meaning Republicans do now?
They are not going to unwind decades of radicalization in the span of a few months, but that is all the time they have to stop Trump. And they must, for the sake of their party and the republic.
If Republicans nominate Trump for the presidency, the party of limited government, Christian morals and a responsible foreign policy would make a mockery of itself.
Denying Trump the nomination will be difficult and could get riotous. The New York businessman has promised to turn the convention in Cleveland this summer upside down if he doesn’t win. His supporters could walk out.
It is about time Republicans stop indulging their movement’s worst instincts and start tempering their base’s expectations instead.
A political party is more than a vehicle for the emotions and expectations of some voters; it exists to advance certain interests and policy preferences and to act as an intermediary between the whims of the electorate and the business of government.
Republicans haven’t paid nearly enough attention to the second part of that equation in recent years. That is why so many of their voters now have a tribal aversion to the other side and unreasonable expectations of what is politically feasible. In the conservative quest for purity, even getting 90 percent is no longer enough.
Appeasing such fanaticism only begets more of it. Witness Ted Cruz and Donald Trump splitting the majority of the primary vote this year.
If Republicans want to be a national governing party again, they cannot remain in thrall to the hardliners in their midst. They must start convincing voters that — to coin a phrase — reasonableness in the pursuit of liberty is no vice either.