Opinion, Top Story

Why Republicans Need to Lose Decisively

The party must be made to realize it cannot continue as a far-right movement.

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump answers questions from reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 18, 2019 (White House/Shealah Craighead)

Anti-Trump conservatives in the United States are debating how much to punish the Republican Party for enabling a would-be strongman.

David French argues against voting out Republicans at every level, calling it “counterproductive for those of us who still believe that the conservative elements of the Republican Party provide the best prospects for securing the liberty, prosperity and security of the American republic” and “completely devoid of grace.”

It ignores the monumental pressures that Donald Trump has placed on the entire GOP and the lack of good options that so many GOP officeholders faced.

Charles Sykes is less forgiving, arguing it’s impossible to defeat Trumpism while leaving his bootlickers in power.

I agree. Going against Trump may have been difficult for Republican legislators; we don’t elect politicians to do the easy thing.

Not conservative

My opinion may not carry much weight. I’m neither American nor conservative. I’m one of those anti-Trumpers Ramesh Ponnuru describes as siding with Democrats on abortion, gun control and taxes:

Naturally they are less worried about a Democratic sweep and more eager to see a political catastrophe for Republicans…

I supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016 because I believe in Atlanticism and free enterprise and oppose deficit spending and illegal immigration. I’m not animated by the same issues as social conservatives or reactionaries. Four years of Joe Biden would come as a relief to me.

Perspective

I can offer some historical and international perspective.

During the 2016 primaries, I wrote something was rotten in the Republican Party if a demagogue like Trump could prevail over a sensible, center-right former governor like Bush.

Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Mona Charen blamed right-wing opinionmakers who for years told the Republican “grassroots” they had been “stabbed in the back” by their own leaders. Jonathan Bernstein blamed those leaders, who told Republican voters to trust in easy solutions and believe that the normal frustrations of politics were the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.

The worst were what I called Vichy Republicans, whose support for Trump looked like a bid for relevance.

Most — Chris Christie, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Jeff Sessions — were let down by Trump.

So were those Republicans who backed him later, from Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to House speaker Paul Ryan to the many advisors and cabinet secretaries who either resigned when they realized they couldn’t influence Trump or were fired for perceived disloyalty.

And still Republicans cling to Trump in a belief they can rein in his worst instincts.

Von Papens

Franz von Papen
German vice chancellor Franz von Papen in 1933 (Bundesarchiv)

Anti-Trumpers like Sykes see a personality cult, and I see that too when I look at Trump’s supporters. But when I look at Republicans in Congress, I see a party of Franz von Papens.

An old-style German conservative, Von Papen was dismayed by the power of the Social Democrats in the post-World War I republic. He thought he could harness the popularity of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to restore the Empire in all but name. Within a year, Hitler had sidelined Von Papen and the old right.

Von Papen wasn’t alone. Religious conservatives, military leaders, Prussian elites and West German industrialists all made the mistake of thinking the center-left posed a bigger danger to them than the far right. They tolerated the rise of Nazism even when it became clear Hitler had no intention of working within the system. Too few rebelled, too late.

The German example isn’t unique. The same thing happened in Spain, where the Catholic Church, monarchists and many business and military leaders supported Francisco Franco in the Civil War against anarchists, communists, social democrats and trade unions. Some conservatives and nationalists made the same mistake in 1940 France, when they argued for a quick peace with the German invader. They became the leaders of the collaborationist Vichy regime, which was vanquished in four years. In postwar France, the Communist Party became more powerful than ever, joining the provisional government immediately after the Second World War and François Mitterrand’s left-wing government in the 1980s.

Center-right politicians in France and Germany have learned from their mistakes and ruled out cooperation with the National Front and Alternative for Germany. Center-right leaders in Spain haven’t. Their flirtation with the neo-Francoist Vox was duly punished by voters last year.

Middle

The same needs to happen in the United States.

Jonah Goldberg has a point when he writes that the anti-Trump right is small, and Ponnuru is also correct that a post-Trump Republican Party will have to include many of the same people who put Trump in power.

But elections are won in the middle. Democrats won in 2018 thanks to Romney-to-Clinton voters in the suburbs. If Biden wins in November, it will be with the support of those same voters.

The same type of voters who in Germany support Angela Merkel and would never vote for the Alternative. Who in France supported the Republican candidate, François Fillon, in the last presidential election before switching to the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the second round instead of voting for Marine Le Pen. Who in Spain voted for the social democrat Pedro Sánchez instead of a conservative People’s Party in thrall to Vox.

If America’s Republicans are to be pulled back from the far right, they need to lose decisively in the center first.

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