Where Do We Go From Here? How the GOP’s Ideological Divide Will Lead to its Destruction and the Moderation of Politics.
Author’s Note: This article was written for the November Issue of the political magazine at my school. All photos belong to their respective owners.
As Philip Elliot wrote in a 2020 TIME article, the Republican party has become an “appendage” of President Donald Trump. Now without a platform, Elliot writes, the party has latched onto “personality and feelings” with their enactment of “gut-driven policies”. Elliot’s assessment of the GOP reflects a shift of the party from one that aligned itself with Reagan to one that now aligns itself with Trump. While this pathos-driven approach and its policies might be successful in the short term, they serve to damage the GOP in the future, especially once their charismatic leader, Trump, leaves. With Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the rush of medical professionals to use any and all treatments on the aging leader, Trump’s mortality became clear. But what happens when the leader and figurehead of the party dies? Will Republicans continue in Trump’s shadow like they did with Reagan or will they recollect and reestablish their party platform?
Donald Trump’s announcement of his presidential campaign in June of 2015 marked a turning point for America and the Republican party especially. His formal nomination in July of the following year finalized the party’s gradual shift from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump and the gradual acceptance and encouragement of what Peter Wehner of TIME called the “political knife-fighting tactics” of the 1990s and 2000s. So while Trump did not start the usage of these divisive, anti-compromise tactics, he embraced them and in doing so enabled other Republicans to use them. To understand how we got to this point, we have to understand the recent history of the GOP and its former figurehead, Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan rose to power in the 1980s, America and the problems its people had were different. Americans of the 80s were facing high inflation, interest rates, and unemployment. Reagan’s tax policies, also called “Reaganomics”, sought to bring the United States back to the supply-side or “free-market” economic policies of the pre-depression era with tax cuts and the simplification of the tax code. In his approach to decreasing illegal immigration, Reagan sought to grant amnesty and an easy citizenship process for undocumented immigrants within the US and deincentivize hiring those who were undocumented. Reagan’s temperament also reflected the needs of the Republican Party at the time — especially the need for minority voters who had shifted to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression.
While Reagan’s presidency ended, the ideas of his economic policies didn’t. Members of the Republican party deemed themselves “Reaganites” and kept Reagan’s platform even as the problems his policies originally addressed changed. Now, even though interest rates are lower than 2% (in comparison, they were in the double digits when Reagan took office), Republicans still propose policies in the same vein as Reagan’s. In doing so, they have lost touch with the working-class Americans that Reagan fought so hard to secure. Instead, the GOP has begun to cater to big businesses with tax cuts and by widening top tax brackets.
Today’s GOP also has lost touch with minorities. In direct contrast to Reagan, modern Republicans have taken a hardline stance against illegal immigration by repeatedly threatening DACA, proposing a border wall, promoting the use of detention centers known for their horrific conditions, and initiating the separation of children and parents at the border. The GOP has also tried harder to appeal more to white voters and white supremacists by using racial, inflammatory language. This shift has been happening for years — the GOP has invited representatives of this new rhetoric to their party since the 1990s — but it has always been more subtle and gradual, only speeding up and becoming more overt recently. Trump is simply the encapsulation and climax of that gradual increase of militant nationalism and willing divisionism that the Republican party now finds itself host to.
Trump’s recent COVID diagnosis and the treatment he received was a brutal reminder of Trump’s mortality. After all, he is a man, clinically obese, and seventy-four years old, all of which are high risk factors. Even if Trump recovers from the virus, the disease might leave him with lasting side effects that may force him out of the public eye. So what happens after Trump is gone, either from a public political life or after he dies?
The answer is complicated. Like Reagan, Trump’s influence in the party will not disappear over the coming decades. His stances on immigration and healthcare will probably not fade. However, it is likely that they will fall out of favor and the extremism of the party’s right wing may fracture the GOP into two parts. The first is the side of the self-described “sensible” conservatives who believe in reduced government, free-market capitalism, and deincentivizing illegal immigration instead of building a border wall. These conservatives have been sidelined during the Trump administration who see their willingness to compromise with Democrats as a weakness. The second part is comprised of fevered far right wing conservatives like Trump who enable white supremacy, conspiracy theories (including QAnon, which Donald Trump refused to renounce at his town hall on October 15th), and domestic terrorism. This schism cannot last forever. In the next coming years, we will see a continued fight over the soul of the Republican party. But which of these sides will win?
To that I answer either one or none. As we have seen, the GOP has become too divided to stand. Either the moderate or far right wing will win, and I think it will be the moderate conservatives who prevail. As time goes on, the right wing conservatives will keep their strong yet small base of voters, but those people won’t be enough anymore. With increasing resentment towards the electoral college and the increase of faithless elector voting laws (which require delegates in the electoral college to vote in accordance with the proportion of the popular vote of their state) and the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling to uphold those laws, an extremist candidate simply will not be able to enjoy the same success Trump has been able to. Even if the GOP succeeds in packing the Supreme Court (which their confirmation of Amy Connett Barrett suggests they wish to do), and thwarts the mounting efforts against their doing so on both sides of the political scale, a majority Democratic Congress can pass a Constitutional amendment changing the Supreme Court. And even if those amendments fail, when more justices die, either Democratic presidents or more moderate Republicans will fill the Supreme Court with more centrist or left-leaning justices.
The party’s racial and gender discriminatory policies will also only continue to drive away voters. And, if Democrats win a majority in Congress even with a Republican president, the push to pass more voting laws granting easier access for formerly disenfranchised voters who tend to lean liberal will only aid the extremist Republicans’ decline. So yes, while in the House and in local elections some of these candidates will continue to prevail, extremists will only function at smaller levels of government.
If the moderate conservatives prevail, we will likely see more balanced elections. In the status quo, Democrats and Republicans have both marketed their campaigns as “us vs. evil”. Once the GOP becomes more moderate, I believe that the Democratic party will do the same to win the centrist vote. So, when extremist sides of both parties have to become more moderate, elections will become more about platforms than emotions and broad concepts of destruction. In short, politics will become boring again. But, after four years of an undoubtedly not boring presidency, isn’t boring and normalcy what we all wish to go back to?
Will the division of the Republican party and the moderation of both parties be slow? No. Will it be painful? Yes. But no big change, and especially no necessary change, is ever painless.