As Washington insider Jim Papa puts it, “If the Republican Party had its own Mount Rushmore, that mountain would have three faces: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. The goal of every Republican candidate should be to become the fourth face on that mountain.” After the unimaginable, sickening, events of early January suffice it to say that outgoing President Donald Trump will not be joining the pantheon.
Instead, for any good that he has done, Trump’s name will be forever linked with sedition, inciting mob violence against the Congress, and narcissistically caring far more about his own needs than the Republic he swore an oath to preserve. Trump’s own heinous actions have placed him beyond the pale of any proper American discourse; he is, in the damning words of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, now “a man without a country.”
But what of the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan, how can it reconstitute itself from the ashes of sedition, mob rule, and extra-constitutionalism? Here are five steps that can save the Grand Old Party.
First, the real-world facts of the 2020 election must be accepted. Republicans are surely entitled to different feelings and interpretations than have Democrats about objective reality; what they are not entitled to are different facts. Donald Trump’s self-serving theories of voter fraud have led the GOP along the disastrous path of unreason, with the party increasingly serving as a refuge for conspiracy theorists. To be taken seriously, the party must now act seriously. The 2020 election is what it is; the GOP lost and it is well past time to get over it.
Second, Trump himself, and his immediate minions, must be anathema. In reaching out to the rest of the country following the insurrection of January 6th, the worst thing Republicans can do is to make excuses for Trump, saying something along the lines of, “Yes, he went too far in the end, but Trump did some good.” While this may indeed be true, there can be absolutely no excuses for what happened last week. None. Period. Ever.
Incitement to sedition must never be excused, condoned, or explained away if the Republicans are to truly put this behind them. The traditional Party of Union (think Lincoln), the working man (think Teddy Roosevelt), and personal decency and responsibility (think Reagan) must not eschew these values precisely when they are needed. Trump must be forthrightly censured (either via the 25th Amendment, impeachment and conviction, or be relentlessly attacked for what he did once he has finally gone), and his enabling minions – such as his know-nothing son, Donald Junior, and feckless Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz – must be marginalized within the party. Patriotic love of country is at the base of Republicanism; it must once again serve as the party’s central organizing principle.
Third, while Trump is anathema, moving ahead the party must adhere to the portions of Trumpism that have served the country well. In terms of domestic issues, a belief in deregulation, tax cuts, nominating originalist judges, and giving the working class a fair shake are all elements of Trumpism the party ought to forthrightly champion and retain.
In terms of foreign affairs, a laser-like focus on China as America’s new superpower rival, supporting the gains made in the Middle East signified by the Abraham Accords (peace treaties between Israel, Bahrain, and UAE, as well as Sudan and Morocco) and the US tilt towards the Sunni Arab states and Israel to balance against an expansionistic Iran that they symbolize, must also be retained. More than this, the party’s general shift back to its traditional realist foreign policy stance – where American national interests are paramount – must be seen as the present and the vital future for the Party’s overall foreign policy orientation, eschewing its disastrous earlier flirtation with neo-conservatism.
Fourth, the best way to come back is to serve as a loyal opposition to the new Biden administration, supporting him when his policies coincide with Republican ideals and respectfully opposing him when they do not. When the Biden White House governs from the center, Republicans must support his policies, in the name of serving the country. For example, a significant further COVID-19 stimulus and a desperately necessary infrastructure program, deserve GOP support when they are sent to the Hill.
On the other hand, Democratic Party efforts regarding “court packing”, ending the Senate filibuster, and advocating a ruinously expensive Green New Deal must be vigorously – if respectfully – fought tooth and nail as contrary to basic Republican beliefs. But moving on from the hatred Trump came to epitomize, disagreements must be centered on policies and not the people espousing them, who must be treated as the patriots they are, even if Republicans believe they are misguided.
Fifth, winning back the party on these terms will be an uphill battle. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of October 31, 2020 – taken just before the election – found 54% of GOP voters saying they were supporters of Trump primarily, while only 38% said they were Republicans first. Incredibly, more than half the Republicans in the outgoing House, even after the insurrection, voted to contest the Arizona election results. Trump’s Gallup poll approval rating in the GOP throughout his term has been regularly over 80%, the highest in Republican polling history, greater than Eisenhower’s popularity, or even Reagan’s. We are in for an uphill climb to redeem the party’s soul.
Winning back the party from the disastrous detour of Trump will take years of patiently pushing this five-point agenda. But, to put it mildly, this is what Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan would have us do. For those of us who are heartsick Republicans, it is the challenge of our time.