As President Donald Trump cruised through the election in 2016, the support he picked up from both the GOP’s base of voters and its leaders seemed inexplicable.
It wasn’t hard to understand just because he was a reality TV star, or had mixed results in his business career, or was on his third marriage, or because he said terrible things about people. It was hard to understand because Trump didn’t seem to support any of the bedrock ideals the GOP had run on for decades.
But it turns out — and we owe Trump a huge debt of gratitude for making this clear — that many Republicans don’t believe in that stuff, either. It was a ruse, and a very effective one.
And it sucked in a lot of us.
The GOP I grew up with and, often supported, was a band of disparate factions held together by a set of shared principles:
- The deficit needs to be controlled and the budget balanced, or the nation will eventually pay a terrible price.
- Issues not spelled out in the U.S. Constitution are up to the states. This is an absolute right of the states, a way to learn which of 50 methods work best, and allows differently minded people to live as they see fit.
- The federal government is too large and ought to do less, not more, wherever possible.
Then again, there were a dozen things the conservative coalition that first came together to support Ronald Reagan in 1980 disagreed on. Reason magazine and National Review and televangelist types quarreled over things from military spending to fundamentalist Christianity to immigration policy, but on the basics, they held together. That is, until the real priorities of the party became clear.
Concerns about deficits and balanced budgets were always less important to Republican presidents when they had the White House, but usually there would still be a GOP contingent of deficit hawks in Congress. But such ideals meant nothing once Trump gave the party a way to pass a huge tax cut for corporations and the rich. The plan is projected to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. And the crumbs the bill has for middle-class taxpayers will expire in 2025, unlike the corporate cut.
Concerns about states’ rights, so important to the GOP when it fought federal attempts to secure rights for minorities or women or gay people, turned out to be merely crusades against minorities and women and gay people. GOP members in the House of Representatives gave up that credo to fight for guns, recently passing a bill that would make it impossible for states to limit who can carry concealed weapons. The law would let anyone allowed to carry in states with no restrictions carry in every state, bypassing state and local rules on training, applications and background checks.
And complaints about federal overreach were dropped from the docket by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He has screamed for Washington to leave his home state of Alabama alone for 35 years. But apparently, it’s only fighting pollution or demanding minorities be educated that he sees as unfair intervention. Sessions is happy to let the federal government go back to prosecuting people for marijuana offenses even in states where voters have legalized the drug. Any true ideological conservative would fight this, understanding both that it’s a states’ rights issue, and that Sessions’ plan refutes the will of voters.
None of this betrayal of the values the GOP advertised is Trump’s fault. He never claimed to care about these principles. He’s not obligated to fight for them. But when Trump is gone, the GOP, having blown up its carefully constructed image, will have only its true ideals to fall back on.
Which is to say, none at all.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.