How near is the end of the Republican Party as we know it? That is, and probably will be, the inescapable political question of the day - at least until next year’s midterm elections, when voters will decide whether to cast their lot with GOP candidates loyal to Trumpism, traditional conservatives, or neither, turning Congress back over to the Democrats.
One thing seems certain. Despite President Donald Trump’s recent reassurances that there is no division in the party that elected him to the White House, there is, and all his blustery denials to the contrary are as disingenuous as most everything that comes out of his mouth. His kiss-and-make-up with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after harsh words that included questions over the Kentucky lawmaker’s own fitness to carry out his (Trump’s) over-the-top agenda is clearly a case in point.
At the same time the hotelier-in-chief was professing his admiration for McConnell and denying there had been anything but the warmest feelings between them, Steven Bannon, once Trump’s alt-right chief strategist in the White House on all things pertinent to governance, was pledging to push McConnell out of his leadership spot.
Actually, one must wonder at times who really is the president of the United States - Trump or Bannon. Obviously, the pair decided the former Wall Streeter and leading architect in plans to turn back the clock to at least the 19th century on the issues of war, pestilence and famine could do their cause more good outside 1600 Pennsylvania avenue in his old position at Breitbart News, where he would not be restrained by the strictures of the Oval Office. Here he could remold Republicanism by openly working to off the collective heads of the party’s establishment.
There is some credibility to charges by disaffected moderate conservatives that Trump is a mere shill in all this - that those reactionary forces in the party who want a mainly white-bread America with immigration and taxes at a minimum and scaled-back health care, not to mention the abolition of a variety of progressive measures that retard action against global warming and other 21st century advances, looked around until they found someone tailored to their agenda who also wanted to be president.
Here was a real estate manipulator and TV personality billionaire with no real party attachment whose narcissistic desires were in urgent need of satisfying.
With any luck he could drive a wedge down the middle of the moderate hold on the GOP, building on the tea party success. Those around Trump at the beginning understood there was an unhappiness among a larger number of lower middleclass Americans who felt economically put down by 11 million undocumented workers, and a variety of policies that they felt cheated them of their share of the American dream. Never mind that the man they chose was completely unsuited in every aspect to hold down the job. He said the right things, and the more belligerent and ridiculous his promises, the more they loved him.
The manipulators understood something else. They realized that the GOP leaders and the moderates generally were so desperate to recapture the White House after eight years they probably would back Charlie McCarthy if Edgar Bergen would put their words in his mouth. So instead of stopping this preposterous charade when they could have, they stepped aside and let it happen. to their own regret.
This has led a number of Republicans, including George W. Bush, who broke the silence he has maintained since leaving office, to warn of a divisiveness in the nation engendered by Trump’s distempered rhetoric and precipitous actions. Two key senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of his first supporters, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, said they had enough of Trump and said they would not seek re-election with both pulling no punches, denouncing him as a threat to responsible government. Trump countered they really planned to quit because they couldn’t be re-elected.
So far, however, most of the Republicans in both houses have kept their eyes on their shoes, clearly waiting to see the public’s reaction to all this. Will they stay that way? It’s too early to tell, but Democrats don’t need many votes to continue to disrupt Trump’s (and Bannon’s) agenda. Meanwhile, Bannon is promising to put up candidates everywhere, and pro-establishment followers have set up a political action committee in response. No war? Baloney!
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.