Nominating a charlatan for president is the most obvious indication of the rot at the core of the Republican Party. No healthy institution would voluntarily elect Donald Trump to lead it.
The speech Trump delivered in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, attacking globalization and trade, will provide more cause for panic among Republican elites. Yet Trump’s ascendance has obscured, for a time, the equally big troubles that produced him.
Balancing conflicting interests within a coalition is tough. Among Democrats, tension persists, for example, between unions and the party’s supporters in global finance. Democrats have tried to mediate that conflict by, among other things, supporting free-trade agreements that include provisions specifically favored by labor. The party faces a similar struggle between labor and environmentalists, who have wildly divergent opinions about the benefits of, say, pipeline construction. Likewise, Democrats occasionally stick it to their wealthy supporters, raising their taxes. Other times, they retreat, as when they abandoned President Barack Obama’s plan to tax 529 education plans.
The Republican Party doesn’t mediate the conflicting interests of its constituent parts so much as yield to whichever is most adamant about a given issue. It increasingly functions as a clearinghouse for fanatics.
This is perhaps most evident in climate politics, where the party has surrendered to conspiracy theorists and science deniers in service of carbon-polluting industries.
It’s also glaringly apparent in gun politics. Republicans support background checks for gun purchases at federally licensed stores, to keep firearms from felons. But they oppose background checks by private sellers online or at gun shows, with the practical effect of enabling felons to purchase guns without restraint - obviating the law they claim to support. There is no logic at work, only obeisance to the National Rifle Association, which treats any new regulation as an existential threat.
On taxes, Republicans are in thrall to a similarly narrow band. After four decades of rising inequality, and widespread angst and resentment among even many Republicans, Speaker Paul Ryan continues to promote huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (as does Trump). Recent American history has shredded whatever intellectual pretense this policy might once have claimed. And the public opposes showering more money on the wealthy. But it doesn’t matter. Rich Republicans eagerly want to keep more money. Ryan obliges.
Such tax cuts would lead to devastating deficits. But there is no Republican constituency vehemently opposed to deficits. The countervailing force is negligible.
Likewise, there is no Republican constituency devoted to expanding quality health care among the populace. There is only the party’s Grover Norquist wing, which is fiercely opposed to government spending - indeed, to government itself.
That’s why Ryan’s long-awaited health-care plan was never going to be an actual plan. There is no appetite for one - just an eagerness to smite Barack Obama, symbolically if that’s the best they can manage.
True to form, Ryan has offered not a health-care plan but a sketchy map of spending cuts, rendered in familiar euphemisms. His plan “empowers states” and “clears out bureaucracy” and forges a path to “saving and strengthening” Medicare. Ryan notably avoids details. (It took six years to produce even this evasion.) Numbers would make it instantly clear that there is no magical path to savings. The way to achieve his goal of dramatically reduced health-care costs is to dramatically reduce access to health care.
Immigration breaks the Republican rule on issues such as guns and climate and taxes and spending. The party’s nativist wing is its most adamant, and has had the most success recently in Congress. Driven by racial animus, economic and cultural anxieties and nationalist impulses, Republican voters have found a champion in Trump. Yet Ryan, backed by pro-immigration corporations, has refused to capitulate to the restrictionists. The party is at a standstill, each side intensely distrustful of the other.
On foreign policy, Trump’s condemnation of trade, and his explicit nationalism and intermittent isolationism (we’ll mind our own business except when we’re bombing someone back to the Stone Age), have likewise taken root among his supporters. But Ryan backs trade deals and internationalism consistent with U.S. policy over previous decades. And he doesn’t seem inclined, so far, to budge on those positions.
What Ryan’s two exceptions have in common, of course, is a backstop of broad corporate power, which partially blocks the Republicans’ wildest pitches. It’s a weak barrier. Corporate America has been unwilling to contest the fanatics on terrain that isn’t essential to it, such as on guns. On selfish terrain, such as carbon emissions and tax cuts for corporations and executives, it’s surely no better.
Still, corporations, however narrow and self-serving, are the only powerful moderating influence left in the party. (The herd of moderate GOP governors has been brutally culled.) Some corporations are now getting spooked. Fearing brand damage, a number of them have already bailed out of the party convention in Cleveland.
That’s a direct result of Trump, of course. In his speech Tuesday, he blasted globalization in such stark terms that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took to social media to counter him in real time. Trump hasn’t just elevated the party’s crudest instincts. He is alienating its most sober components, and posing a direct challenge to corporate Republicans with his improvisational populism. And he has genuine support, much of it from Republicans who want nothing to do with a corporate agenda.
Republican madness preceded Trump, and will persist after he quits the stage. The only question is whether the GOP’s deepening descent into bedlam will prompt a broader reconsideration among corporate leaders. The GOP has worked for them as long as corporations dominated the party’s tax and regulation policy. But despite Ryan’s devotion, their standing is growing more precarious.
Extremism didn’t drive corporations out of the GOP. Could Trump?
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.