As a Republican, I watched the Nevada caucus with dread. The results were clear to anyone who paid attention to the polls prior to election day: Donald Trump would be declared the victor by a “yugeee” margin.
Donald Trump’s meteoric rise from laughable pariah to the Republican frontrunner has alarmed many both inside and outside the Grand Old Party — and for good reason. His demagoguery has been an embarrassment to Republicans and to the nation at large. Moderate Republicans like myself now have to come to terms with the very real possibility that Donald Trump might become our nominee come July. But a Trump nomination may not be such a bad thing after all. In fact, I would venture to say it might just be what the GOP needs.
His demagoguery has been an embarrassment to Republicans and to the nation at large.
It isn’t necessarily a ludicrous idea since something similar has happened before. In 1964, the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party staged a revolt against the establishment wing of the party and nominated a hawkish, hardline conservative in Barry Goldwater. He was the perfect conservative candidate: unwavering, uncompromising, headstrong. His most famous line of the election was, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But the attributes that attracted conservative Republicans repulsed the rest of the country. That year, Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party pummeled Goldwater in an electoral landslide, winning 44 states and over 60 percent of the popular vote.
It demonstrated that the extremist brand of politics was simply unpalatable to voters. That lesson stuck. Republicans nominated moderates in the years that followed, and won five of the next six presidential contests. Even Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero of many Republicans, placed pragmatism over politics. Though he painted himself as a conservative, he raised taxes numerous times and granted amnesty to nearly three million undocumented immigrants.
The lesson of moderate politics slowly became unlearned again. In the aftermath of Obama’s victory in 2008, Republicans made a Faustian bargain by allowing the Tea Party to take hold. The movement tapped into a deep-seated anger towards government and allowed the Republican Party to sweep congressional and state office nationwide in the years that followed. But it came at the cost of accepting a radical, anti-intellectual, ultra-conservative ideology, with elements of nativism and xenophobia that left no room for compromise. Anyone too moderate was deemed a RINO, or a Republican In Name Only, and cast aside as a heretic. The effects of that takeover showed in the 2012 election as Mitt Romney played ideological twister in his attempts to steer hard to the right in order to placate Tea Party primary voters, and then towards to middle in a vain attempt to placate moderate voters. Throughout the election, Romney was plastered with accusations of “RINO” from the right and “out-of-touch millionaire” from the left.
But it [accepting the Tea Party movement] came at the cost of accepting a radical, anti-intellectual, ultra-conservative ideology, with elements of nativism and xenophobia that left no room for compromise.
After defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee released a memo stating, “Unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.” It advocated that the party adopt more moderate policy ideas and candidates in order to appeal to a broader audience. Tea Party Republicans rejected the diagnosis, believing instead that they had lost because their candidate was not conservative enough.
That lingering anger has shown in this year’s election cycle. The establishment moderates have lost their sway, as evidenced by the rejection of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich by the Republican voters in numerous states. They were/are the best hope the GOP had to avoid a third consecutive presidential defeat. Republican voters have rejected that hope in favor of a reality TV star who promises to make America great again by sheer force of personality.
Recent polls have consistently suggested that in a general election matchup, Trump would be the only major Republican candidate who would lose to Hillary Clinton. It would be no surprise. After all, Trump’s brand of misogynist, nativist demagoguery hardly endears him to women or minority voters, two groups absolutely necessary in winning presidential elections. Given that Republican candidates have already struggled to gain traction with nonwhite voters in recent elections, a Trump nomination would only exacerbate the problem. 62 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, the highest of any candidate in the election, Republican or Democrat.
Against all odds, his bluster has not cost him heavily yet, but his luck can only hold for so long.
Trump’s worst enemy, however, is not Hillary Clinton, but himself. His bombastic rhetoric has included insulting women and Latinos, voicing his desire to punch people in the face, killing civilians to combat ISIS and bragging that he could shoot someone without losing a single supporter. Against all odds, his bluster has not cost him heavily yet, but his luck can only hold for so long. Having already shown his inability to keep a calm temperament against candidates within his own party, it seems likely that the problem would be even worse against a Democratic one with the very real potential to defeat him.
All this paves the way for a potential thrashing in the general election if he becomes the Republican nominee. His defeat would send a message to the radicals that the existing Tea Party-controlled coalition of Republican voters simply cannot win elections. Only a public shaming of their chosen candidate can bring about that change. A repeat of the 1964 may be the antidote to the toxic mix of close-minded conservatism that has plagued the Republican Party. Maybe then, and only then, can we make the Republican Party great again.