WASHINGTON – The Republican Party is everywhere triumphant – House and Senate, executive and legislative, national and state – and yet faces a series of crises.
There is a crisis of identity. Trump now leads a coalition including the Republican establishment – and people who despise the Republican establishment. The insurgent president-elect – lacking relevant experience, adequate personnel and actual policy proposals – cannot exercise power without the help of those he ridiculed.
Trump has chosen to incorporate this conflict into the structure of the West Wing. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was the sponsor of the 2013 Republican autopsy report, which called on the party to accommodate America’s multicultural future. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has made a career out of resisting that future. This is less a team of rivals than an ideological cage fight.
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Every good presidential transition should involve betraying a few of your friends. Not everyone who helps a president to become president is fit to help him govern. Bannon – whose Breitbart News invited the alt-right into the conservative mainstream and who has made a business model out of spreading conspiratorial nonsense – belongs in this category, along with Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Corey Lewandowski and the rest of the distracting campaign sideshow.
For the Republican Party, this is also a governing crisis. Trump won office promising to undo globalization, bring back manufacturing jobs and fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed.” So expectations are pretty high. But Trumpism, for the most part, consists of cultural signals and symbolic goals, not a set of developed proposals.
Many Republican members of Congress are frankly confused. Are they supposed to follow Trump’s lead or supply his agenda? He has embraced massive infrastructure investment, but there is no favored bill or detailed plan. Obamacare must go, but what approach to “replace” does Trump prefer? Speaker Paul Ryan is pushing for tax reform. Does the president-elect have any interest in the topic at all? The biggest frustration reported by Republicans who have met with Trump is his inability to focus for any period of time. He is impatient with facts and charts and he changes the subject every few minutes. Republican leaders need policy leadership – or permission to provide it themselves.
One area where the agenda is unifying and well developed concerns the reversal of Obama-era executive orders. Republican lawyers have spent the last year and a half working in study groups on reversal language, in order to be ready on the first day of a GOP presidency. The action most likely to cause controversy would overturn President Obama’s limited amnesty for students brought illegally to America as children. Most Republicans think that executive order was illegal; but most Americans will probably find the victims of reversing the order to be sympathetic.
This hints at the long-term political crisis faced by the triumphant GOP. Trump won the presidency in a manner that undermines the GOP’s electoral future. He demonstrated that the “coalition of the ascendant” – including minorities, millennials, and the college-educated – is not yet ascendant. But in a nation where over half of babies under 5 years old are racial and ethnic minorities, it eventually will be. Trump was elected by a 70 percent white electorate. But that was about 2 percentage points lower than in the 2012 election – and that number has been dropping by about 2 points each presidential election for decades. Trump’s white turnout strategy is not the wave of the future; it is the last gasp of an old and disturbing electoral approach.
The final crisis faced by the GOP – and just about everyone else – relates to the quality of our political culture. Trump won office in a way that damaged our democracy. He fed resentment against minorities, promised to jail his opponent and turned shallow invective into an art form. If he governs as he campaigned, Trump will smash the unity of our country into a thousand shards of bitterness.
We should hope that the president-elect will be sobered by the responsibilities of high office and discovers hidden resources of charity (even though malice has been the habit of a lifetime). He deserves the space at least to try. But Republicans may end up depending on a younger generation of leaders – Paul Ryan, Ben Sasse, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio – to demonstrate the possibility of unifying aspiration and civil disagreement. And that would lay the foundation for a lasting and honorable victory.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.