WASHINGTON – It is no longer possible to think of “the Republican Party” as a coherent political force. It is nothing of the sort – and the Donald Trump insurgency should be seen as a symptom of the party’s disintegration, not the cause.
I realize this may seem an odd assessment of a party that controls both houses of Congress, 32 governorships and two-thirds of state legislative chambers. The desire to win and hold power is one thing the party’s hopelessly disparate factions agree on; staunch and sometimes blind opposition to President Barack Obama and the Democrats is another. After those, it’s hard to think of much else.
It makes no sense anymore to speak of “the GOP” without specifying which one. The party that celebrates immigration as central to the American experiment or the one that wants to round up 11 million people living here without papers and kick them out? The party that believes in U.S. military intervention and seeding the world with democratic values or the one that believes strife-torn nations should have to depose their own dictators and resolve their own civil wars? The party that represents the economic interests of business owners or the one that voices the anxieties of workers?
All of these conflicts were evident Tuesday night at the presidential candidates’ debate in Las Vegas. It was compelling theater – Trump mugging and shrugging for the cameras, Jeb Bush gamely steeling himself to go on the attack, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio waging a one-on-one battle, Chris Christie vowing to shoot down Russian jets over Syria, Ben Carson turning “boots on the ground” into a mantra without actually saying what he thinks about deploying them.
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A Republican optimist might praise the candidates for airing “serious” and “important” policy debates. A realist would say this is a party that appears to believe in anything, which is the same as believing in nothing.
One of the more telling exchanges came when Trump was asked whether the United States was safer with dictators running the troubled nations of the Middle East. Trump replied, “In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would have been a lot better off, I can tell you that right now.”
Carly Fiorina was aghast. “That is exactly what President Obama said,” she declared. “I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate.”
Indeed, there once was broad consensus within the party about the advisability and legitimacy of forcing “regime change” in pursuit of U.S. interests. But toppling even such a monster as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is opposed by Trump, Cruz and Rand Paul – who combined have the support of 51 percent of Republican voters, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. So apparently there isn’t a “Republican view” about foreign intervention anymore.
Nor is the party able to agree on immigration policy. Even if you somehow manage to look past Trump’s outrageous call for mass deportation, there is no consensus for the course of action favored by what’s left of the party establishment, which would be to give undocumented migrants some kind of legal status. The only point of concord is the allegation that Obama has failed to “secure the border,” which is actually far more secure than it was under George W. Bush.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party’s position on a given issue usually dovetailed nicely with the views of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the chamber supports giving the undocumented a path to legal status. It also waxes rhapsodic about the benefits of free trade for U.S. firms and shareholders. Now, since Trump opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact (as does Mike Huckabee), other candidates have had to mumble about waiting to see the details before deciding pro or con.
The GOP electorate has changed; it’s whiter, older, less educated and more blue collar than it used to be. Many of today’s Republicans don’t see globalization as an investment opportunity; they see it as a malevolent force that has dimmed their prospects. They don’t see the shrinking of the white majority as natural demographic evolution; they see it as a threat.
One of our two major political parties is factionalized and out of control. That should worry us all.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.