Magann: A House Divided

Embracing President Donald Trump threatens our party systems.

by Matthew Magann | 1/26/18 1:00am

The modern Republican Party is built on contradictions. Classical liberals and social conservatives never had much in common past a shared hostility toward communism. Yet the GOP alliance has proven strong. Republicans pander to bigoted elements within American society, but often as a means to an end; social conservatism rallies for a core policy of limited government and free markets. Republicans need to incorporate social conservatives in order to win elections and promote their agenda.

But now they have a new coalition partner. Despite opposition from prominent Republicans, President Donald Trump’s populism has seized a vital role within the GOP. While it has garnered votes for Republicans, it has also attacked the party’s unity and values.

To understand the extent of Republican discord, scroll through the comments section of a Breitbart article. Below a story featuring Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, I found a torrent of vitriol directed toward the senator and the GOP. Commenters dub McConnell “McZit” and “Mr. Obstructionist Legislator,” arguing that America should “get rid of all of these RINO’s to help Trump and our nation succeed.”This is hardly a friendly compromise between the GOP mainstream and Trump’s populist acolytes.

Despite the dissension, the far right still finds a home in the Republican Party. That’s to say nothing of ideology. The alt-right, which deals in nativist rhetoric, might side with conservatives, but its noxious ideology opposes the mainstream GOP nearly as much as it does the Democrats. Previously, free-market conservatives made major concessions to social conservatism as a compromise to rally votes for key policies. With its embrace of the alt-right, though, the Republican Party hasn’t just made concessions; it has abandoned core values to win elections.

Trump’s ideology explicitly rejects the mainstream GOP; his populist, isolationist rhetoric seems at odds with the Republican message of small government, free trade and assertive foreign policy. Despite Trump’s opposition to traditional conservatism, Republican politicians have largely fallen in line behind the president, and for a good reason: The base loves him. Recent polls show support for Trump at roughly 80 percent among Republicans, and that rating has hardly moved even as Trump reneged on his populist campaign promises and championed policies supported by mainstream Republicans. This all points to a terrible conclusion. For one, many Republican voters have replaced policy beliefs with partisan loyalty. Worse, the Republican Party has shown itself willing to abandon core principles and party unity if doing so gets candidates elected. By aligning with the alt-right, it prioritized winning elections over policy-making. With voters unconcerned by ideological shifts like the one Trump brought, the party has largely ceased to derive its support from its policies, focusing more on party loyalty, regardless of what form that takes.

The Democrats are not immune to political tribalism either. The extreme strain of the left — think authoritarian campus radicals and “Bernie-or-bust” voters — may have less influence than the alt-right, but they trample on the liberal values for which Democrats stand. Just like the Republicans, Democrats have been far too lenient with their extremists. The GOP, however, has seen its conflicts erupt to national notoriety, as the party stands by a disastrous administration that regularly betrays Republican beliefs.

Parties must rest on ideas, not on identities. When identity forms the basis for voting, democracy collapses into tribalism. Look at Pakistan; there, party affiliation generally owes much more to family, tribe, caste or religion than to any particular policy. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s government is essentially dysfunctional, its rampant corruption punctuated by occasional military coups. America is not Pakistan, but we can suffer from the same sort of factionalism. The Republican Party’s embrace of Trump, even at the expense of legislative goals, demonstrates a terrifying willingness to put party over policy.

As Abraham Lincoln famously foretold, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Identity-based parties would grind American democracy to a standstill. Our system works because we share a common American identity, but if the two parties continue to gain support from identity instead of policy, we would see two feuding groups, unwilling to compromise. Republicans should reconsider supporting Trump and the alt-right. Whatever the short-term political cost; the long-term danger is far worse.