Shribman: GOP undergoing historic change
The character of the Republican Party is in the throes of a difficult overhaul. The purpose of politics is undergoing a fundamental transition. The values the electorate celebrates have shifted. And one more: Nothing like this has happened in a dozen decades.
These are a few of the many startling conclusions that are unavoidable from South Carolina’s bruising primary.
Make no mistake. The party that at its meekest moments (the Dwight Eisenhower years) offered milquetoast echoes of the Democratic agenda — and that at its most muscular interludes (the Reagan revolution) still operated within the conventional constraints of politics — has entered an entirely new phase. It is symbolized by the ability of an unfiltered outsider like Donald Trump to prevail while a refined insider like Jeb Bush retreats to the sidelines.
Here’s a measure of the change: In the old days the quiet conciliator could invite the young rebel onto his ticket, as Eisenhower did with Richard Nixon in 1952, and the crusading ideologue could invite the cultivated rival onto his team, as Ronald Reagan did with George H.W. Bush in 1980. But is there a soul who can conceive of Trump offering his running-mate hand to the younger Bush? Is there a chance Bush would accept it?
To ask the question is to answer it, and to acknowledge that the Capitol itself has become a venue of clashing storm fronts, that have created a climate where compromise is devalued and where hopeless acts of intransigence are irresistible.
The Democrats have contributed to this version of climate change, but the 100-year storm — actually a 120-year storm — is in the GOP.
Democrats have seen figures like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders before; they may claim demographic differences — one a woman, the other a Jew — but these two are only contemporary versions of Edmund Muskie (a senator and secretary of state) and George McGovern (a populist from a rural state, and indeed the 1972 population of South Dakota and the 2016 population of Vermont are eerily similar).
But the Republicans have never seen any figure, let alone a White House front-runner remotely like Trump.
Not Henry Cabot Lodge, who killed Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist dream. Not Calvin Coolidge, who stood athwart history and bellowed “halt’’ the very year that William F. Buckley Jr. was born. Not Wendell Willkie, the utility executive, political novice and New Deal opponent who is perhaps Trump’s closest antecedent, separated from the real-estate mogul now atop the GOP’s lists by his embrace from New York society and his ties to business elites. And not Barry Goldwater, whose takeover of the party in 1964 is oftentimes employed in comparison.
The differences between Goldwater and Trump are manifold. Both were successful businessmen, and both have ties to Phyllis Schlafly, perhaps the most durable figure in American history — ever. This year she endorsed Trump, saying, in language she might have applied to Goldwater conservatives a half-century ago, he represents “everything the grassroots want.’’
But the similarities end there. Goldwater was in the Senate for nearly a dozen years when he won the party’s nomination and argued, in his acceptance speech, that extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice. Trump has never held office nor offered an overarching credo. Goldwater rallied a vanguard of conservative intellectuals and sent them into battle against party regulars whose political views were more habits than philosophies. Trump has earned the scorn of the party intelligentsia, from Buckley’s legatees at The National Review to William Kristol’s neoconservative acolytes at The Weekly Standard.
More important, Goldwater offered a way of thinking about the world (serious and searching, highly discomfiting to the great majority in those Lyndon Johnson Great Society days who occupied the ideological ground outside conservative circles) while Trump offers a way of talking about the world (offhand and impulsive, highly discomfiting to all but a third of the electorate).
Trump’s opponents might argue that Goldwater offered policies while Trump offers prejudices, but in truth the Goldwater view of politics had a water-tight coherence while Trump’s set of views are a Whitman’s Sampler of aphorisms and thrusts that his conservative rivals have been able to portray as inconsistent or contradictory.
Why is this happening? Why now?
Political scientists will be examining this for decades, and their answers may include some combination of the following: the eclipse of the Reagan conservatives, whose work concluded with the fall of Communism; the persistent impatience with government; and the comfort religious conservatives have found within the party, especially after the 2000 election of one of their own, George W. Bush.
It also may include the coming of age of a new generation impatient with the assumptions of the political establishment (a factor fueling the Sanders phenomenon) or, more likely, the powerful counterrevolution of those left behind by the tech boom, left unemployed by the Midwestern industrial collapse, left impoverished by the economic crisis of 2008, left resentful that the ladder of social mobility is tottering. Or it may simply be the raw appeal of Trump himself.
But nothing like this has happened since William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination in 1896. That was history, and so is this.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette