How the GOP Can Survive Trump

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GOP leaders fear that a Trump presidential campaign will take many other candidates down with it. Mark Peterson/Redux

Mike tells Don his house is on fire. He adds that he will extinguish the blaze if Don pays him. Don forks over the money, but Mike does nothing. There are two possible explanations for this shocking betrayal: Mike was lying about the fire or he never planned to help Don.

In that story, Mike is the Republican Party, and Don represents all the members of the Tea Party and their conservative think-alikes. And in this analogy lies the explanation for both the rise of Donald Trump and why the GOP elite is condemning him viciously.

For years, Republican leaders have engaged in what might be called boogeyman politics. No claim was too crazy to justify their storyline that the Constitution had been set ablaze by Democrats: Barack Obama isn't a real American, so he's not legally the president; Obama committed crimes that demanded impeachment; Obama has secret plans to take away Americans' guns; Obama wanted to murder the elderly and disabled through Obamacare; Obama maintained concentration camps operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Texas Senator Ted Cruz even played footsy with the theory that Obama wanted to declare martial law in Texas and was planning to turn over vast swaths of American territory to the United Nations, which would then outlaw paved roads, grazing pastures and golf courses.

In other words, Republicans have been telling Tea Partyers that the American house is on fire and that the GOP could douse the flames only if they send more conservatives to Washington. The tactic worked, bringing out the Tea Party and other conservative voters in 2010 and 2014, and Republicans won big gains in Congress. But then, where were the impeachment hearings? Why is Obamacare still a thing? Why aren't Democrats being arrested for treason? Tea Party members still believe the lies they have been told about conspiracies and high crimes, and they have been seething that their representatives were doing nothing about the horrors they had promised to end. So these voters reached the conclusion that the Republicans had sold them out. The grousing conservative electorate was primed to revolt.

A prominent GOP political consultant saw this conflagration coming back in 2012. The party's politicians "have to end their addiction to the crack cocaine of the Tea Party vote,'' he told me then. Fueling the Tea Partyers' suspicions and anger with conspiracy theories and terrifying falsehoods might drive them to the voting booth in droves, this consultant told me, but eventually they would turn on the party elite. After all, despite all the fearmongering, little changed after the elections. Fantasies can't be fixed.

Like any addict, the Republicans remained in denial about how bad things were getting with their Tea Party base. And now GOP politicians have hit bottom, waking up in the gutter to find that their party's standard-bearer is a coarse, divisive businessman with no political experience who is celebrated by Tea Partyers. Meanwhile, Republican leaders are convinced he will create a tidal wave of losses for the GOP in November.

The coolness to—and outright rejection of—Trump is widespread within the party. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has not endorsed him. Representatives Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), both facing re-election, have said Trump has to earn their vote. Then there are those who have said they will not endorse Trump under any circumstances, including Senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been among the most vocal critics. "Lucifer is the only person Trump could beat in a general election,'' he said on Face the Nation. "I believe Donald Trump's foreign policy, his isolationism, will lead to another 9/11."

And then there is the most vexing question for Republican politicians: What does Trump, their presumptive nominee for president, stand for? Plenty of GOP members of Congress say they have never spoken to the man, and if they know him at all, it's as the host of his reality-TV show The Apprentice or as a businessman who has worn a path from his penthouse to bankruptcy court. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) told reporters the one thing he wanted to hear from Trump was his policy positions. Asked which ones in particular, Lankford replied, "Everything."

Then there are the old reliable wedge issues: abortion, homosexuality, school prayer and the rest of the arrows in the Republicans' culture quiver. Cruz, the conspicuously pious candidate in the presidential primaries who portrayed himself as a steadfast soldier in the culture war, lost much of the Bible Belt to a man with multiple divorces who backs Planned Parenthood and has spent endless hours with shock jock Howard Stern bragging about his sexual escapades with models.

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Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan greets well-wishers upon his arrival to the Republican National Headquarters in Washington on June 19, 1980, flanked by Republican National Chairman Bill Brock, right. Brock was instrumental in reviving a Republican party that had lost its way in the 1970s, supporting the tax cuts and supply-side economic policies that would come to characterize the modern Republican platform—and be enacted a few years later by President Ronald Reagan. Charles Tasnadi/AP

It's hard to feel much sympathy for the Republican elite now aligned with a man they despise, given that they created the monster. You reap what you sow; you made your bed, now lie in it; you pays your money and you takes your chances—our language is loaded with the clichés that point to why this should be a moment of schadenfreude rather than one of pity.

There is a path to recovery for the Republicans. One of the greatest members of the GOP, the person who saved the party when it last lost its way, is a man whose name probably few Republicans will recognize: Bill Brock. A former senator from Tennessee, Brock was a darling of the conservative movement during his single term, from 1971 to 1977. After that, he took the reins of the Republican National Committee while the GOP was still reeling from the Watergate scandals. The party had just lost the White House; Democrats had control of the House of Representatives and had won a supermajority in the Senate, meaning no Republican filibuster could succeed.

Faced with these dismal facts, Brock set about rebuilding the party. The Republicans had become bereft of an identity; voters had little concept of what the GOP brought to the table. Brock decided the party had to become one of ideas, not just an intransigent body that stood for little more than saying no. He heard that two members of Congress, Representative Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Senator William Roth (R-Del.), were kicking around a plan for huge tax cuts, which they argued would spur massive economic growth that would boost revenue and avoid deficits.

This idea, the foundation of supply-side economics, was embraced by Brock and became the subject of research reports and talking points sent to conservatives in Congress and statehouses. Eventually, it was adopted by Ronald Reagan as the centerpiece of his presidential campaign and then his administration, and it is often cited by Republicans as the greatest accomplishment of his presidency. Now, 36 years later, it remains the mantra of Republicans, even though the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves has been roundly debunked and is the biggest factor in America's massive deficits and debt. Unfortunately, while most economists understand that sometimes interest rates need to be high and other times low, Republicans still seem to believe that tax rates should only go down.

So what does the Republican Party stand for today? "No" is still the answer. Whatever the Democrats propose, the Republicans oppose—anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and often anti-science. (Climate change denial is a meme for Republicans, and increasing numbers of party members reject evolution.) Polls, such as one conducted recently by the Pew Research Center, show that younger voters, even Republicans, disagree with this agenda. Only 38 percent support smaller government with fewer services, according to another Pew poll.

Now that they've been slapped upside the head by Trump, Republicans need another Bill Brock. They need to focus on new ideas, on what they have to offer to the next generation of voters. They need to stand for something other than culture wars, tax cuts and "We're not Hillary!" It's possible to broaden the Republican base by finding new conservative ideas that appeal to more than just the Tea Partyers, the angry and Bible Belt Christians.

On the other hand, if they don't think they need a Brock, perhaps they need a Tuchman. In her spectacular 1984 book, The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman examines four times governments pursued policies against their own interests and set loose the yowling furies of chaos. By appealing to their bases' basest instincts, the Republicans have done just that, and the evidence is one orange-haired, bombastic man who seems to be on cable news 24/7.

Republicans need to self-assess and recognize that they created Trumpism by refusing to compromise and govern, by engaging in historic obstruction (such as the current blockade on hearings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee) and, in every way, by continuing to act like petulant teenagers. They have indulged their own march of folly for eight years; the cliff they are heading toward is not far away.

How the GOP Can Survive Trump