Is Donald Trump Bringing About The End Of The Republican Party As We Know It?

Ted Cruz, presumably not telling the press to "Shut Up" Reuters

There's a reason why establishment Republicans keep retiring.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who has said the White House is in a "downward spiral" and questioned Trump's competency to lead, announced in September that he would not seek re-election next year.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake announced his retirement in late October in a speech where he warned of the "coarsening tenor," of U.S. politics.

Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent told a reporter that he was retiring after more than a decade in Congress because, "this administration has taken the 'fun' out of 'dysfunction.'"

And last week, Texas Representatives Lamar Smith and Jeb Hensarling said they would leave Congress at the end of their term.

On Tuesday, New Jersey Representative Frank LoBiondo and Texas Representative Ted Poe announced their departures. "Our nation is now consumed by increasing political polarization; there is no longer middle ground to honestly debate issues and put forward solutions," said LoBiondo in a statement. On Thursday, House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte followed suite.

These legislators aren't leaving the GOP, the GOP has left them. They're quitting because they believe their party has become a political Ouroboros, with President Donald Trump playing the role of the snake's mouth and tail.

He has "become a cleave and has sharpened the divide in the Republican Party that existed before he even ran," Cornell Clayton, director of the Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, told Newsweek.

That division, said Clayton, could be large enough to fracture the party permanently, It's possible that we soon see an Republican-centrist third-party emerge.

Uncivil politics

Complaints about uncivil politics are as old as the Republic itself: Alexander Hamilton lost his life at the hands of his long-time political opponent Aaron Burr, John Quincy Adams supporters called Andrew Jackson a murderous cannibal and in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks nearly killed Senator Charles Sumner by knocking him over the head with a cane on the Senate floor.

But President Trump's behavior is unprecedented and could end the Republican Party as we know it, said Clayton, who specializes in the study of political polarization and has published seven books on the topic. "Incivility amongst political supporters is nothing new, but a president has never behaved the way President Trump has while in office."

While in office, President Trump has repeatedly belittled members of his own party. He challenged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an I.Q. contest, mocked Corker's height, insinuated that Senator Ted Cruz's father killed President John F. Kennedy, chided Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter, and warned Senator John McCain to "be careful," because "at some point I fight back."

It's not unusual for a president to attack a wing of his party over particular issues, but the degree to which Trump and his associates do it "is unheard of," said Clayton. It's a symptom of a larger problem within the Republican party.

Americans misunderstand and think incivility creates divisions over public policy, when the opposite is true, said Clayton.

"The reason why you see a lot of incivility is because there are actual real issues that the country is divided over," says Clayton. "These divisions create emotional debate and lead to uncouth language."

The line of civility

Symone Sanders, Democratic strategist and former Bernie Sanders spokeswoman, sees the widening divide, and blames President Trump.

"There used to be a line of civility, then [President] Donald Trump went up to the line and stepped right over it," she said. "He's demonstrated that there are no consequences for stepping over and now other folks see it and think they can cross it, too. Our goalposts have been moved."

In August, former Attorney General of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli joined Sanders on CNN to discuss the Charlottesville riots. Cuccinelli questioned the seriousness of the incident, prompting Sanders to contradict him. "Can I finish, Symone? Can you just shut up for a moment?" He spat.

"Decorum has gone out the door," Sanders told Newsweek. This language is "way off-base and not what voters and everyday people want to hear from politicians. The people being told to shut up are typically women and people of color, or people raising a different perspective and challenging the status quo."

Republican strategists disagree. They praised Cruz for telling fellow Republicans Corker and Flake to "just shut up and do your job."

Cruz is "saying exactly what everyday Americans are saying," said Trump adviser Harlan Hill. "I'm glad Cruz is escalating his language."

"Good for Ted," added Jason Miller who has worked for both Cruz and President Trump.

Cruz joins a growing list of Republicans who have stared adversity in the face and boldly told it to "shut up."

At a Texas town hall meeting a month later, Representative Joe Barton told a crowd of constituents that abuse against women wasn't a national concern. Charles Lewis, who was sitting in the audience shouted that the Barton was wrong.

"You, sir, shut up," Barton, his elected representative, replied.

When disabled protesters interrupted a September hearing on the GOP's health care bill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch shouted "If you want a hearing you better shut up!" at the wheelchaired group.

Just two months earlier, Hatch penned an oped for Time Magazine about " re-committing " to civility. The first step to recommitment, he wrote, is to "speak responsibly." "Our words have consequences," he continued. "It's incumbent on all of us, then—from the president to Congress on down—to be responsible for our speech."

We've become so desensitized to crude rhetoric, said Sanders "that we're actually having a conversation over whether it's appropriate for an elected official to tell another elected official or a constituent to shut up."

A functioning democracy

"To a large extent in a representative government, if we can't talk with one another in a respectful way that allows us to work together we can't do anything else. It's foundational to a strong, functioning democracy it's essential," said Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of The Institute for Civility in America. "You can have a government without civility but it doesn't look like what our forefathers imagined."

Dahnke believes that the last time our country was this polarized was right before the Civil War. Clayton says it was in the 1960s before the Vietnam War. Either way, we're facing unprecedented polarization and a massive political shift in the Republican Party.