“It’s your party, you can cry if you want to.” (With apologies to Leslie Gore, 1963)
“The Republican Party is dead,” Jonathan Last wrote in The New Republic. “It is the Trump cult now.”
Whether the GOP’s demise, like rumors of Mark Twain’s death, has been greatly exaggerated, it has become the topic of energetic discussion among the Republican faithful.
A former chair of the Washington state GOP wrote an op-ed in The Seattle Times titled, “Let’s form a new Republican Party.”
More than 120 former Republican officials held a Zoom call Feb. 5 to discuss forming a center-right breakaway group that would run on a platform of “principled conservatism.”
None have been more public with their disillusionment with the Republican Party than several highly regarded center-right political columnists who have found themselves ideologically homeless as the GOP has shifted under the influence of Donald Trump.
The list is impressive. It includes Pulitzer Prize winners and members of previous Republican administrations.
David Brooks, the best-selling author who writes for The New York Times, said in a 2017 interview that one of his callings was “to represent a certain moderate Republican Whig political philosophy." But after Trump’s ascendancy, Brooks said, “My conservatism was no longer the prevailing conservatism, so I found myself intellectually and politically unattached.”
George Will left the Republican Party in 2016, explaining, "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana, then (House Speaker) Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.”
Michael Gerson, senior policy adviser and chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and now a columnist for The Washington Post, and in my opinion one of the most thoughtful of political commentators, lamented that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and “those who reflect her overt racism, her unhinged conspiracy thinking and her endorsement of violence against public figures are now treated as a serious political constituency within the Republican Party.”
In a particularly stunning declaration, Gerson said, “The 45th president and a significant portion of his supporters have embraced American fascism.”
Peggy Noonan, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal and speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, reacted bitterly to the failed Republican effort to censure Rep. Liz Cheney for her criticism of Trump and her vote for impeachment in the House.
Cheney’s courageous stance gave other Republican representatives cover, she wrote: “They could be tough too. But most couldn’t. They were stupid and cowardly.”
No commentator has been more acerbic in her criticism of the Trumpian shift in the Republican Party than Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, who describes herself politically as “mostly right of center.”
“The (Republican) party isn’t doomed,” she announced in a recent column. “It’s dead.”
“Republicans had a shot at redemption and resurrection,” she wrote, when 147 GOP representatives and senators voted not to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. “They missed and failed — and deserve to spend the next several years in political purgatory.”
“Today’s Republicans are the weakest, wimpiest, most pathetic crop of needy nincompoops in U.S. history.”
No doubt Parker’s assessment of Republican congressional leaders has not improved with their spare-me-the-evidence support for Trump in his impeachment trial.
Jennifer Rubin, columnist for The Washington Post, who publicly cut her ties with the GOP, does not question whether the Republican Party will survive; she questions whether it should.
“Maybe the real question is not what the Republican Party will believe and who will support it,” Rubin writes, “but whether we need it at all. Perhaps there is no morally, politically and intellectually decent party of the right to be had.”
Gerson holds out hope, if not for the Republican Party, then for political conservatism. “Much about the United States’ political future will depend on shaping a compelling, responsible American conservatism as an alternative to the Trump temptation. For American democracy to fully function, civic republicanism will eventually need a home on the political right.”
But Gerson acknowledges, “This may or may not happen within the GOP.”
Democrats and other moderates and progressives should resist the gloating reflex. The country has a stake in this struggle for the soul and the identity of the Republican Party. The American political system thrives on competing philosophies of government and culture that are organized in our two-party system. It requires a reasoned, respected, principled conservative option.
Will the Republican Party as we know it be the home of that option?
The debate is on. Four years from today we will know the answer.
Richard Groves is a retired pastor and educator who lives in Winston-Salem.