“If he was for it, we had to be against it.” – Former U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, quoted in “The New New Deal” by Michael Grunwald
The “he” is President Barack Obama. The “we” is the Republican Party. And it is not coincidental that as the former pushes toward the end of his second term, the latter is coming apart.
The GOP is an incoherent mess. Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence has become commonplace. Party members find themselves mulling whether to break away and form a third party or unite behind a coarse, blustering bigot whose scapegoating and strongman rhetoric has Holocaust survivors comparing him to Hitler.
The situation is so objectively and transparently grim that many on the right no longer even bother to spin it. “I’m a lifelong Republican,” tweeted historian Max Boot last week, “but (the) Trump surge proves that every bad thing Democrats have ever said about GOP is basically true.”
“It would be terrible,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens last week, “to think that the left was right about the right all these years.”
But it can be argued that Trump is less the cause than an inevitable effect of the party’s looming disintegration. It can be argued that what’s really destroying the Republican Party is the Republican Party.
The popular storyline goes that voters are seeking political outsiders this year in their frustration over a government where the legislative gears are frozen and nothing gets done. What that storyline forgets is that this gridlock was by design, that GOP leaders held a meeting on the very evening of the president’s first inauguration and explicitly decided upon a policy of non-cooperation to deny him anything approaching a bipartisan triumph.
The party followed this tactic with such lockstep discipline and cynical disregard for the national welfare that in 2010, seven Republican co-sponsors of a resolution to create a deficit reduction task force voted against their own bill because Obama came out for it. They feared its passage might make him look good.
In the book quoted above, Michael Grunwald distilled the GOP’s thinking as follows: “As long as Republicans refused to follow his lead, Americans would see partisan food fights and conclude that Obama had failed to produce change.”
Republicans and their media accomplices buttressed that strategy with a campaign of insult and disrespect designed to delegitimize Obama. With their endless birther stupidity, their death panels idiocy, their constant budget brinksmanship and their cries of “I want my country back!” they stoked in the public nothing less than hatred for the interloper in the White House who’d had the nerve to be elected president.
And the strategy worked, hobbling and frustrating Obama. But as a bullet doesn’t care who it hits and a fire doesn’t care who it burns, the forces of ignorance and unreason, grievance and fear the Republicans calculatedly unleashed have not only wounded the president. No, it becomes more apparent every day that those forces have gravely wounded politics itself, meaning the idea that we can – or even should – reason together, compromise, form consensus.
There is a sense of just deserts in watching panicked Republicans try to stop Trump as he goose-steps toward coronation, but it is tempered by the realization that there’s far more at stake here than the GOP’s comeuppance.
This is our country we’re talking about. This is its future we choose in November. And any future presided over by “President Trump” is too apocalyptic to contemplate. Yet, the possibility is there, and that’s sobering.
It is bad enough the Republicans may have destroyed themselves. One wonders whether they will take America with them.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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