The Republican Party, conservatives, and certainly Donald Trump may not fully understand it yet, but they are meeting in Cleveland not to chart the future of the GOP but to host its funeral.
The Republican Party and the larger conservative movement for which it has stood since the days of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan is dead but not yet buried. A party whose rhetoric (if never its actual policies) is all about shrinking the size, scope, and spending of government cannot even pretend anymore to stand for any of those things. As important, it hasn't been serious about governing for a very long time. Remember just how terrible and world-ending they said Obamacare was back in 2009 and 2010? They weren't wrong and yet it took the Republicans, despite holding congressional power for most of the 21st century, until June of this year to roll out an actual alternative that certainly wasn't worth the wait.
Before whatever Trumpian display of narcissism, delusion, and disdain for actual knowledge of policy and process clicks into high gear in Cleveland over the next few days, it's worth taking stock of what the Republican Party has become. Trump is not the cause of its collapse but an effect of utter failure of Republicans to deliver even partly on their promises over the past several decades. Republicans and conservatives have officially elevated atavistic tribal allegiances to the most important place possible in their causes. While Trump famously and disturbingly called out Mexicans at the start of his speech announcing his candidacy last year, his dyed-in-the-wool conserative critics actually attacked him for not being tough enough on immigration. National Review, in its house editorial laying out the case against Trump, didn't conjure the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush in 1980 arguing over who would do more to legalize and help illegals gain a legitimate place in our country, they said the Trump's plan to remove 11 or 12 million people from the country was a "poorly designed amnesty" plan.
Let's leave aside for the moment that by all accounts illegal immigration into the United States by Mexicans country peaked in 2007. Should a political party be taken seriously when fears about people choosing to come here to work and live is among its top concerns (especially since immigrants, legal and otherwise, commit less crime than natives)? Immigration isn't simply part of America, it is America, which explains why fully two-thirds of us (including at least 50 percent of Republicans) want to create some pathway to legal status for illegals. Since then, of course, Trump and Republicans have burnished their credentials as xenophobes by conflating religion and race, and declaring that refugees from the same Middle East that conservative and Republican policymakers have done so much to destroy and wreak havoc on should not be allowed to enter the United States. Here too the Republican brain trust (such as it is) is divided against itself, as it's chided Trump for not being harsh enough or war-like enough or personally dedicated to a Weekly Standard-style foreign policy of military aggression.
When it comes to social issues, the Republican Party has spent the past several decades warring against abortion (even as its incidence has declined, along with declines in rates of youth sex and unwanted pregnancies too) and "homosexual agenda" and pimping for the drug war that has managed to turn the United States into the world's largest jailer nation. Even as Americans of all stripes are rethinking the stupidity of putting more and more people in jail, the party's vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence told Indiana residents this year in his State of the State Address that he was "leaning into the drug war" and increasing mandatory minimums for various drug-related activity. Being anti-abortion and scared of gays and in favor of the drug war are central to the conservative movement. These are not the concerns of a party with a future. They are the issues of a party that is terrified of a present that has escaped its understanding. Forget about thinking about the future. The Republican Party with its ritual incantation of the traditional family and normalcy or whatever, isn't even living in the present any more.
When it comes to economic policy, Trump (like Hillary Clinton, to be sure) stands adamantly against the free-er trade that is articulated in trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Neither of these things is perfect but we can say with certainty that NAFTA, which created 25 million net jobs in the 15 years after it passed, was better than the status quo it replaced. What are non-Trump conservatives positing in the place of TPP? Nothing really, other than shifting the conversation to how China must be hemmed in a rising global economic and military power.
The greatest failure of the Republican Party in recent memory was the Bush presidency which was perpetrated with virtually total support of a Republican Congress and the conservative commentariat at the time. Bush presided over a 50 percent increase in federal spending, mired the country in two wars that were failures both in conception and prosecution, increased major regulatory structures and then—as the door was hitting his ass on the way out—bailed out the financial industry and the auto industry, claiming nonsensically that the only way to save capitalism was to embrace socialism. Channeling the "destroy the village in order to save it" logic of the war he worked so hard to avoid fighting in, Bush actually said, "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." The 2008 GOP presidential nominee, John McCain, signed TARP and all the other related legislation, as did his Democratic rival, Barack Obama. Those of us who opposed bank bailouts—libertarians mostly, and some lefties too—were called nihilistic for wanting to business to rise and fall on their performance in the market. The conservative-Republican position was in favor of bailouts, with pundits such as National Review editor Rich Lowry and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal defending Bush's incoherent position. In The New York Times, David Brooks said the congressmen who initially voted down TARP were staging a "revolt of the nihilists."
But after eight years of a supposedly conservative Republican government that increased spending on everything by 50 percent in real dollars, creating whole new entitlements such as free or cheap drugs even for wealthy seniors, consolidated federal control of education funding via No Child Left Behind, pushed a full-employment act for accountants known as Sarbanes-Oxley, an energy bill that lead to the phase-out of incandescent lightbulbs, created a new cabinet agency and, perhaps most devastatingly, entered willingly not just into failed military interventions but secretly built a surveillance state anathema to the history and ethos of our country.
So forget Trump burning the mother down this week. The GOP has been in ashes for most of the 21st century because it has never faced up to just how awful it behaved when it had power. It was the failure and the fraud of the Bush years that destroyed the GOP and the broader conservative movement by making it impossible to reconcile the vast difference between their generic rhetoric about smaller government and individual freedom on the one hand and the actual actions of a GOP majority on the other.
In the years since Bush retreated from public life and started painting David Hockney-style bathroom art, conservatives have not seriously grappled with what the GOP did the last time it controlled the federal government. Rather than look inward, confess their sins, and work for atonement with the American people, they instead sounded the alarms about Barack Obama and the creeping socialism that ultimately was not so different from what they themselves had recently signed off on. Rather than face up to the party's complete abdication of serious reflection and engagement with an increasingly libertarian sensibility growing in America that they might contribute to, it was more than enough to say that Obamacare would gut Medicare instead of, you know, actually pushing through any sort of health care reform that would actually allow markets to develop and flourish. It was more important to claim the Obama and the Democrats weren't war-like enough, even as they continued the ruinous foreign policy created under Bush. It was enough to stamp their feet about the rise of post-gender and post-sexual-orinetation America and instead have moral lepers like Newt Gingrich talk about the sanctity of traditional marriage.
The lack of focus and seriousness in the Republican Party is what created the conditions for Donald Trump to rise—in a crowd of 17 candidates, including more than a few who were serious people and might have made excellent presidents. To be sure, the clown show that is now upon us—the Republican Party has nominated a man to be president who has absolutely zero experience in public office!—will accelerate the demise of today's Republican Party. So will his plan to increase spending as a percentage of GDP from a historically high 22.1 percent to 22.5 percent over the next decade (for contrast, Hillary Clinton wants to raise it only a little more than Trump, to 22.7 percent). Here we are, nearly 20 years into a century in which fewer Americans have confidence in major institutions than ever and want the government to do less and spend less. And the Republican nominee—channeling the most recent Republican president and his own party—wants to jack up spending even more and plainly use the government to bully any individuals and groups that bug him. This, in a country where according to Gallup, socially tolerant and fiscally responsible libertarians comprise the single-largest ideological group in the country, bigger than conservatives, liberals, and populists. Good luck with all that, GOP.
There are good reasons to believe that whatever ultimately replaces this version of the Republican Party may well be better, especially if the GOP channels the energy and appeal and future orientation of its libertarian-leaning members such as Rand Paul, Jeff Flake, Mike Lee, Thomas Massie, Justin Amash, and a few others. But until conservatives and Republicans admit that they have brought this on themselves through their unwillingness to propose policies that match the libertarian rhetoric they mumble like bored altar boys saying the Rosary—nothing will stir in the ashes, either here in Cleveland or beyond.