“What happened to the Republican Party?”
That’s the question former President Barack Obama asked in a speech at the University of Illinois on Friday, taking direct aim at not only the presidency of Donald Trump but also at the broader Republican Party’s capitulation to him.
It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s speech on Friday as nothing more than a disgruntled politician settling scores in an effort to motivate his side to turn out in the coming midterm elections. “Barack Obama had 8 years to complete his hope & change in America, and the only change agent has been President Trump,” said White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp within moments of Obama concluding his speech.
And sure, that is, in part, what Obama is doing here. He is setting the stakes and reminding Democratic voters of where the US is as a country and where it needs to go. He’s a politician. And so politics plays a role in his speech.
But the question Obama asks about where the Republican Party of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Ronald Reagan has gone is one I have heard lots of Republicans wonder about/lament since it became clear that Trump was going to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016.
That Republican Party was built on a few first principles: lower taxes, aggressive foreign policy — particularly in regard to Russia — and shrinking the debt we were leaving for future generations. It was also built on the idea of gentility, that there was a way people in public life can and should act.
On most of those issues, Trump is the polar opposite of where the party was just a few short years ago. Yes, he is a believer in lowering taxes — and passed a major tax-cut bill last year. But his ongoing skepticism about the threat posed by Russia is antithetical to the modern Republican Party. (Hell, Reagan ran an ad in which he portrayed Russia as an ominous bear wandering the woods!)
Trump ran a campaign in which he rarely — if ever — mentioned the country’s looming debt problems. (He did, however, promise to eliminate the national debt in eight years.) And he pushed the tax cut bill through, which is projected to add more than $2.3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.
Reagan said famously that the 11th Commandment was to not speak ill of other Republicans. Trump’s 2016 campaign was rooted in his willingness to — and effectiveness at — bullying the more traditional candidates in the race. There was “Low Energy” Jeb Bush. And “Lyin’ ” Ted Cruz. And on and on.
Trump — from his policies to his tone — ran expressly against Republican orthodoxy in 2016. He offered himself up as the antidote to oleaginous politicians who said one thing on the campaign trail and then did something else once they got to Washington. Trump’s argument during the primary campaign was that the GOP was rotting from the top down and only by chopping off its head could you hope to save the rest of the body politic.
Given that, no one should be surprised at the way Trump has acted as President. We knew exactly what we were getting when Trump won — and he has been that person from the moment he took the office. (In truth, he couldn’t possibly be anyone else.)
What surprised lots of people — and this is what Obama is getting at in his speech — is how the broader Republican Party reacted to Trump. The resistance to Trump — from not just Sens. McCain and Jeff Flake, but also Romney and Sen. Ted Cruz — that was active and vibrant during the campaign suddenly melted away. It was as if, having seen their ship of state taken over by pirates, Republican put on an eye patch, swigged some grog and happily joined the crew.
The reason was — and is — some combination of realpolitik and fear. Republicans looked at the bodies strewn in Trump’s wake during the 2016 presidential primary fight and didn’t want to watch their own political careers sacrificed on a quixotic charge against Mount Trump. And the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan saw opportunity in the chaos: Trump, bereft of any real belief system or policy agenda, could be molded to move long-standing priorities of the party — from judges to a tax cut.
That Faustian bargain wasn’t worth it, argued Obama — noting that what it meant to be a Republican has now been lost. “It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t target groups of people because of what they look like or how they pray,” Obama said. “We are supposed to stand up to discrimination and we are sure as heck to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers.”
Obama’s speech highlights just how much — and how fast — the Republican Party has changed even since he beat Romney to win a second term in 2012. Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party has not only put many long-term stalwarts of conservatism on the outside looking in — Ryan is retiring, the national security establishment within the party is ignored and taunted — but also has fundamentally transformed what it means to be a Republican.
Over and over during the 2018 primary season, Republican candidates ran and won on a simple message: I’m just like Donald Trump. In Florida, for example, Ron DeSantis ran ads showing him teaching his kids how to “build that wall” and reading to them from “The Art of the Deal.” He won a Trump endorsement — and the governor’s primary.
The Republican Party has, in the main, been replaced by the Trump party. And the beliefs of those two “parties” just aren’t the same.
“This is not normal,” Obama said on Friday. “These are extraordinary times.”
He’s got that right.