How Not to De-Trumpify the GOP

US
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Cullman, Ala., August 21, 2021.
(Marvin Gentry/Reuters)
Jonah Goldberg’s plan to create a conservative third party would likely exacerbate the problems it’s meant to solve.

In the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg proposes that the best way to fix the now-terminally “Trumpified” GOP is to establish a competitive third party that would serve either to purge the Republicans of their flaws via the existing primary process or to hand power to their opponents until they are finally encouraged to do better. The key, Jonah explains, is to “create pressure outside of” the party’s ranks, and, thereby, to give Republicans a choice between sobering up or facing electoral destruction. The new party, he submits, would adopt “a simple, Reaganite conservative platform combined with a serious plank to defend the soundness of elections.” “If a Republican candidate met its requirements” the new party would “endorse the Republican.” If the candidate was deemed unacceptable, it would not. And if the Republicans failed to nominate enough candidates that were to the new party’s liking? Well, then it would “play the role of spoiler by garnering enough conservative votes in the general election to throw the election to the Democrat.” “The point,” Jonah concludes, “is to cause the GOP some pain for its descent into asininity.”

When he says that the GOP deserves to feel “some pain,” Jonah is referring primarily to elections. But, of course, elections are not merely about which party holds power; they are also about what is done with that power. And if, as Jonah desires, conservatives were to establish a third party likely to “throw the election to the Democrat” — and accepting Jonah’s premises about the current state of the GOP makes it fair to assume that this would indeed be the likely outcome — they would be . . . well, throwing the next election to the Democrats. At present, the Democrats have just 50 votes in the Senate, and a cushion of only three in the House of Representatives, and still they are trying to remake the country. With just a few more legislators in tow — especially in the Senate, where the most radical parts of their agenda are being held up by just two among their 50 members — they would be likely to succeed in this endeavor. Jonah suggests in his essay that “many on the right had modest hopes for President Biden” (if so, I was not among them) but concedes those hopes have now been dashed. To which I would say: Just wait until he has carte blanche.

It is possible that Jonah believes that the consequences of a Democratic sweep would be worth it in the long run. But it is highly unlikely that many other people do. Indeed, it is precisely because the Democrats are not the moderates “many on the right” hoped they were that Jonah’s scheme would face such steep odds of success. Jonah allows that America’s “right-of-center voters” are now angry enough with Joe Biden that the “Democrats are facing a midterm bloodbath.” But if this is true after just nine months of unified Democratic control, one wonders how he imagines those voters would feel after a landslide Democratic victory brought with it a federal takeover of the election system, de facto open borders, the full Bernie Sanders economic agenda, a set of historically aggressive gun-control measures, a codified Roe v. Wade, single-payer health care, and, potentially, a packed Supreme Court.

Who, exactly, does Jonah believe would take the blame for all that? Would it be Donald Trump, who at that point would have been out of office for more than two years? Or would it be the contrived third party that explicitly existed to “cause the GOP some pain” and “throw the election to the Democrat”? If, as seems to be the case, Jonah wants Republican voters to blame the Republican Party for the state of the country, then placing a shiny target on a distinctly non-Republican face would be a rather odd way of going about it. Earlier in his column, Jonah grants that “asking right-of-center voters to vote for Democratic senators and representatives who take the opposite positions on abortion, guns, foreign policy, and tax-and-spending issues for ‘democracy’s sake’ is a heavy lift.” But, for some reason, he doesn’t follow this thought through to its logical conclusion, which is that it is just as “heavy” a “lift” to ask those voters to trust you going forward when you are the reason that those “Democratic senators and representatives who take the opposite positions on abortion, guns, foreign policy, and tax-and-spending issues” were elected in the first place. There is no such thing as a voter who will refuse to vote for the Democrats on ideological grounds but who will reward the saboteurs who ensured that the Democrats won. And, perversely, when one tries to split that baby — as Evan McMullin did back in 2016 — one often ends up making the candidate one is trying to undermine look more credible.

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Which brings me to my fourth, and final, question: Who exactly does Jonah believe is likely to benefit from the even-more-angry Republican base that his plan would almost certainly engender? The implication of Jonah’s piece is that if the GOP loses yet another election, it will learn precisely the lessons that he thinks it needs to learn. In the real world, though, this almost never happens. I am no fan of the phrase, “This is how you got Trump.” But, in this case, it fits the bill well. Games such as the one Jonah proposes to play aren’t how you get rid of a Donald Trump. They’re how you get the next one.

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