Peter Wehner in Sunday’s New York Times says Donald Trump is an “ indelible stain” on the Republican Party. This suggests that Trump has left a permanent mark on the party’s identity as if he has somehow changed the party. I’m not convinced that’s the case. Trump is a showman, and he is putting on quite a show, exposing a lot that many might rather not see exposed in a political improv that fails to stay on script.
Wehner tells us that the party was once organized around three principles: “a commitment to limited government and economic liberty that enables prosperity; moral traditionalism that conserves our capacity for liberty by producing responsible citizens; and a belief that America, confidently and carefully engaged in international affairs, can be a force for good in the world.”
However, these are the values that Republicans struggle to nominally define their party. What they say and what they do are entirely different matters. If Trump is a threat to these supposed values, it is because he is like the unpredictable child with the propensity to blurt family secrets in front of your friends. He isn’t a stain, he’s a headache.
“[S]toking grievances, resentments, and fear of the other” has been party strategy since the Reagan era and it has only gotten worse over the decades. Trump’s coarse bigotry might be seen as the ultimate realization of that trope put into practice. Sure, the guy’s a clown, but as Wehner correctly reminds us, “Trump was more popular among Republicans than anyone else in the race.” Republicans voted for this guy.
Wehner is correct, however, that Trump does run against some key planks of party doctrine. Indeed, he does not sound like a small-government, low-regulation candidate. He’s about making money and, like most Republicans, understands that government can be a valuable money making tool. Trump simply wants to use that tool differently.
But the rest? Where in the GOP record is legislation that has served economic liberty and freedom for most Americans? Where has Republican “moral traditionalism” produced responsible citizens? And when talking about responsibility, who can say America has been engaging in responsible international affairs and being a force for good in the world when we’ve managed to destabilize entire regions of the planet?
No, Wehner’s essay reads like an apologetic for the Republican Party and the people who still stubbornly support it. Perhaps it is an effort at even-handedness. More likely it is a response to the shock Trump has created in our political culture. (“How can this be?!”, right?)
Trump — specifically the awkward embrace and rejection of his likely candidacy — is becoming something of a pharmakon, a play of contradictions meant to purge the party of what ails it. By bringing into plain view what has been (nominally) hidden, party leaders would like nothing more than seeing Trump sacrificed as a scapegoat for all that wrong in their party.