Stomping On Reagan’s Grave

by Michael Liss


Sixteen. That was the percentage of respondents in a snap CNN post-second debate poll who said that they had heard about Donald Trump's “sex tape” and that it made them more likely to vote for him. 16 Percent. One in six voters surveyed, likely one in three (or more) of Trump supporters. Here's another number–Eighty-Three. In a WSJ/NBC News Poll, again, taken after the release of the tape, 83 percent of Republicans believe that the party should back Trump through the election.

Perhaps that is just circling the wagons–a later Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed the number of “mores” evaporating, but still had 83% of Trump voters saying it made no difference to them–and they were backed by a number of Evangelical leaders. A reasonable person might ask, why? Why would anyone with a girlfriend or a wife or a daughter or a mother (everyone has a mother) ignore the coarseness, to say nothing of any of the other controversial and even inflammatory things he's said and done? Their answer is that are with Trump, come hell or high water, and they aren't going to let any pointy-headed, liberal MSM pollster (or sanctimonious Establishment Republican) tell them otherwise. Trump is their guy, and there is nothing further to discuss.

That odor you are detecting is from the dumpster outside RNC Headquarters. It already had a distinct bouquet, but now is accompanied by occasional puffs of smoke. It's not the only dumpster in town—there is one near virtually every conservative think tank in America. What you are witnessing, in real time, is possibly the final death blow for Ronald Reagan's Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan's Conservative Movement. When this election cycle is over, win or lose, there will still be a Republican Party, and there will still be a Conservative Movement, but Donald Trump may very well have vandalized the two into unrecognizability.

This should not be as much of a surprise as it seems to be. The process has been going on since he left office. It's almost as if he had no natural heirs. The reasons for this are three-fold. First, Reagan himself was an exceptional talent—someone who managed to hold firmly to principle, while being unwilling to be disagreeable. The second was a quirk of fate—Reagan was working and negotiating with
contemporaries who were part of the Greatest Generation—a group that understood hardship, national sacrifice, and the value of joint effort. The third is that Reagan seemed to intuit that not everyone would be reading from the same hymnal, and while he clearly thought he had the best book, he did not believe that others would fall on their knees in gratitude for being shown the light. Governing required more than just the application of force—sometimes co-opting the opposition had more enduring benefits.

It all worked, at least as politics—the Bucks-for-Bibles swap between the Evangelical Right and business succeeded in fusing passionate bloc voters with great financial resources. Winning elections by decisive margins gave Reagan the leverage actually to apply what had been conservative think-tank ideas on a range of issues—the very ideas to which many modern conservative intellectuals say they wish to return.

The problem was the players changed and the policies did not deliver benefits to everyone. The deal-making Band-of-Brothers group began to age out, and it became apparent that there was never enough power, never enough goodies, to satisfy everyone. At the same time, alternate media—talk radio, the formation of Fox News, increased use of the internet, began to erode the Establishment's near-monopoly on communication and messaging. This fostered the rise of a group of politicians who made their bones as disruptive forces—their accomplishments were of the negative variety—shutdowns, filibusters, Senatorial holds, investigations, poison-pill riders, and ritual votes on bills that could not pass.

These folks began to move Republicanism away from Conservatism. They still used the same vocabulary, but it no longer had precisely the same meaning. The basic Reagan promise stayed—good for business, good for social conservatives, but with an interesting and more toxic twist. Whereas Reagan celebrated a sort of Western individualism—capitalism, more self-reliance and less dependency, the targeted expression of American military power, and not a lot of government, the new mutation was far more selective in its restraint, and far more overtly political. Some types of big government were more acceptable than others. It just depended on who was doing the governing.

This didn't happen overnight, but first to go was Reagan's secret sauce—his willingness to accept less than absolute orthodoxy from anyone, Democrat or Republican, so long as he accomplished most of his goals. Newt Gingrich's wars with Bill Clinton, both policy and personal, set an entirely new tone for both party-on-party and intra-party violence. Newt, of course, got carried away with himself (and carried out of the House), but the idea of blood-in-the-streets confrontation survived him.

The next phase of transition for both the GOP and many Conservatives, an emerging taste for authoritarianism, and a certain apocalyptic darkness of tone, had its origins in the aftermath of 9/11. It manifested itself in domestic surveillance, watch-lists, the Patriot Act, enhanced interrogation, etc. If Gingrich had tried to yank power from the Presidency, Bush and Cheney yanked it right
back—particularly in areas of national security. The party and the movement that talked about small government now pushed the idea of a Unitary Executive with virtually unlimited power. With it went any idea of privacy and of individual personal liberties, except for those that the Executive Branch decided to respect.

As for the Obama years, suffice to say that Republicans and Conservatives never accepted either of his elections and refused to work with him on anything. The Gingrich tactics of the 1990s were dusted off, and spiked with an absolutely extraordinary level of sustained personal vitriol which may have redefined political discourse for a generation.

Exactly when the GOP ceased to be a party of consistent, coherent conservative ideas is hard to date precisely. The party careened from one fight to another, sometimes with Mr. Obama, sometimes with its own members. Many Republican office holders were fearful—of Tea Party primary challenges, of single-issue groups ready to denounce them for a hint of apostasy, and always of the hard-right media who could almost instantaneously turn their switchboards and emails into fire-breathing dragons. It didn't take a lot to get targeted, and if there is one thing that most politicians value above all, it's staying in office. So most of them bore down on orthodoxy and simple crowd-pleasers and no longer bothered with the basics of governing. Don't be the nail looking for a hammer.

It was this last that was critical to the rise of Trump. Republicans were so consumed with ritual denunciation of anything Obama, and the pleasures of power where they had it, that they took their eye off the ball. The rich got their tax cuts, the social conservatives had their culture wars fought, but the rank-and-file Rush or Sean listeners got little more than their guns and a heaping helping of rage. Who was looking after their needs for economic and cultural security?

This group clearly makes up an important part of Trump's irreducible base. They want someone, finally, to do something about their issues. The catechism of what it supposedly is to be a Republican and Conservative—ostensibly the Gospel of Reagan—means very little to them and they may not even agree with most of it. It's rather simple. Someone or something has been taking things from them, and they want it taken back. That requires a firm hand, a man not too concerned about the fine points of policy or limits on Executive Power. Trump's people aren't worried about a few eggs being broken, and they actually like a few eggs being thrown. When Trump speaks, even when it appears to be overtly prejudicial, what he says seems to be common sense. They certainly don't worry too much about his randy language—they hear it all the time, and, at the very worst, well, boys are boys and most of them talk a bigger game than they actually live. Spare us the holier-than-thou garbage.

Everything that has happened since the release of those tapes confirms their judgement. The professional political class has acted exactly as expected—almost to a person, they have calibrated their responses based strictly on just how much they feel at risk. A fair number are embarrassing themselves— Deb Fischer, Republican Senator from Nebraska, did a complete round trip (endorse, demand Trump step down, re-endorse) in only three days, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are profiles in abject cravenness.

The person who best exemplifies the Republican and Conservative dilemma is Paul Ryan. Heretofore Ryan acted as someone who discovered his roommate has a supposedly non-infectious case of leprosy—be polite, wear latex gloves, and don't steal the guy's food. And he's supported the Trump campaign by telling queasy “regular Republican” voters that, if Trump is President, he (Ryan) will legislatively deliver the “regular Republican” agenda. But, as risks heighten, he has a House majority (and his own Speakership) to look after. So he has told everyone to look after their own best interests—every Republican running may choose how close they want to get to Trump based on their in-house calculation of what works for them. Trump, needless to say, does not appreciate the delicacy of Ryan's dilemma, and hints at “sinister” bargains.

If all this sounds coldly calculating and crass, a possibly quixotic quest to keep Trump's diehards without consequence, to go back to business as usual, that's because it is. And it is all happening in public—a bizarre demonstration of three-dimensional chess that is the perverse end-game of an entire generation of the party (and even the Conservative Movement) unmooring itself from real principles in the quest for electoral victories and spoils.

The dirty little secret is that most of them know it. They know what they really believe, and what they put on like a suit of clothes when they walk out the door each morning. That Reagan-Era jacket is for parades, not for day-to-day use. And Trump's people know it as well, and, as they sense the artifice and fear, they follow their leader and look to bury their enemies. In Trump's mind, and theirs, he cannot lose, unless he is betrayed by his own party, and cheated by Hillary. If that happens, they won't simply accept it.

In fairness, that is not the whole story. It's not all cowardice and phony pledges to principles that are not really respected. Beyond the operatives and the small ambitious grasping men and women are plenty of people of sincere belief and firm conviction. You can see that in the anguished writing of people across the Conservative spectrum, including Michael Gerson, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks,
Walter Shapiro, Noah Rothman, Ross Douthat, and Max Boot. Their concern goes beyond the tactical implications of the erosion of the Republican brand. What they worry about is a growing sense that Conservatism itself is being redefined in an ignorant, nativist, misogynistic, antagonistic, and autocratic way that has few principles beyond obtaining, retaining, and using power. Many see themselves as guardians of Reagan's tradition, and Trump and Trumpism is not what they signed up for when they joined the revolution.

Their time may well be past.

A tremendous number of people fear this election—and they should, regardless of the outcome. Trump has exposed fault-lines everywhere, and not just in the Republican Party or amongst Conservatives, but even among some Democrats. And he's done something deeper—he is testing our hearts and our character. But let's not pretend he appeared out of nowhere. The anger, the nihilism, the desire for control, the disregard for the norms of civility, the strawmen and the scapegoats—they are a product of two decades of smash-mouthed politics that have soured people's outlook, and often withered their dreams.

One thing is for certain. Those are big feet stomping on Reagan's grave.