Stick a toe-tag on that sucker and send it to the morgue: The Grand Old Party, the party of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain and certainly that of Abraham Lincoln, is officially dead.
The name lives on, of course. In some ways the organization lives on as well. But if the purpose of a political party is to advance a given set of principles and policies, then what we know as the Republican Party is no longer a political party. It has become something much more ominous.
“We are in a strange place,” admits Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, of the party once known as Republican. “It’s almost -- it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? It’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of, purportedly, of the same party.”
Yes, it is very much becoming a cultish thing. And looking back through almost 250 years of history, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it. This happens in other countries, in Peron’s Argentina, in Berlusconi’s Italy, but it doesn’t happen here. I cannot recall a major American political party that has so thoroughly defined itself by its loyalty not to a cause or to a set of principles, but to a single individual.
Maybe you could point to the Democratic Party under FDR, or to the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan. Certainly, both men dominated and defined their parties, but unlike Trump, Roosevelt and Reagan emerged from their party’s mainstreams; they championed policies that were consistent with its heritage and traditions. Their influence flowed from their ability to enact and defend party policies and principles.
This is something else entirely. Under Trump, a party that once sold itself as the party of free trade, family values, fiscal conservatism, a limited executive branch and international leadership has abandoned all that and much more. Conservatism also implies consistency, an adherence to first principles, while the principles of the Trump party are defined by whatever it is that Trump tweets next.
The signs of the transformation are everywhere. In Virginia Tuesday night, Republican primary voters nominated Corey Stewart for the U.S. Senate, a candidate who celebrates the Confederacy, traffics with white supremacists and promises to outTrump Trump. Trump celebrated Stewart’s victory in a tweet, predicting victory in the fall, but Bill Bolling, a longtime Virginia Republican who served as lieutenant governor from 2006 to 2014, had a different response:
In South Carolina, in a congressional district that Trump lost in the 2016 GOP primary, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford was defeated in a Republican primary by a first-term state representative. Sanford didn’t lose because of his extramarital affair as governor nine years ago, or because he had turned liberal. He was defeated for daring to occasionally criticize He to Whom All Loyalty is Owed.
“There’s a different feel to this race, based on something that I’ve never experienced before, which is at times being hit not on ideas that I’ve espoused or held, but based on allegiance,” Sanford said before his loss became official. “With some people, the allegiance to ideas is secondary to their belief in the importance of their allegiance to a person.”
Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, drove home the lesson in her victory speech.
“We are the party of President Donald J. Trump,” she told an exultant crowd.
“Sanford did not change, his party did,” observed Erick Erickson, who in the past has celebrated the fall of many a supposed RINO and now finds that label stapled to his own forehead. “It changed in a way that is not conservative. If anything, the party has moved away from consistent principle to the politics of the here and now in a cult of personality.”
Perhaps the best example of that cult of personality comes from right here in Georgia, in the person of Sen. David Perdue. He made his millions as an international businessman; he was elected as a proud defender of free trade, and voted in favor of giving President Obama power to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Now, Perdue has completely reversed course in defense of the man he calls an American Winston Churchill. Speaking from the floor of the Senate Tuesday, Perdue defended Trump’s trashing of the G-7; he backed Trump’s decision not to punish ZTE, the huge Chinese telecom company caught violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea. U.S. intelligence experts have also warned that ZTE telephones pose a great security risk in this country, but Perdue doesn’t care. To the contrary, he admonished any senator who might dare to question Trump’s actions.
“President Trump has the attention of the world, and the momentum to pull off better trade deals. So why are members of this body trying to confuse and complicate the process by undermining the president’s efforts?” Perdue said. “We need to give them the benefit of the doubt, and stop undercutting the negotiating power of our commander in chief.”
Clearly, Perdue has made his choice, and for the moment is happy with it. However, those in the Republican Party who are disenchanted with its transformation into a personality cult face a tougher time. Corker has decided to retire from the Senate, as has Jeff Flake from Arizona, both men understanding that if they ran, their longtime party would reject them. Sanford has lost his job, as have others. Some have chosen the course of cowed silence, unwilling to pay the price for saying what they know to be true.
That price can be high. For example, Erickson has written frankly about the personal and professional cost of refusing to convert:
“Over the course of the campaign in 2016, we had people show up at our home to threaten us. We had armed guards at the house for a while. My kids were harassed in the store. More than once they came home in tears because other kids were telling them I was going to get killed or that their parents hated me. I got yelled at in the Atlanta airport while peeing by some angry Trump supporter.
“We got harassed in church and stopped going for a while. A woman in a Bible study told my wife she wanted to slap me across the face. My seminary got calls from people demanding I be expelled. And on and on it went. When I nearly died in 2016, I got notes from people upset I was still alive. When I announced my wife had an incurable form of lung cancer, some cheered. All were directed from supposedly evangelical Trump supporters convinced God was punishing me for not siding with his chosen one....
“When my Fox contract came up, not only did I not want to stay, but Fox made clear they had no use for me. I had jumped from CNN to Fox with a number of promises made, none of which were kept and then wound up hardly ever getting on. After saying I could not support Trump, the purpose of my Fox contract became more about keeping me off anyone's television screen than putting me on. When I did go on in 2016, I frequently found myself getting called a traitor by some Trump-humping celebrity.”
All political parties have expectations of loyalty; it’s the glue that holds them together. And all successful political figures inspire something akin to hero worship in some of their followers. But Erickson’s account reads for all the world like testimony from those such as Leah Remini, the actress who fled Scientology, or others who abandoned the Moonies or other cult. It’s like something we’ve never seen before, so we have no real idea what will happen when -- or if -- the fever ever breaks.