I can actually remember the moment I joined the Republican Party.
It was the Monday after July 4th in 1991. I had just turned 18 the week before. And, there were a few momentous things that I had to get done: register to vote, signing up for selective service, and….joining the Republican Party.
In all respects, I was a Republican before that moment. My father was a reformed Carter Democrat, who became a beloved Reagan Republican. I was a ‘Reagan Baby’…Reagan defined my early childhood, and in many ways, my political philosophy.
I guess now, I can also mark the calendar on the day I left the Republican Party…May 3, 2016.
Many others are going through the same conflict and dismay I have gone through. The number of people who have messaged me after my various social media proclamations about leaving the GOP are now too numerous to count. Friends, family, online acquaintances, and complete strangers have responded with the entire spectrum of reactions, from “How dare you abandon your party now?” to “You are right; it is the only way.”
Donald Trump supporters take this the most personally however. The vitriol and outrage of defecting from their dear Leader enrages them to no end.
That is only a small side benefit of this decision though.
In truth, the process of philosophically abandoning the GOP (or, case in point, the GOP philosophically abandoning we conservatives) has been a long time coming. More than a decade, in truth. It largely started with the George W. Bush administration, with their ill-conceived foreign policy, and has continued to this day, as Donald Trump’s ignorant populism has won the party over. So I don’t really blame Trump, per se, for this; this was a long time in coming. Trump is more a symptom than cause of the disease.
Reihan Salam, Executive Editor of the National Review (and someone I greatly admire) made the case of why people should remain in the Republican Party, despite Trump’s nomination:
My case for sticking with the Republican Party is not a sentimental one. The rise of Trump has convinced many of my conservative comrades that the GOP is a cesspool. I have to ask: Did you believe that the GOP was the home of heroes and legends before he came on the scene? I’ve been in and around the conservative movement for my entire adult life, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of self-described conservative true believers doing the bidding of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, Hollywood conglomerates, and unsavory foreign governments. I’ve also seen people of great integrity work tirelessly for little pay and even less recognition to make this country a freer, fairer, and more decent place. The Republican Party may well be a party of charlatans and cranks. But it is also the party of millions of middle-class Americans who believe that the role of government is to empower people, not to render them powerless and dependent. I stand with those in my party who share my ideals and to work with them to defeat those who do not. To be clear, this is not always fun. It just happens to be necessary.
The irony with Reihan’s piece is…it echoes many of my own arguments for the past decade. While advocating for John McCain and Mitt Romney, I often reverted to these very same discussions. I argued that the GOP was the only vehicle conservatives had to promote our philosophy. I argued that the Republican Party was broken, but fixing it was our best path forward. I vehemently spoke out in favor of blindly voting for the GOP, even though they continued to betray our beliefs time and again.
I just don’t see how this can be supported any more.
If true conservatives, who believe in individual rights, the power of the free market, a small Federal government and more federalism, and the overall necessity of America’s military power in sustaining the world order cannot draw a line in the sand against Donald Trump…what exactly do we stand for?
And that is the core problem here. There is no philosophical core guiding the Republican Party any more. Are we the party of small government? Trump, who said education and health care (after defense) were the most important jobs of the Federal government today, clearly doesn’t believe in small government. Are we the party of individual rights, or more state power? Trump, the poster boy for private use of eminent domain, isn’t one to talk. And even on military power and foreign policy, Trump’s policies of a weaker NATO and a rollback of our force structure worldwide is in contrast to what conservatives have believed for a generation.
So, is a party that doesn’t even agree on its core beliefs a party in any sense of the word?
Reihan goes on to argue that we may be witnessing a major restructuring of the political landscape, something I alluded to in my piece earlier in the week:
By 2020 or 2024, both of our major parties may well look radically different. The GOP is less a single, solid thing than a never-ending rumble, in which different factions duke it out over which one of them will temporarily control the party’s brand and its infrastructure. Leaving the Republican Party now would mean, essentially, ceding control of its considerable resources to your factional rivals. Such a decision might be logical if you’ve decided that you’re all in for a $15 minimum wage or if increasing less-skilled immigration is the issue that matters to you most. In that case, then you should probably join the Democratic Party. But for a conservative like me, it still makes sense to stake out territory under the GOP tent.
I agree with the first part of this assertion. On both sides of the political aisle, we are seeing major fracture lines develop. The Republicans simply have suffered from those fractures more acutely, as the era of Reagan is brought to an end by the coming of Trumpism. But on the Left, the socialist progressive wing of the party, which was always there but largely silent for the past few decades, now demands that their voice be heard, while the establishment wing of the Democrat Party fights to maintain its control. How that shapes out may define American politics for the next generation, far more than Trump’s victory will.
The question for reform conservatives then becomes, what is the best method to survive this political upheaval, and still have a functioning conservative movement when it is all said and done?
Reihan argues that only by being within the GOP apparatus that we can achieve this. But again…where is the evidence that this is the case? The Tea Party, among other conservative movements, have tried that method since 2009, with only limited results. Establishment Republicans largely halted the efforts of the Tea Party, culminating in the defeat of both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in this year’s primary. On the other end of the spectrum, the specter of the populist wing of the party, now led by Trump but voiced by the likes of Pat Buchanan for decades, is now triumphant.
I would argue the opposite. Only by fundamentally weakening the underpinnings of the GOP as is can we reform it. The entire party is rampant cesspool of incompetence, incoherence and corruption. Tacitly approving of their methods by remaining within their sphere of power seems counterproductive to me, at this point. The GOP may not be destroyed to be fixed, but its current iteration must be severely damaged before those in power are willing to accept the painful reforms necesssary to be a true national party again.
If we were to liberate enough conservatives from the Republican Party into an independent voice, we could force the party to actively try to court us when elections come. Right now, they take the vote of reform conservatives for granted. But if we were independent of the party structure, now candidates would be forced to confront our ideas, point by point. And if they continued to ignore our calls for reform, we have the most powerful tool of all…our lack of support on voting day.
I will hold nothing against people who stay within the Republican Party. In fact, even those that are arguing that we should vote for Trump, for the sake of ‘party unity’ still hold my respect. But I for one no longer see no added value to the illusion.
I have for many years said I am a conservative first, and Republican second. I now hold true to that oath. I will fight for the conservative values I hold near and dear, from outside the party apparatus…in hopes that one day, the party will reopen the door for me and other conservatives once again. Then, and only again, will I return to the party that I once loved.
[Note: Please note a small correction: Reihan Salam is the Executive Editor of the National Review; the Editor is Rich Lowry. I have made the correction above.]