Goodbye Paul Ryan, hello to a new Republican Party that embraces the president’s politics but not his person.
A little more than six months from now, on November 7, the sun will rise on a political landscape wrecked by President Donald Trump’s first midterm election. Thanks to a map that puts more Democratic than Republican seats at risk, our party will still cling to control of the Senate, but GOP House members lack insulation: They will crawl out from the smoking rubble of a 40- to 50-seat pounding to find they have lost their majority.
Paul Ryan will be gone. The former Great White Hope of the Republican Party sneaked out of town before reveille, leaving his troops facing extinction. Our remaining soldiers, stunned or wounded, will also have blown the bugle of retreat, fleeing to the shelter of the party's shrunken conservative base. Our eyes will turn to those survivors, the leaders of a broken party, one only they can restore. They will determine where the Republican Party goes next. How do we renew our party in the Age of Trump?
We don’t have to wait for November’s cataclysm. We can begin now with a strategy to harness Trump’s base and add swing voters, even as we remain faithful to our principles.
To begin, we need to recognize that, although Donald Trump often appeals to the worst in us, the fears that fueled his election are legitimate. They need to be respected. We need a Republican Party as big as those fears and as great as America’s challenges. We need a Republican Party to address the twin concerns that rocketed an inexperienced businessman past both irrelevant political parties and made him president of the United States.
Fear No. 1: Our country fears it is losing the future. A broad slice of working-class voters fear the American dream has become the American game. They believe it has been fixed by the big guys, for the big guys, against the man who drives an F-150 and built their mansions. It was rigged by the very political leaders Americans sent to Washington to guard the future’s gates.
Donald Trump not only harnessed the resentments of Roosevelt’s “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” but he also offered them a solution, resurrecting the old Reagan slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Like Trump, our most successful political leaders have always offered blue-collar America a transformative vision of their future—FDR and his “New Deal,” JFK and the “New Frontier,” Reagan and his “Rendezvous with Destiny,” Bill Clinton and his “Bridge to the 21st Century,” and Barack Obama with “Hope,” “Change” and “Yes, We Can!” Yet no leader in either political party today offers America’s working class a compelling vision to compete with that of our president. We’ve left Trump a monopoly selling sunrises. There are no rivals on the shelf.
Fear No. 2: Our country fears it is losing its identity. We’ve always shared common beliefs, tenets that unite us as Americans. Our flag and anthem bind us into a nation because of the principles they represent: freedom, individual responsibility, the rule of law and equality of opportunity for every American. We have been united by one inspired national culture, open to and supported by all Americans.
Uniting America is not about “going back” or preserving these values only for male or white Americans. Diversity, equality and an open society are all pretty darn “American” these days. However, our openness no longer seems to have a uniting purpose. There is no better example than Hillary Clinton’s procession for president. Instead of running one campaign, she ran a confederacy of them, micro-targeting groups because of their differences. She found no larger slogan to unite voters beyond the vacuous “I’m With Her.”
As Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla notes, “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
Whether in politics, the media and entertainment businesses, or college campuses, our nation is sick with division because diversity no longer serves a larger purpose. There is no unifying national identity to bring us together or give our unique, individual contributions a common objective. Instead, the welcome ideas of “openness” and “diversity” have displaced what unites us. And when there is nothing to which we all belong, diversity becomes division. Openness, without a common, uniting culture, becomes chaos and America becomes a tribal combat zone, a scary, divided, self-segregated field of battle. Without the North Star of a unifying national identity, our country cracks into angry, razor-edged shards until its blood is drained.
When Americans fear they are losing both their future and their identity, what do they have left? Amid this great unraveling, a good but unnerved people become a mob and march on the walled fortresses of the establishment. They turn to the leadership of the autocrat. In 2016, a crowd-pleaser filled this vacuum with his strength.
It is unremarkable, at this point, to note that good Americans turned to Donald Trump, not because of his many flaws, but despite them. Trump’s threat and his appeal are identical: He is the undistilled reptilian brain.
Trump is all id, the oldest and most primitive part of our brain, concerned only with the evolutionary basics: sex, sustenance and survival. His brain is not filtered by our social and emotional brain, much less by the rational, pre-frontal cortex. He has no Jeb Bush brain to digest facts and figures, issues and policy. Instead, Trump is a predator. When something enters his world, he either eats it, kills it or mates with it. That is all his predatory instincts can do.
The president’s primitive nature is the root of his narcissism. Trump’s immediate and voracious appetites allow no concern for others or understanding of tomorrow. He reacts instinctively, not emotionally, morally or intellectually. He is insensitive to truth and incapable of discipline or strategy.
Yet Americans elected this predator, this T. rex president, as their last resort, in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the horde of smaller, slimier predators in Washington who were on the verge of devouring them.
We can all see that Trump is, at times, a disreputable human specimen. His supporters see it as clearly as his adversaries. In fact, Trump makes sure we see it. Our T. rex president is proud of his predatory triumphs. Yet this electorate thought that even Donald Trump was a better bet than the status quo both Republicans and Democrats were offering them. Trump’s victory measured our national frustration, our hunger for an alternative to the impoverished offerings of both parties.
Like the Bourbons after Napoleon, however, Republicans and Democrats “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Since the surprising day Trump was elected, neither party has learned or evolved, despite their humbling defeats at his hands.
The Republicans who make Donald Trump necessary are not the bootlickers like Corey Lewandowski who blindly follow his parade past Trump Tower, from Fifth Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue. His enablers are Bill Kristol, Steve Schmidt and Karl Rove. They are Jeff Flake and John Kasich. They count Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan. They include all of us in the Republican Party who left the vacuum Trump has occupied. Yet today, we still offer more of the same but expect different results. If we do not renew this visionless party, it will never lead again.
Issues and policy alone are not our answer. They may be the essential currency of governing, but they are not the foundation of leadership. Our country is looking for something larger. If issues and policy could solve our problems, Ryan would be a hero instead of roadkill, and Trump would not be president of the United States.
Somewhere over the horizon, there is a renewed Republican Party that has learned from Trump but is not limited by his person. If we can grant that “Trump has assembled the most conservative administration and agenda of any modern president,” it should not be difficult for the GOP to embrace Trumpism without its namesake. I’d chisel in stone five commandments for “Trumpism Beyond Trump” that every Republican campaign should observe.
1. A renewed GOP must be the party of change.
A new and better GOP must be a populist party of outsiders who will bring change to Washington and challenge our antiquated political establishment. The GOP must be the party of bottom-up solutions, not top-down government. We must be the party, not of the big guy or the little guy, but of everyone. To renew ourselves, Republicans must always be agents of change, outsiders on the side of the people and not the establishment that requires transformation.
What this means for GOP campaigns: The Republican Party needs to burn down the top-down, industrial-age structures that empower the political elite of Washington, even if they are controlled by Republicans. We must lead with an agenda to remove money and power from our archaic and imperial establishment. If GOP policy is more aggressive and disruptive than Mitch McConnell finds tasteful, put it in a campaign ad: Your campaign will be moving ahead.
2. A renewed GOP must admit it needs to change.
The American people can see what Republicans often ignore: The GOP was bankrupt long before Trump came along. The Reagan Revolution that still defines the GOP crested decades ago. That great cause became a movement, then a business, then a self-preserving racket. In 2016, the American people judged that Washington Republicans had been poisoned by their success and become the very thing they were sent to the Capitol to change.
Yet, too many Republicans today would rather wail about Trump on “Morning Joe” than admit their party is a shell full of hollow hopes and excuses. They are running out the clock, waiting for Trump to pass from the scene, so they can return to their old habits.
Voters won’t believe Republicans can fix the problem until we admit we are the problem. Your choice in 2018: Be change or get changed. Don’t campaign as yesterday’s Republican. Run against yesterday’s Democrats, instead.
3. A renewed GOP must be the party of the economic future, not the past.
Without an inspiring vision of the future, voters reach for the security of the nanny state and surrender to the strength of the autocrat. A renewed Republican Party needs a New Economy vision of economic growth and prosperity.
Today’s Republicans can express their economic policy only in an industrial age frame. Trump, for example, vows to bring back manufacturing. In Congress, yesterday’s GOP is still stuck advocating tax cuts as patent medicine, with the ability to grow hair, cure ED and heal every ill in society. And tax cuts are necessary—but they are insufficient. GOP tax policy is already built into our brand’s stock price. Tell people what they already know, and they stay where they already are. More of the same will not expand the GOP.
What can Republicans do to renew their brand? Our party’s future is not difficult to see: It lives in Silicon Valley. A new generation of Palo Alto entrepreneurs lives what Republicans believe. They, not Washington, are creating an open and innovative economy far beyond anything yesterday’s government could imagine. These visionaries vote against Republicans, however, because we have offered our principles, not as the key to the prosperity of the future, but as the source of the achievements of the past.
Republicans do have a message for millennials. In the communications age, freedom—the ability to connect, adapt and evolve—is indispensable. Republican principles that respect freedom do not need alteration. Our language expressing how these principles work in a connected world, however, does need to be updated. Millennials, women and minorities may call freedom “diversity” or “openness,” but in their new, hyper-related world, they need the liberty conservatives cherish.
At the super PAC NewRepublican.org a few years ago, we had the opportunity to test words that work to express GOP principles in the communications age. We learned that Republicans can employ their core beliefs to force a choice between the old system Democrats defend and the new world Silicon Valley is creating: a new, “open” economy versus an old, “closed" one. “Authentic, natural, organic economic growth” versus “outdated, artificial, political stimulus and programs.” “Bottom-up” versus “top-down” economic initiatives. A more open economy is the foundational principle of an Uber-generation Republican Party that can expand its appeal beyond Trump’s base of supporters to the voters of the future: the millennials, suburban women and minorities in the emerging Democratic majority.
Does an “open” economy require Republicans to accept unfair trade, illegal immigration or insecure borders? No, it doesn’t. We don’t have to become anarchists, throw out all the rules, and divorce ourselves from Trump on these issues. An open economy is not a borderless one, whether on immigration or trade.
The strategy for 2018 Republicans: Campaign like Elon Musk and govern like Ronald Reagan. Musk has JFK’s gift for finding symbols of the future and elevating them. A renewed GOP must do the same. After all, voters won’t follow us to The Promised Land if we can’t point them there. If November is a choice between the Democratic Party of the past and tomorrow’s reborn Republicans, we have a modest chance to survive 2018. With good campaigns, we might lose only 25 seats in the House and rebuild our party from there.
4. A renewed GOP must stand up for a uniting American identity.
Trump champions a strong national identity by inciting conflict and segregation. His divisive view of America is rooted in resentment and anger. A renewed Republican Party and its leaders must recognize people’s fear that America is losing its unifying identity—then argue that our shared belief in one nation is the only thing that can bring all Americans together.
The Republican Party is the party of American exceptionalism. There is a reason we all need to stand up for the national anthem: A renewed GOP should oppose the Democratic Party’s divisive identity politics and the cultural segregation it manufactures. We should support a larger, uniting American identity, open to and shared by every race, color, creed and gender.
Republicans need to learn from Trump and embrace his unapologetic nationalism, but campaign with a patriotism that unites, rather than divides, the nation. Much of what Trump is doing can expand the Republican Party if expressed with a loving heart instead of a reproving hand. Salute the flag. Stand up for the anthem. Say the pledge of allegiance. Make the case that requiring immigrants to learn English in schools is not punishment or an attack on their cultures. On the contrary, it is the greatest gift our country can give anyone, access to the American dream that brought them here. Teach the Constitution in our schools. Require that all federal employees take a course and pass a test demonstrating they understand the Constitution they have sworn to protect and defend before they can cash a paycheck. A uniting patriotism extends a common-sense proposal: America must be a nation before it can be great.
5. A renewed GOP must be the party of strength.
Many Republicans suffer terrible debilities in this primitive moment: They are creatures of reason. They respect procedure and tradition. But these civilized qualities can mislead a nation battling for its existence.
This year, Republican candidates are being tested in the Coliseum. The crowd believes strong leadership is indispensable. Learn from the apex predator who is president: Stand up for what you believe—and shoot your pollsters. Envision a great country’s future and lift our eyes there.
Donald Trump’s presidency is hidden behind the clouds, a storm of controversy of his own making. This president, more than anyone else, has made it impossible to credit him for his accomplishments. By any fair measure, there are many: He has crushed ISIS and increased our paychecks with a tax cut. He has erased regulations that were growing Washington’s economy at the expense of our economy. He has appointed a respected Supreme Court justice and transformed the judiciary to call balls and strikes. American manufacturing is growing. He brought China to confront North Korea. He is pressing for free trade that works fairly in all directions. He throws missiles at Putin once a year and he is making our military strong again. His ferociously incorrect talk has ripped away the pretension cloaking Washington’s decline and irrelevance.
When the long arc of history judges Trump, it will likely report he left behind a vicious inflationary spiral. That, alongside devouring the country’s expectations for a president’s personal conduct, may be the greatest cost of his T. rex presidency. He will be assessed as the bipolar leader he has become, both one of the worst and best presidents Americans have ever elected, perhaps the greatest president to be removed from the Oval Office in chains.
I doubt any other 2016 GOP candidate could have equaled this president’s accomplishments. He has stopped America’s decline and, in many areas, reversed it. Americans should be grateful he was elected president. If he is not disqualified from the ballot, I plan to vote for him again.
But what Trump has done can be undone. He is a man, not a movement. He is an instinct, not an idea. He crushed a hollow Republican Party, but he has not rebuilt it. The Republicans who come after Donald Trump must do what they have not yet done: Decide how to lead after this exasperating and heroic president leaves office. And that is our problem: We don’t have a Republican Party. We ought to. Not long from now, our country is going to need one.