Stop me, fellow NeverTrumpers, if you’re tired of hearing the following refrain: Just admit it — you’re a Democrat now!
The truth, in my case, is that the disaffection predates the takeover by Donald Trump of the Republican Party and what remains of the thing called the conservative movement. As someone who had been prepared to enthusiastically back the late Sen. John McCain in 2008, I first began entertaining serious doubts at the emergence of Sarah Palin as a “Real America” cult phenomenon. That someone so obviously in over her head elicited such an intense level of devotion in red America struck me as an ominous development.
Of course things got exponentially worse from there.
Nevertheless, I remain at least an ancestral Republican. In a post-Trump political landscape — whether that begins (please, God) next year or in 2024 — I could see myself pulling the lever for a Republican candidate if he or she satisfied the following five criteria:
1. Truth and reconciliation. My first criterion is not a matter of policy or ideology. It should be an easy one: Tell the truth. The whole truth. As Josh Marshall has written at Talking Points Memo, we’re going to need a full audit of everything that has transpired under the cover of darkness (and many, many defied subpoenas) in Trump’s executive branch: “We simply cannot move forward as a society or a political system without a thorough accounting of the totality of what happened during this unparalleled era of lawlessness, corruption, and misgovernance.” The Ukraine boondoggle was no doubt the tip of a very large iceberg. We could never be certain whether Trump was representing his financial and political interests, or the country’s, while interfacing with world leaders such as the presidents of Turkey and China. He never separated himself from the Trump Organization, and barely pretended to; in fact, he funneled public money to it throughout his presidency. As we speak, Trump is corrupting, in more or less plain view, several government agencies in his re-election effort. (“Warp speed” vaccine by early November, anyone?)
The Republican Party in Trump’s wake needs to own this legacy of corruption. And it needs to apologize to the public for abetting it and covering it up. An administration that was, from beginning to end, one gigantic conflict of interest would never have been tolerated if led by a Democrat. This will require a package of ethics and legislative reforms.
2. Budget-busting tax cuts — promise not to do them again! In July 2014, I wrote the following:
Zooming out, we see Republicans, like Tiktaalik, slowly transitioning out of the primordial soup of supply-side dogma. There was Rep. Dave Camp’s comprehensive tax reform proposal. It’s revenue neutral and maintains progressivity. Relatedly, [Speaker Paul] Ryan takes care to insist his own proposal is “not a tax cut.” It’s true the conservative movement didn’t exactly leap for joy at Camp’s proposal — and there’s a myriad of reasons to doubt that the GOP could ever muster the courage to eliminate as many loopholes and deductions as it would take to reconcile the math of the Ryan budget.
But the larger point is this: a net tax reduction for the rich is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right. [The American Conservative]
Good heavens, was that ever wrong, wrong, wrong!
In 2017, like dogs returning to vomit, Republicans blew up the budget again with another round of tax cuts that, as in 2001 and 2003, did not finance themselves and did not spur growth or investment as promised. Oh, but they did blow up the deficit again. Alongside huge increases in social and defense spending, we began running $1 trillion annual deficits even before COVID-19. That’s some feat of fiscal incontinence.
If the Republican Party is ever going to plausibly lay claim to the mantle of fiscal conservatism, it is going to have to repudiate its dogmatic insistence on cutting taxes on the wealthy, always and everywhere, no matter what economic conditions obtain.
3. Universal access to affordable health care — just accept it already. A growing majority of voters expect this. Meanwhile, Republicans have tied themselves in knots opposing the Affordable Care Act, or what’s left of it, while repeatedly failing to deliver a workable alternative. This is not due to a lack of policy entrepreneurship on the right. In the antediluvian days of James Capretta and Yuval Levin, there was a plan to replace the individual mandate with an automatic-enrollment mechanism: If you didn’t secure health coverage, you’d be automatically enrolled in a randomly chosen provider in your state. The coverage would be closer to catastrophic than comprehensive — but it’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. Start there. Stop this ludicrous shaking-your-fists-at-the-universe denial of political reality and align the GOP with every other major center-right party in the developed world.
4. Immigration and race. At a cost to both humanity and long-term economic growth, the Trump administration has managed to significantly reduce the rate of legal immigration to the U.S. For Trump and his odious racist handmaid Stephen Miller, I imagine this is a proud and deeply felt accomplishment. Yet it is mind-bogglingly stupid and counterproductive — not to mention, in the case of refugees, immoral. The next Republican standard-bearer must reverse this course. As for the matter of what to do with 12 million undocumented workers, the solution is the same as it was in 2005. It is the same as it was when Mitt Romney desperately tried to avoid admitting it in 2012. And it is the same as it was when Sen. Marco Rubio layered some new perfume on it 2013: bring them out from the shadows, send them to the end of the line, collect back taxes where applicable — and move the heck on from this godforsaken entanglement with white nationalism and restrictionism.
5. Reaffirm NATO and the rest of the postwar national security architecture. Trump’s instincts have at times overlapped with both Sen. Rand Paul’s noninterventionist rhetoric and the anti-Iranian hysteria of the neocon right. Much of this confusion may be boiled down to simply being against whatever Obama was for, as well as Monday-morning quarterbacking George W. Bush’s failures. But there is a coherence to his outlook on world events. I like to say Trump accepts Noam Chomsky’s critique that everything America does abroad is bad — he just happens to be normatively okay with it. (Similarly, back when he was both sane and funny, Dennis Miller used to tell a joke that if Pat Buchanan were on the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, he would have absorbed the details of Nazi atrocities, waved his hands, and said, “And? …”) Under Trump, America is a nation just like any other; as guilty of “killing” as any other. Though I’ve no doubt Trump means this to seem tough and realistic, he is wrong. As a result of his amorality, the NATO alliance has been destabilized. Opportunities to check China, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, were abruptly thrown to the curb in favor of a self-defeating passel of tariffs. On the whole, Americans are less safe than we were before Trump.
A post-Trump GOP needn’t reinvent the wheel; the first principles are sound. Just quit the supply-side habit, listen to the smart conservative health-care wonks, and remember the benefits, not simply the burden, of U.S. leadership in the world. Think George Bush the Elder.
At this moment, it seems exceedingly unlikely that future Republican presidential hopefuls such as Sens. Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley or former Gov. Nikki Haley are ready to renounce Trumpism and go this route. A landslide defeat could change that. That’s the outcome I’m hoping for, however naively. This is worth a try.
In the meantime: No; I’m not going to just admit I’m a Democrat!