After 2017, Why Are You Still a Republican?
Are you still a Republican? May I ask why?
If you’re supportive of the Trump agenda or staunchly loyal to the Republican Party, my question isn’t directed to you. But if you’re at least wary of what Trump represents, if you’re at least uncomfortable with how your fellow Republicans have acquiesced to his rise, if you’re at least confused about what has become of your party over the last 2 years, I’d like to make the case for you to leave.
Maybe, like me, you have fond memories of the party. Growing up in a Republican home, I always thought of myself as a Republican. I was taught that America was built from values like individual initiative, traditional morals, and small government. One of my first memories of Republicans was their stand for family values in the ’90s, as they united with leaders on the Christian right to condemn the moral lapses of President Clinton and call for a higher standard in our leaders.
As an adult, I decided to open my mind and I stopped thinking of myself as a Republican. But as last year’s presidential primaries approached, I was impressed by the Republican slate of candidates, and I volunteered for my first political campaigns. I borrowed my roommate’s car and drove to Iowa to make phone calls for Chris Christie, then I knocked on doors for John Kasich on a snowy day in Michigan. I watched them both exit ingloriously, vanquished by an opponent I could never have expected.
I dismissed Donald Trump’s campaign the day he announced it by rolling down his escalator in Trump Tower and calling illegal immigrants rapists. But as his campaigned picked up steam, something strange happened: I started caring deeply about the future of the Republican Party, which I didn’t even consider myself a part of. How could Trump, the reality TV guy, be the nominee of the party of Lincoln and Reagan? How could comments I found pathetic and loathsome be allowed to stand? How was it possible that those comments were actually increasing his support?
This was not the Republican Party I recognized. I had a feeling that if Trump were nominated, there would be no going back. He was not just another nominee that the party could regret and move on; he was a corrupting force to be repudiated. So I decided I would try to save one of America’s two major parties from itself. I joined the #DumpTrump effort with hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Republicans on social media. I exchanged e-mails with Republican National Convention delegates, pleading with them to listen to us. One delegate replied with several paragraphs of attacks on Hillary Clinton, and hardly a mention of the candidate she insisted on nominating. I fought to the end, and Trump prevailed.
The party fell in line with him as their new leader, at first reluctantly, then enthusiastically. Former opponents like Paul Ryan became advocates, and by election day the Republican voices still speaking out against Trump were very few. After he beat Clinton, I decided to wait and see how Republicans would respond to his presidency. I decided to give the party one last chance.
So on this New Year’s Eve, let’s take a look back at 2017 and see how they did.
A Year in Republican Politics
Early in the year, as the Russian collusion scandal started to unfold, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes announced at a press conference that communications of members of Trump’s transition team had been “incidentally collected” by the intelligence community. He went public with his scoop before sharing it with his own Intelligence Committee, seemingly in an attempt to protect President Trump. We now know that our intelligence had been conducting extensive surveillance of the transition team’s communications with Russians.
There was disarray inside the White House. Less than a month into Trump’s presidency, his national security advisor Michael Flynn quit after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. White House press conferences resembled a circus as Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to fend off aggressive questioners with defense after cringe-worthy defense of his boss. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, previously chairman of the Republican Party, proved unable to control his staff as well as he had controlled his party. The palace intrigue seemed to reach its climax when Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director. In his 10 days on the job, “Mooch” attacked his colleague Steve Bannon with a rant about oral sex and accused his other colleague Priebus of leaking inside information to the media. Priebus and Spicer both resigned upon Scaramucci’s arrival. Law and order seemed to finally arrive as General John Kelly replaced Priebus as Chief of Staff, and he promptly put Scaramucci’s short-lived White House career out of its misery. One of the architects of Trump’s winning campaign, Steve Bannon, resigned suspiciously, while Secretary of Health & Human Services Tom Price, a former Republican congressman, resigned in disgrace after it was reported that he had needlessly spent more than $1 million of his department’s funds in only 3 months by traveling on private and military aircraft. Trump’s entire Business Advisory Council and his entire Arts and Humanities Council disbanded in protest of his handling of the Charlottesville race protests.
There were obvious divisions within the party. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell feuded publicly, while House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had once refused to support Trump as his party’s nominee, sounded like a new man, saying Trump’s “heart’s in the right place” and praising his “exquisite presidential leadership.” Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, having announced he will not seek re-election in 2018, felt liberated to speak his mind about the president. “I don’t know why he lowers himself to such a low, low standard, and debases our country,” he said in a scathing interview. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, having also renounced re-election next year amid abysmal polling in his state, gave a convicted speech on the Senate floor, saying, “It’s…clear to me for the moment that we [Republicans] have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment.” Later in the year, Flake gave this stunning admonishment: “When you look at some of the audiences cheering for Republicans, sometimes, you look out there and you say, ‘those are the spasms of a dying party.’” The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, gave a speech condemning Trumpism, without naming names: “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” The previous Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, regularly tweeted the solemn warnings about Trumpism that he has become known for.
There were shaky electoral victories. Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed and broke the glasses of a reporter who dared to ask him questions. That didn’t stop voters from electing him the very next day. Georgia Republican Karen Handel barely staved off a nationwide Democratic campaign for 30-year-old challenger Dan Ossoff, for a congressional seat not occupied by a Democrat in 40 years.
There were stinging electoral defeats. Republicans’ candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican Party who had pushed for more outreach to Hispanics, ran a Trumpist ad warning that the largely Hispanic gang MS-13 was running rampant in the state. Voters chose his level-headed Democratic opponent Ralph Northam, and also gave Democrats a big boost in the state legislature. The president tried to mastermind the Alabama special election for Senate, but bungled it completely. In the Republican primary, Trump tweeted his support for incumbent Luther Strange over alt-right favorite Roy Moore in the Republican primary, then scrubbed the tweets when he lost the bet. After multiple women came forward accusing Moore of molesting them when they were minors, Republican party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel gave Trump a study showing that women are turning against the party, seemingly trying to warn the president not to endorse Moore. Hesitantly, Trump waded into the race again, recording a robocall for Moore at the last minute and tweeting on his behalf. Voters chose Democrat Doug Jones, making him Alabama’s first Democratic senator in 22 years.
There were legislative failures. After years of promising to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, Republicans failed spectacularly in two party-line attempts to get it done. The first vote was canceled because Republicans couldn’t get enough support from their own. The second vote was killed by Republican Senator John McCain, protesting that his party used tricks and maneuvers to shut out Democrats and rush the bill across the finish line. Finally, President Trump, even with a majority in both houses of Congress, resorted to an executive order in an attempt to fix the law.
I haven’t even mentioned the disgraceful Trump tweets, or the Russia investigation that has occupied the headlines all year and resulted in indictments or guilty pleas of 4 Trump campaign associates so far, or the fact that the public’s opinion of the Republican Party hit its lowest point since the polling began.
Breaking Up Is Hard
So I ask again: Why are you still a Republican?
Maybe you’re a fighter. You don’t want to cut and run and leave the party to the dogs. “There is a contest between Trumpism and Republicanism,” Mitt Romney said in 2016. Maybe you want to stay in the contest and fight for the party’s soul. But does a party have a soul? Can you describe what “Republicanism” is? Would your definition match Ted Cruz’s, or Rand Paul’s, or George W. Bush’s, or Steve Bannon’s? The Tea Party already tried to wrestle the Republican Party away from its soft establishment leaders. Since then the party has seemed more like Thanksgiving with the extended family that you can’t stand than a force for change.
Perhaps you’re staying for convenience. After all, the Grand Old Party has been around for 150 years, and it can’t be swept aside easily. There are good people in the party still, you say, and you’re willing to give it a chance to find its way back to sanity. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the party does recover to its pre-Trump glory. Ask yourself this: how would the party be viewed in 30 years? Would the stain of Trumpism be wiped clean by then? Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct in the White House is still held against him and his party, 20 years later. Do you think that Trump’s much more vulgar behavior will be forgotten? Instead of asking, “Can the GOP survive?”, ask yourself: “Does it deserve my support?”
Or maybe you say that it’s conservatism, not the Republican Party, that you still believe in. But a party is an organization, not an ideology. So when is the last time the party fought for conservatism? A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that between 1960 and 2010, deficits grew faster under Republican presidencies than under Democratic ones. Republicans have a habit of preaching bold conservatism when they don’t control the White House, but not practicing it when they do. To illustrate, the deficit fell during most years of Obama’s presidency, and increased during Trump’s first year. And what about now? The party of family values nominated a Senate candidate who’s accused of molesting minors, and is led by a president who joked about his genitals in a primary debate. The party of small government just passed tax cuts that non-partisan estimates say will add at least $1 trillion to the deficit. The party of strong world leadership is led by a president who has attacked allies from NATO to Canada to Great Britain, while playing nice with authoritarians in Russia and Turkey. The party of free trade is led by a president who has pulled out of the historic Trans-Pacific Partnership, and by a House Speaker who proposed a national tariff. The party of liberty is led by a president who suggested that news agencies who criticize him should have their licenses revoked. Physician, heal thyself!
Maybe you agree with my critiques, but you’re left with this question: if I leave the Republican Party, where will I go?
I’m not suggesting that you become a Democrat. Wild pendulum swings and knee-jerk reactions and protest votes cannot fix what’s fundamentally broken with our politics. One thing that last year’s presidential election revealed is that, in the same way that monopolies own an industry, the Democratic/Republican duopoly owns our politics. Couldn’t the country’s two major parties have found better candidates than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Many Americans think they could have, which is why 5% voted for an alternative candidate, up from about 1.5% in 2012. We will continue voting against, instead of for, unless we strike out in a new direction.
I am also not advocating for division. I’m advocating for competition. America was built on innovation. As the comedian Jon Stewart put it, “I don’t understand how in a country of 200 million votes, we only have two political parties. We have 8 different kinds of Coke, but only two political parties.” A more serious figure, Founding Father John Adams, warned: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
The Path Forward
In his Farewell Address in 1989, President Reagan, the champion of contemporary conservatism, said, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.” How his party has changed since then. Today’s GOP represents a conservatism without charm, without hopefulness, without inclusion, without unity, without appeal to the young.
I believe it is time for a New Conservative Movement. We don’t need a Grand Old Party that reminisces on its past successes and heroes, or repeats mantras it doesn’t live by. We need a New Conservative Movement that is alive, relevant, and on the move, ready to challenge power and conventional wisdom, to welcome the many disaffected Republicans, and to communicate conservative ideals to the younger generations it has left behind. That movement is already taking shape: grassroots New Conservative Movement clubs have been organized around the country, working for a better conservatism in their communities. As an organizer of this movement, I welcome you to join us.
Whatever path you take, think seriously about what you do with your vote. Are you normalizing what isn’t normal, allowing politicians to act with impunity, encouraging politics as usual? Republicans, it might be time to stop protesting, “This is not my party!” This is your party, and like Old Yeller, it’s gone rabid. Leaving it might feel like putting the family dog to sleep. All of the memories! And what if it recovers? But deep down, you know it’s time. In 2018, pull that trigger.
Brad is a national organizer for the New Conservative Movement who currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. After volunteering with Evan McMullin’s independent campaign for president in 2016, he joined with other McMullin supporters to organize the movement from the grassroots and raise a new generation of conservative leadership.