The last few years, I’ve been writing timid essays about the fragile state of the Republican Party, probing nervously at the idea that the GOP as we knew it might be unraveling, morphing, becoming something unrecognizable. What I may have failed to grasp — what a lot of us might have missed in all the raucous noise and churn of American politics — is that the Republican movement may have died a long time ago. The best metaphor for this rot-from-within scenario is the Ottoman Empire that existed in the Near East and Europe until 1924. For seven hundred years, the Ottomans were one of the great powers of the world, dominating the Mediterranean, shaping bold new ideas about government and war and faith.
But the Ottomans were always a patchwork of ethnic groups, coalitions, nervous alliances and strongmen and by the 1800s it was largely stagnant, dominated by increasingly ideological leaders who would brook no compromise. The halls of power in Istanbul were riven by dissent and its provinces were corrupt, and increasingly gutted by atrocities. But the Ottomans made a strong showing at the start of the First World War, famously battering the British invasion force at Gallipoli. Even then, it was possible to see their sprawling mess of a “nation” as something coherent, a force to be reckoned with. Then, as if at a stroke, they were gone. They were ancient history.
This is the year the long-festering civil war within the GOP may just be going full Ottoman, the year when the decline turns into a fall. There have been plenty of troubling signs over the last ten years: the increasing gap between the conservative movement’s ideological posturings and hard science, the willingness to embrace crazy conspiracy theories, the courting of fringe figures by establishment leaders, the insistence that a white, small-town-centric society was the “real” America, while the stunning urban diversity of our modern society is an aberration. When John McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, it was a sign that the center was not holding.
But there were also moments of hope. Four years later, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan seemed to pull the GOP back from the brink. They ran a respectable, recognizably centered and civil campaign. You might disagree with their policy ideas, but no one doubted their decency, their integrity, their adulthood. Yet while Romney and Ryan were talking about a coherent future for conservatism, a growing number of fringe partisans were building strength in the House, moving from the back benches to the highest levels of power. Soon, they would be kicking their own House Speaker, John Boehner, down the stairs – an unprecedented act of internal discord.
Until this winter, these battles could still be written off as internal rumblings, intra-party temblors. It was still possible to look at the external facade of the GOP and tell ourselves that it was a real thing, a coherent movement, an institution that had meaningful connections to men like Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Bob Dole, George Herbert Walker Bush, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
We reminded ourselves that the Democratic Party had faced a similar ideological splintering in 1968 and managed to fight its way back to the center, rejecting the militarism of groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. Surely the GOP would find a way to distance itself in similar fashion from crazy groups calling for “2nd amendment solutions.” They would reject nutters describing President Barack Obama as a stealth Muslim radical who wanted to create “death panels.” They would condemn the loonies arguing that Hillary Rodham Clinton should be “buried under a jail.” We waited for the pivot and the long ascent back toward the high ground of moderation and common sense.
Donald Trump may have shattered that facade. His genius, if he has one, is that he stopped pretending to believe that the Republican movement stands for anything or has any lingering principles or is powered by anything other than a deep reservoir of anger, resentment and anxiety. He seems to think that the old ideals of civility and modesty, shaped by the GOP’s deep roots in Protestant Christianity, are laughable anachronisms. He may have just grasped, in other words, what the rest of us were unable to see: that the GOP is a hollowed-out shell, a brand name that could be acquired through a hostile-takeover and refashioned as a subsidiary to Trump’s own glitzier brand.
There is still hope that Trump is wrong. Republican leaders are scrambling even now to take their party back. But as the Ottomans would tell you, once the rebellions start and various factions start shooting at each other and an utterly unscrupulous sultan has seized the throne, it is very hard indeed to put the pieces back together. It’s especially hard because so many mainstream conservative leaders have coddled and cultivated figures like Trump for years. They’ve gone hat-in-hand to radical evangelical leaders (including ones who argued that gay people should be put to death), and flirted with groups on the edge of the white supremacy movement. Meanwhile, they eviscerated their own moderates and scorned anyone who dared embrace things like dialogue and compromise and civility.
Along the way, they eroded the authority of their own party’s leadership, so that the GOP itself no longer has the power to vet candidates or disqualify politicians with radical ideas. It’s one thing for Romney to urge conservatives to reject Donald Trump — but who should they rally around? Where should they go? Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote poignantly of what’s left when empires crumble. “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Trump may be a false prophet and a phony as so many of his conservative critics claim. But if Republicans have truly entered the wilderness, it is a path they chose long ago.