Has the decline of the GOP become the fall of the GOP?

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

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21 Comments on “Has the decline of the GOP become the fall of the GOP?”

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  1. Local Nerd says:

    Look at our area. While trade agreements pushed by Republicans and agreed to by ‘moderate’ Democrats have made jobs in America, geographically these jobs are not evenly distributed.

    If you are from many areas in our region there are literally no private sector jobs. Kids go to college and cannot return if they want to use their degree. All the mills have closed.

    Donald Trump is a racist clown, but let’s not dismiss the economic policies that made him possible.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’ve often wondered if the current difficulty in the Republican party, in politics, and in society in general is attributable to the Me Generation, the late Baby Boomer generation and those a few years younger, increasingly taking taking the reins of power. This is a conflicted generation that grew up under Nixon and the turbulent political and economic change of the 70’s, the crushing end to old industrial might, the stagflation, the 20% interest rates, Earl Butz crushing farmers, the coming of Reagan and his fight to crush unions, and the Greed Is Good movement.

    This is a really messed up and messy generation who were (as a whole) coddled in front of the TV, who never experienced the Great Depression or WW2. The generation that never seemed to have a core. The generation that was constantly accusing others of being sell-outs but secretly dreamed of selling out themselves. And they did sell out; they sold out themselves and each other for the John Birch Society fraud their parents resoundingly rejected. They sold out for the million dollar IRA retirement to Mickey Mouse Land dream where they can interact with dancing puppets and pet dolphins all day.

  3. Paul says:

    To answer the question posed – perhaps. It is really going to be great for the country to have a one party system. In fact I would suggest that we go to system where we let the president hold office till they die and when they do the first born child of the dead president becomes the new president an so on.

  4. Elaine Sunde says:

    There are precedents for the disappearance of political parties — not many Whigs running around today. The Republican Party of today needed to go away. Good riddance. And those who believed deeply in the ‘Party of Lincoln’ need to pull up their socks and build anew.

  5. nelson says:


  6. Mitch Edelstein says:


    Add Jacob Javitts to your list. During the Nancy Reagan memorials, I heard that Ronald Reagan. out of respect for the office, wouldn’t take off his suit jacket when in the Oval Office. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan talking about the size of his manhood?

  7. telfish says:

    We can only hope so.

  8. nelson says:

    The elected represenatives in Washington have created a toxic atmosphere for the candidates for public office, namely Donald Trump, Much like the toxins in the water in Flint Michigan and the CO2 pollutants in the atmosphere. They talk and talk and talk and nothing gets done, no wonder they do not want Trump, he is the opposite, a proven businessman that can get things done, our represenatives want people like themselves in office to continue the do nothing attitude that permeates Washington.
    Fortunately, Trump is leading in all the major states and good will prevail over evil.
    The media spills out more pollutants in a few minutes than the water system in Flint did all day.

  9. nelson says:

    I just submitted one

  10. Paul says:

    Let’s not let the facts get in the way here:

    From NPR:

    “During Obama’s eight years in office, the Democrats have lost more House, Senate, state legislative and governors seats than under any other president.

    When Obama took office, there were 60 Democratic senators; now there are 46. The number of House seats held by Democrats has shrunk from 257 to 188.

    There are now nine fewer Democratic governors than in 2009. Democrats currently hold fewer elected offices nationwide than at any time since the 1920s.”

  11. Pete Klein says:

    There was nothing great about the Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire and could just as well be known as the Muslim Empire.

  12. Brian MOFYC says:

    I feel like the GOP has engaged in a conscious strategy whereby their essentially forego the presidency. They are pushing the party more and more toward the really extreme right. This does not play well nationally, as the country as a whole is becoming increasingly diverse. But it plays well in the states, a great many of which are far more homogeneous than the country as a whole.

    In doing so, they pack state legislatures with hard right members. Not only do the pass a lot of regressive legislation statewide, but they use this to gerrymandering Congressional districts and thus help ensure the GOP keeps a majority there. Thus, even though they give the presidency to the other major party, a hard right Congress ensures that a Democratic president can’t do anything. It means that the Congress doesn’t do anything either but the hard right agenda is being passed rampantly at the state level.

    Governorships are 31 GOP-18 Dem. State legislative chambers are 68 GOP-30 Dem (Nebraska’s is non-partisan and unicameral). Republicans have complete control (governorship and both houses of the legislature) in 24 states as compared to 7 for the Dems.

    If this is the “dead” GOP, I pray they never come back to life.

  13. Brian MOFYC says:

    (And yes, of course Dems gerrymander too but they have few state majorities to do that)

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    RE: the numbers of various offices currently held by Republicans.

    Republicans held the edge after 2010 redistricting (due to the Constitutionally prescribed census) and gerrymandering has helped in keeping many offices in Republican control but demographics are working against them. At some point gerrymandering simply won’t continue as a viable means for Republicans to hold all these offices. Looking to 2020 the Census falls at the end of a Presidential election year and if trends hold more Dems will vote and Dems will get greater control of redistricting. Of course this is a long way into the future and Republicans are probably already looking ahead, seeing the likely outcome and they will find a new religion of non-partisan election redistricting.

    In Congress in the last election cycle the field was stacked to the advantage of Republicans in the House and Senate. Those gains will likely turn back somewhat in this coming election.

    In governorships the GOP holds an advantage in terms of smaller more rural states tending to be more conservative. Larger states tend to put the advantage in the hands of Democrats but there are fewer large states. Obviously any particular state may have an R or D governor at any particular point in time.

  15. champted says:

    To knuckleheadedliberal:

    You said: “2020 the Census falls at the end of a Presidential election year”

    Census will be taken in April 2020, and the elections will be in November 2020. Did you mean to say “falls at the beginning of a presidential election year” or “falls at the end of a Presidential election cycle” ?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  16. jeff says:

    One issue that I believe has affected the whole event is the public infatuation with reality TV. Why should a “debate” be like an episode of the Kardashians. It was Bill Clinton who answered a question about his underwear. Would Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite have asked the question?

    Can people really want this trash TV event called a political debate today. It is as crass as mixed martial arts, which should be banned. How mature are we to condone such behavior? What does it say when Ben’s Carson’s wife was not the picture of some ignorant critics’ thought a presidential spouse should look like? Why should it even be heard or in writing? Sure we want a prince and princess to fawn over… duh. Shallow.

    So I think the decline is more without the party. It is us. The party has shown itself to be little more than a vacuum because there apparently are no power brokers to say what is hip and what is not. Is that telling us the broad democracy that reflects the populace is so boorish that we can’t seek thoughtful candidates that can converse in a civil manner? Well when 4 letter words are getting in super-bowl commercials and prime time advertising the answer is yes.

    Lincoln’s high creaky voice would probably not sell today. We can’t un-invent television and radio but I think we would have more coherence if everything was in print.

    I think the principles of the two parties are so close in principle they contrive or pander to the extremes to differentiate themselves.

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    champted, sorry, my mistake. Yes, census is in April, election is in November. Maybe it is the weather we are having my brain thought that by 2020 April and November will have become the same month. Anyway, district lines are redrawn by the persons elected in November 2020, but only in those states that allow political control of redistricting. Some states have commissions, but the details of reapportionment was not the main point of my post.

  18. Mike Ludovici says:

    Donald Trump is helping us get to the end of the 2 party system.

  19. Hmmmmm says:

    “But the Ottomans were always a patchwork of ethnic groups, coalitions, nervous alliances and strongmen…”

    Doesn’t that describe the US today?

  20. Hmmmmm says:

    If Trump does take down the Republican party, the Democrats won’t be far behind as the only thing going for either party is that they’re not the other guy.

  21. Naj Wikoff says:

    I agree that the roots of the decline began under Nixon and his southern strategy. Presidents like Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes used very divisive politics to get into office, and all somehow felt they were above the fray. When Karl Rove and others focused on gerrymandering, they created districts to not just create safe seats for Republicans, but for a brand of very conservative Republicans that would rather tear the house down than give quarter, people who now run many State assemblies and senates as they do Congress. The outcome is a lot of politicians who have no desire or experience working with moderate Republicans much less Democrats – a Ted Cruz being an example. This shift happened right under the noses of the “Establishment Republicans.” The only solution is to take gerrymandering out of the hands of politicians and design them based on population and natural features. When politicians represent districts comprised of people reflecting a mix of life experiences, cultures, ages, races, politics, religions they learn the art and benefits of compromise – that they have to work with others to make progress and advance their ideals.

    If that was the only problem, it would be big enough to address, but money is another major factor – and the fact that politicians spend so much of their time raising it. When most senators and congressmen had homes in DC they got to know the other side as people. They developed friendships and relationships that assisted them fight for the ideals, but in a more civil manner.

    Setting aside the influence of the few who spend so much to influence elections, the shift in corporations from serving their customers to serving the shareholders, a shift radically spurned on by changes in regulations during Reagan and Clinton, has fueled the growing divide between the 1% and everyone else. When corporations focussed on their customers that required a focus on treating their staff well (results in good service) and contributing a portion of corporate profits to support community/national charities. The focus on benefiting shareholders results in shifting manufacturing overseas, reducing staff, moving corporate headquarters overseas to reduce taxes, increasing automation, and other techniques to generate as much short-term profit as possible for the shareholders, corporate board, and top execs (aka 1% percenters).

    Republican policy over the last couple decades has been designed to facilitate these financial benefits to the wealthy, with the outcome is that many of the people now supporting the Republican Party really angry because they are getting poorer while the rich get richer. The outcome – a Republican Party at war with itself and a Trump charging towards the top who two others close behind equally bent on destroying the status quo and the Establishment trying to put out the toxic conditions they created with gas.

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