The GOP's Massive Missed Opportunity

It's called Trumpism Without Trump. But they can't get there, and he won't let them.


A long, long time ago, I can still remember when Liz Cheney and I were friendly, fellow young conservatives. Ah, the 1990s. It all came crashing down during the Iraq War when I just couldn’t get past her defense of her father’s decision to commit war crimes in the defense of civilization. I still disagree with her a lot, specifically on marriage equality, and I understand entirely why many on the left can’t get past her past, and why many in the Trump Party believe it’s sub-optimal to have a party leader at war with its one and only principle: sucking up to the deranged, unstable cult-figure who decisively lost the House, Senate and presidency last November. 

But she’s still right. Right that the last election was not rigged, right that it wasn’t even that close, right that a liberal democracy cannot survive if one party denies electoral integrity solely to protect the vanity of the loser, and more than right that a president who encourages violence to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power is a threat to the Constitution itself. She’s right that if conservatism doesn’t mean defending the rule of law, the norms and procedures of liberal democracy, and reverence for our democratic institutions, it is nothing worthy of the name. 

But since these arguments seem to have close to no traction with most Republican voters, even when advanced by a woman with a storied last name and a conservative voting record that makes her successor look like a RINO, let me try another tack. This one is based purely on political expediency. By clinging to a broadly toxic figure like Trump, and orienting their strategy around his unappeasable vanity, the GOP is flubbing one of its biggest political opportunities in years: to craft redistributionist policies for the mass of working Americans, and to defend the legacy of the West, its values and traditions, against the most radical left assault since the late 1960s. 

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Everywhere in the West, this is now the winning electoral formula: left on economics, right on culture. By “left on economics”, I mean a recognition that market capitalism has been too successful for its and our own good, and that spreading the wealth to more people is needed both for social stability and to rescue capitalism from itself. And by “right on culture”, I do not mean some kind of revived Christianism. I mean affirming a critical but undeniable love of country and its flawed but inspiring history, reforming rather than defunding the police, enforcing the nation’s borders with firmness and compassion, embracing color-blind policies on race, and viewing our common humanity and citizenship as deeper principles than the modern left’s and radical right’s obsession with group identity.

Get that balance right, and the future is yours. In a must-read essay in Britain’s New Statesman, Tony Blair spells out how the progressive left is still misreading the public mood, allowing a cannier, less rigid right to entrench power. Money quote: “‘Defund the police’ may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ … It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values.” Some key principles Blair lays out:

People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday … People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.

That’s very smartly put. Blair’s reason for speaking out is a brutal drubbing of the Labour Party in the recent local elections in the UK — elections in which the Tories’ new hold on the white working classes in the old Labour heartland tightened even further. (To appreciate the power of this political shift, I recommend the invaluable John B. Judis’ analysis and Henry Olsen’s op-ed.) The Tories now have a 15-point lead over Labour in the polls. Blair noted Boris Johnson’s achievement: “The Conservative parties of Western politics have adapted and adjusted. But by and large they’re finding a new economic and cultural coalition.”

This too is in the GOP’s grasp. The party did much better in the last election than anyone thought in the House and would have held the Senate without Trump’s antics in Georgia. They expanded their reach a notch among non-whites, especially among some Latino populations, particularly on the Southern border. The GOP is still highly competitive for 2022, and will almost certainly get back the House. All they need is a figurehead less toxic to white suburban moderates, and a few fuck-ups from Biden, and a much more positive future opens up.

And here’s how you get that to stick with Trump voters. Credit him for bringing some newly potent issues to the fore — mass immigration, trade, the culturally left-behind, woke authoritarianism, non-interventionism in foreign policy, new wariness of China. Thank him, but stress the need to move forward. The truth is: Trump may have been helpful in creating a new Republican politics, but he did so entirely in service to his own vainglory. There is, in fact, no future path forward for Trumpism if Trump sticks around. Absorbed entirely into one man’s ego, the GOP is simply a backward-looking grievance and conspiracy machine, driven not by policy but by Trump’s own psychological inability to concede defeat.

It is Liz Cheney who is arguing that Republicans should move on from this, and engage the future. And it is Trump who won’t let the party grow without him.

Imagine, my conservative friends, what could happen if Trump left the stage. Think of a GOP that is more focused on their highly successful legacy on vaccines — and how to magnify their success in ending Covid — than on whitewashing what happened on January 6. Imagine a GOP that could craft a set of family-friendly tax credits while lacerating Biden for his border shambles (the Romney position). Imagine one offering a more fiscally sane investment in infrastructure, or an actual legislative deal with Democrats that can regain control of our borders, or a tax reform that raised tax on the biggest multinationals, while supplementing the incomes of working families.

Then combine this with a detoxification program on race and gender that seeks to appeal to those minorities-within-minorities, including many immigrants, who are turned off by left-condescension, and who still cherish the hard work, traditional values and individual opportunities that are obscured by the ludicrous description of America in 2021 as a form of “white supremacy.” Mock and defy the language police. Defend trans rights without adopting absurd gender ideology. Accept the reality of climate change — and pioneer new technological investments to counter it, just as mRNA vaccines solved Covid. And show how the Democrats’ tolerance of crime and anarchy in many American cities is a far deadlier threat to black lives than police abuse, even as that abuse remains inexcusable.

Not terribly difficult: the insights of Trumpism without the toxicity and 45 percent vote ceiling of Trump. The Tories are trouncing the opposition with this kind of strategy, as Blair, one of the most successful progressive politicians in modern times, acknowledges. At some point, the GOP will have to see this, and adjust. No, I very much doubt that Cheney will be the figure who brings this about, for reasons laid out here by Josh Marshall. But she has laid down an important marker: pragmatic adaptation to a new politics and a new economy, buttressed by an abiding commitment to the rule of law and constitutional order, and a rebuke of cultism. That’s conservatism. At some point, the GOP might think about returning to it. It’s a pretty popular agenda — and could lead to a genuine realignment.

Only one man is standing in the way of it.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, go here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my initial take on the incipient civil war in Israel; several reader dissents over my views on Biden’s speech to Congress and his budget priorities; my good-humored debate with radical feminist Julie Bindel on the differences between men and women; my civil debate over civility with Cornel West and Teresa Bejan; six notable quotes from the week; 13 recommended pieces by other substackers across a wide variety of subjects; an Yglesias Award from Dubya; a Cool Ad featuring footage of dogs tearing down the trail; new views from readers’ windows; a Mental Health Break honoring rapper DMX; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge showing a harbor scene. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

This reader struggled to subscribe last November, just before the election:

I am an ardent Trump enthusiast who, however, also relishes (a) intelligent discussion of alternative viewpoints on any given issue; and (b) grappling with good-faith arguments. (I was a teenager during the ‘90s and grew up on the old beloved TNR.) Accordingly, I found myself in a dilemma as I considered whether to subscribe to The Weekly Dish. The dilemma arose because, while I savor your good-faith arguments and candid introspection on almost every political issue, I do believe that you — yes, sadly, even you — have fallen prey to the blinding siren of Trump-induced unhingement. I realized I could not, in good conscience, pay for anti-Trump screeds I find so devoid of objectivity or any compelling content, so I had no intention of giving the issue any further thought.

However, the magnificent tweet you just posted replying to Kamala Harris has forced me to reconsider my position: “‘Equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.’ That’s equality of *outcomes* enforced by the government. They used to call that communism.” This tweet helped me realize that America actually needs brave voices like yours to counter the autocratic and socialist tendencies of the Left. But only if the Left enjoys power.

So, if Biden wins — and especially if Dems consolidate control of both houses of Congress, heaven forbid — yours would be among the most indispensable voices in this country for reining in the excesses of present-day American liberals. And thus, I am ready to eagerly commit to subscribing to the Dish ... but only if Biden wins. Should Trump prevail, perhaps we can revisit in 2024.


New On The Dishcast: Julie Bindel

A co-founder of Justice for Women, Julie has a long career campaigning against male violence. She’s the author of many books, and you can pre-order her latest, Feminism for Women, here. I disagree with her on many subjects but found strange agreement on others.

For three clips of our conversation — on how Julie distinguishes her own “liberation feminism” from “equality feminism”; on the crucial need to focus more on global feminism; and why she views prostitution as “paid rape” — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.

That link also takes you to a bunch of reader comments on our episode with Eric Kaufmann on race, including: a reader who saw up close and studied the “pervasive” racism between Africans; a reader who pushes back against my woke critique; and a long-time Obama volunteer who understands why a lot of people found him elitist and out of touch. Plus two more emails, with my responses — on the latest developments on the border and on a key characteristic of anti-Asian attackers. Our pod page, which gives us much more space to air your smart commentary, keeps getting richer by the week.


Israel’s Incipient Civil War

A Palestinian demonstrator next to burning tires during a protest in the southern Gaza Strip by the border with Israel, on May 10, 2021. (By Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

We are now told that every innocent killed in Gaza by Israeli air-strikes is actually a victim of Hamas, not Israel; that massive disproportionality is actually just proportional deterrence; that violating the Geneva Conventions by repopulating conquered land with your own population is technically not a violation; and that any demurral from any of these policies is prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. Even many of my friends critical of identity politics make one single exception — Jewish identity politics, which they embrace with a vigor worthy of the worst of the woke …

(Read the whole post here.)


Dissents Of The Week: Biden’s Bold Budget

Here’s one of many readers taking issue with my assessment of the president’s big speech to Congress:

Certainly Biden’s plans have a populist appeal, but “leftist”? Considering that certain aspects of his agenda were also embraced by the GOP (infrastructure, Covid relief) until the Dems took over, other elements still enjoy GOP support (extending the child tax credit, increasing the minimum wage), and all three of Biden’s major plans — Covid relief, infrastructure, jobs — all enjoy broad bipartisan support. That’s hardly a radical shift leftward.

Also, you make a lazy (particularly for you) comparison regarding fiscal responsibility and Biden’s plan to pay for his “leftist” agenda: “I mean: if the GOP can gleefully borrow trillions to give the plutocrats a handout during a boom, why can’t the Dems do the same to pay for childcare and education for those struggling in the wake of an American pandemic?”

Go here to read the rest of that reader’s dissent, my response to it, and two more dissents with my replies.

As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget to include the location, time of day, and part of the window frame): dish@andrewsullivan.com. Please try to be concise with dissents: the format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? (The photo was taken a decade ago.) Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

See you next Friday.