Republicans, please save your party
President Trump’s address last weekend to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in which he publicly identified his opponents, had all the charm and grace of another speech given in 1979, by Saddam Hussein, in Baghdad.
If you have not seen that speech, let me set the scene. On July 22, 1979, Hussein, who had just been installed as Iraq’s president, addressed senior officials of the Ba’ath Party. “Address” is actually too delicate a description. It was a verbal (and afterwards, literal) firing squad. After announcing he had uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow him, he had a Ba’ath leader take the stage and identify 50 people by name in the audience who he claimed were co-conspirators. One by one, each man was escorted from the room by uniformed guards.
Give Hussein credit — he knew how to hold his audience. When he dramatically dabbed the faux tears from his eyes with a handkerchief, a flurry of white handkerchiefs rippled across the audience. At one point, someone rose to his feet, chanting “Long live Saddam!” The entire audience — what was left of it anyway — erupted in a heartfelt chorus.
I am not comparing Trump to Hussein. But the former president’s speech in Florida was built on the same principles: publicly purge your opponents from the ranks, use fear to erase doubt and demand slavish loyalty from your followers.
Trump called out Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), questioning his own endorsement of the Senate Republican leader. He called Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) “a warmonger, a person that loves seeing our troops fighting”; and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utan) “grandstander”. His list also included Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), Reps. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), John Katko (R-N.Y.) and David Valadao (R-Calif.).
Conservatives such as Kinzinger, Sasse and others worry many Democrats.
I will confess: from an entirely partisan perspective, the toughest opponents for Democrats are the Kinzinger’s, Romney’s and Cheney’s. They are true conservatives who remind American voters that they are in politics — not for power alone — but the power of their ideas, including balanced budgets, the dignity of work, the power of innovation in free markets. They are conservatives who support traditionally conservative approaches to policy — incremental and thoughtful and partisan but not populist.
Watching Trump’s speech last Sunday may have delighted Democrats. It may be in my own party’s long term electoral interests to stand back during an ugly Republican purge; to watch a GOP fratricide that induces ugly primaries and alienates moderate voters; to sit in the stands and hoot at the gladiatorial combat between Trump and McConnell and the 16 others on his enemies list. On the other hand, America will be worse off. We need two parties competing on rational ideas; not one party and one nihilistic movement steeped in conspiracy theories and based on idol worship rather than ideas. You know what I mean — the kind who would display a six-foot golden statue in Trump’s image at the CPAC event.
A two party system needs, well, two parties. And a political party requires leaders who can instill discipline in the ranks to advance the set of ideas that attract voters. Trump’s speech on Sunday confirms that he does not seek to rebuild the GOP; instead, he seeks to remake it in his craven image. To borrow a republican phrase, he wants to “repeal and replace” — jettison any Republican who questions him and replace them with those who promise an unquestioned loyalty to his persona. It may have worked for Hussein and the Ba’ath Party in 1979 — it should not work for Trump in America in 2021. Republicans, please save your party.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.