GOP may not survive Trump, but what’s next is unclear

GOP may not survive Trump, but what’s next is unclear
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CNN recently released a new poll indicating that 21 percent of Republican voters now disapprove of President Trump’s job performance, a notable increase from the 10-15 percent who have consistently disapproved since this presidency began and a possibly portentous indicator for the GOP’s midterm prospects and future.

There are several obvious explanations for the modest, but determined opposition within Republican ranks. The president’s petty response to the passing of former Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCummings to lie in state at the Capitol Elizabeth Warren should concern Donald Trump 'bigly' Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show MORE, bipartisan pushback against Russian efforts to undermine American democracy, ill-advised trade wars, reports of chaos within the White House, and growing weariness over the president’s repetitive demagoguery have all likely contributed to this dissatisfaction.

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Yet, even as a significant number of Republicans register their frustration with president, Donald Trump is still wildly popular with a large swathe of the party’s base. The party that had, just a few years ago, nominated standard bearers like John McCain and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney appears to confirm name of secret Twitter account Graham: 'Stupid' for Trump to ask China to investigate Biden Turkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate MORE, finds itself stuck in thrall to a president that has little in common with these statesmen beyond an “R” next to his name.

So, what happened?

The answer is as simple as it is inconvenient for those comfortable with the status quo. Much of the Republican Party is changing, and with it, the constituent elements of the two party system.

American politics has nearly always been divided into two opposing camps. From the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, to the Whigs and Democrats, to the modern Republican and Democratic Parties, Americans have coalesced into two uneasy coalitions. Over time, the alliances that constitute these parties shift. New issues gain salience as society changes, and the bonds that once held the coalitions together become strained, weaken, and eventually break.

We may now be witnessing the beginning of an historic rift in a major party’s coalition. The Republican Party of the Trump era consists of what is, in the long term, an unsustainable alliance of mutually incompatible worldviews, policy preferences, and principles.

In the GOP of decades past, there existed some consensus around a compromise agenda that favored small government, low taxes, fiscal responsibility, free markets, the rule of law, individual and religious liberty, and the strength of democratic institutions. Yet, as a populism hostile to an equal and open society corrupts the party, as candidates begin to compete by testing their loyalty to the president rather than conviction in their ideas, this consensus is fracturing.

Now, we have an unstable governing coalition in which most of Congress supports a traditional Republican policy agenda, while the executive branch has embraced a conspiracy-laden populist message. This split is temporarily covered by faux controversies like NFL protests and border wall funding that exploit cultural tensions as distraction, but this only delays an inevitable confrontation between the two sides.

The populists, insofar as a coherent ideology can be discerned, view democratic government in a manner that is fundamentally incompatible with the emphasis on the rule of law and institutional accountability that many Republicans still hold.

An “America First” isolationism that favors tariffs and trade wars is at odds with the factions of conservatives that still believe in free markets - the foundation of any capitalist economy - and support mutually beneficial international engagement. The casual indulgences of bigotry within Republican ranks still upsets both those who believe in equality and those who, less nobly, simply realize that changing demographics will eventually doom a narrow electoral strategy of white identity politics. And the pro-Kremlin Trump faction that continuously demands more concessions to Vladimir Putin clashes sharply with the traditional GOP’s focus on national security.

More to the point, while right wing populism loudly proclaims its unparalleled patriotism, its proponents virulently reject the classical liberalism that is, in many ways, the animating ideology for the Constitution of the United States they claim to revere.

Both the principles and the policies of conservatism and right-wing populism are at an impasse. For now, there is an uneasy truce within the Republican Party. Both sides believe that the other will fall in line in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, and the coalition will resume where it left off.

This is mistaken. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, once observed that “a house divided against itself, cannot stand... It must become all one thing, or all the other.” Any attempts at forcing the coexistence of traditional and Trump Republicans will eventually end with the complete capitulation of one faction to the other.

If the Party of Lincoln continues its deterioration into the Party of Trump, those who oppose this shift - as Republican Senator Ben Sasse confirmed for himself this month - may find it difficult to remain in the party, a development which could deal a decisive blow to the GOP in the upcoming midterm elections and make it electorally impotent for years to come.

Yet, as the Democrats flirt with a shift to the far left, to their own brand of populism centered on exclusionary identity politics and a hostility toward capitalism, the eventual destination of the inclusive, free market, rule of law faction of the current Republican Party remains in doubt.

There is clearly potential for the emergence of a new coalition, one broadly dedicated to a constitutional balance of powers, to liberty and equality, with voters providing the electoral incentive for its emergence in the midterms and beyond. Whether this coalition can find a home in either of the parties, however, remains to be seen.

Greg Spenchian is the Director of Policy and Partnerships at Stand Up Republic, and a former policy analyst in the national and homeland security enterprises. He can be found on Twitter at @GregSpenchian.