Donald Trump is headed toward a massive defeat—at least, if any of the polls (or our eyes) are to be believed. What is more, there’s a decent chance a massive blue wave could do the unthinkable, sweeping even “safe” Republicans like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham out to sea.
If that happens, there will be a window of time, however fleeting, for sane Republicans to try and take back the GOP. Doing so will require following the motto of Cobra-Kai: Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.
What I am about to propose is admittedly heavy-handed. It will be called “undemocratic.” But whoever said a political party is supposed to be a democracy? It might even be called a “coup” by people who call everything that. What I am suggesting is a return of the establishment… of smoke-filled rooms with party bosses. What I am saying is that the empire must strike back.
First, though, let me explain to you why I came to this conclusion.
Back in 2015, I received an email from a reader. Worried about Trump’s rise, he suggested that Republicans should pull out all the stops to disqualify Trump from even being eligible to participate in the Republican primary process.
I forget the details, but I think it entailed Trump's refusal to commit to supporting the Republican nominee (and pledge not to run as an independent). Using Trump’s insufficient commitment to the GOP as a pretext, my interlocutor wanted to impose some legalistic litmus test. He wanted the party to disqualify Trump under the guise of failing to meet some technical requirement (which, of course, would be selectively enforced to exclude one man).
At the time, I hated the idea. There was already a narrative that said the GOP establishment “ruling class” (think Mitch McConnell and John Boehner) were screwing over “real” conservatives. Doing this to Trump, I reasoned, would only further radicalize grassroots conservatives by playing into their sense of victimhood. Moreover, most of us figured that Trump (like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, et al.) would eventually flame out and the GOP would come to its senses and nominate a mainstream conservative (like John McCain, Mitt Romney, et al.), who might earn the votes of some erstwhile Trump voters—so long as they didn’t feel cheated. Why alienate a bunch of voters and turn Trump into a martyr when you could just give him enough rope to hang himself? Lastly, intervening in such a heavy-handed, top-down, central-planning manner cut against my laissez-faire philosophy, which suggested the market would correct itself, Republican voters could be persuaded, and the cream would eventually rise.
Yeah, that worked out well.
I was wrong. Republicans should have pulled out all the stops—used (almost) any means necessary—to smash Trump’s radical revolution before the primary contests even started.
Having learned this lesson, I am now convinced that if Trump loses on Nov. 3, sane Republicans must impose order and discipline, or wait for the next Trump to emerge.
It won’t be easy. Even with Trump branded a loser, and the GOP in tatters, trying to unilaterally assume leadership of this chaotic mess would be like trying to pin a badge on your chest and declare yourself marshal of a gang-ridden, Wild West town. The criminals and caudillos and warlords don’t want the law to establish order and end the chaos. They’re making too much money and getting too much publicity.
So what constitutes law and order in the GOP?
The GOP should be a big tent, so I’m not talking about imposing an ideological litmus test so much as I am talking about imposing a moral one. Support from the new party apparatus should be contingent on character and comportment. Without writing a manifesto on acceptable behavior (I’m spitballing here. Presumably, someone smarter than me would pick up this idea and run with it), I think racism should be a deal-breaker. So should threats against democratic institutions (calling the media “fake news,” or saying you won’t accept the results of an election, etc.). Likewise, any affiliation with conspiracy theories like QAnon would be cause for a blackball.
And who could actually enforce it?
For this to work, former President George W. Bush would have to lead this effort. As the last two-term Republican president (and the last Republican to actually win the popular vote—in 2004), he has the credibility and moral authority to assume leadership. Moreover, he still has loyalists in powerful positions, scattered throughout the political infrastructure. This would not be a symbolic role, limited to signing an op-ed or giving a speech. This would be a full-time job, tantamount to running a campaign or heading an organization. Sadly, I have no idea and have seen no indication that he would take on such a role. I sincerely hope this is being discussed behind the scenes (or that someone will kindly forward this column to him).
Second, I think you probably need Mitch McConnell, who would likely be the Minority Leader. This is a controversial thing to say, because McConnell has enabled Trump. But McConnell is a powerful ally, and even though his principles might be limited to (a) helping his party, and (b) helping himself, in a post-Trump world, enforcing discipline, keeping the crazies at bay, and picking winners and losers in primaries, will be perfectly consistent with McConnell’s personal goals of holding or winning back power. Honestly, I think McConnell has to be on this team because he’s just ruthless enough to do what needs to be done.
Who else? Trying to find 10 completely uncompromised Republicans to lead this effort is sort of like Abraham trying to find 10 righteous men in the city of Sodom. Once-promising Republicans like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee and Reince Priebus and Scott Walker and Nikki Haley might have been seen as obvious leaders to emerge from the post-Trump wreckage—if they had played their cards differently. I’m not sure who would be willing to put the country above their personal ambitions in this way, but I would probably nominate Mitt Romney and Tim Scott as potential leaders.
It’s really hard to imagine this working without incorporating at least some Republicans who, to one degree or another, bent the knee to Trump. A rigid attempt at complete de-Trumpification would probably be a mistake, but it would also be insane to just forgive and forget. Anyone who decides to stand up and fly right would have to pledge fealty to each other and to this cause. There can’t be any freelancing. They all have to be singing off the same choir sheet.
Obviously, the goal would be to grab control of enough levers of power to instill discipline, and (yes) a certain amount of fear. This would require some of the biggest names in the GOP being willing to do the right thing, even if it earns them scorn and criticism from conservatives on talk radio, Twitter, and (unless Fox News is willing to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem), cable news.
What kind of discipline could they impose? It depends how much leverage they can wrangle. But let’s say a Republican QAnon supporter is running for Congress. They get zero funds from any party committee. Zero. Any member who gives them money immediately loses his committee membership. That and maybe they make an example of you and drop a million bucks into your next primary race. Any radio host who has this candidate on loses access to every Republican who wants the support of The Team. Basically, you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists (a line George W. Bush might be able to deliver). Oh, and, by the way, the train is leaving the station. We might look past your previous behavior, but you can sign up to me on the new team, or not. Your call. This has to be hardball.
Make no mistake, anyone willing to try this will deserve our admiration. That’s because trying and failing at this wouldn’t just demonstrate impotence, it would invite mockery and hatred. And they’d be swimming against the tide. Once upon a time, leaders controlled the means of production. They had leverage. Today, we live in a world where there are no gatekeepers. Backbench congressmen can go on cable news, raise millions on Twitter, start a podcast, you name it. They don’t care if the RNC (we will need to elect a new chair, by the way… maybe Haley Barbour?) or the National Republican Senatorial Committee is mad at them. Indeed, they can fundraise off of that! (This, by the way, is a trend that transcends the GOP. We also live in a world where corporate CEOs are afraid of their millennial staffers.)
This might not be mission impossible, but it’s pretty darn close. But what’s the alternative? Surrender to the barbarians who aren’t just at the gate, but who have already breached the fortress?
Remember, the premise here is that the GOP is in ruins. As the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin writes, “What some Republicans are starting to say, though not on the record just yet: flush the system. In other words: It will be easier to eradicate Trumpism and reset for ‘22 in a landslide rather than a close loss.”
We may be about to flush the system, but it won’t matter if there aren’t adults who step up and fill the vacuum. If the same perverse incentives remain in play, it won’t matter that Trump lost. You’ll have a rump Republican Party that is full of QAnon conspiracy theory candidates.
Now that we’re in the death throes of the Trump presidency, there’s a limited time to restore order and prevent that fate. But it’s gonna take leaders with guts. Will the adults rise to the occasion?
Help us George W. Bush, you’re our only hope.