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Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? (And Why It Needs to Reclaim Its Conservative Ideals), Thomas E. Patterson

Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party, Andrew Hacker

Reviewed by Gary Wasserman

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Coming to terms with Donald Trump, his causes and consequences, is a lively cottage industry. When packaged as predictions of his political demise by two distinguished scholars, the stakes are raised for the authors and, since this review was written before the electoral reckoning, for the reviewer as well. Perhaps Trump’s reckless disregard for traditional boundaries extends to everyone who touches the subject.

Both Thomas E. Patterson and Andrew Hacker should be commended for writing obituaries before the body has actually stopped quivering. Given that both books were completed before the unique year of 2020 had struck with all its terrible unpredictable forces, these writers are brave indeed, especially because they are so self-assured in prophesizing a Republican Party decline (Patterson) and Trump’s immediate electoral demise, taking most of his party with him (Hacker). After all, they wrote when the incumbent president could boast of a roaring stock market and economy as well as unquestioned control of a party with a majority of national offices (presidency, Senate, Judiciary), state legislatures (29), and governors (26).

Brave and, arguably, prescient.

In Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Thomas Patterson makes a convincing case that this traditional conservative party has gone haywire, becoming a reactionary force “built on the selective nostalgia of aging white Americans” (p. 145). Because a functioning democracy needs both a party of reform and a party of stability, Patterson mourns the loss of traditional conservatives who can represent the enduring values of our society. How this has happened takes us to five “traps” of recent history that the GOP willingly lurched into.

The first trap, while labeled “ideological,” is actually a product of geography. The embrace of the South, beginning with Richard Nixon’s 1968 election strategy, brought the party into the region’s racial bias and religious fundamentalism. Within a few decades, southerners had come to dominate the party’s congressional leadership, and its reactionary baggage (creationism is now believed by three out of five Republicans) would rule the roost. With candidates for the party’s label focused on mobilizing the party faithful through primary elections, the GOP leadership has been captured by its far-right wing.

The narrowness of this support is reflected in the second trap—a changing population. As Patterson puts it, Republicans are “racing headlong toward a demographic cliff” (p. 61). Their voters—aging, white, non-college-educated, evangelical Christians—are declining in numbers. Those leaning Democratic—religiously unaffiliated, college-educated, minorities, and young people—are increasing. With a number of charts projecting these trends into the future, the conclusion is clear. The GOP better win the 2020 election, because based solely on generational change, the party will be largely uncompetitive in the presidential votes to come.

Further hindering the party’s ability to adapt to new realities are the right-wing media messages cascading down on it. Whether it is new voters (such as Hispanics), new issues (such as climate change), or new evidence (how lethal COVID-19 will be), governing requires something more than conforming to the fantasies of extremist pundits. A lie that is repeated often enough may convince listeners of its truth. Yet conspiracies of death panels under Obamacare or the Clintons’ body counts are fantasies that lead to rash positions and unrealistic policies. When insisted on by the right-wing media, they block elected leaders from dealing with the world as it is.

Money is the fourth trap. Here, marketplace Republicans have repeatedly backed tax cuts and programs that aided the top 1 percent but did little for the middle class that their party claims to represent. These middle-class Republicans have shown an increasing awareness of the growth of income inequality and the high costs of health care, college, and housing. Lower-income Republicans resemble Democrats in favoring a higher minimum wage and taxing the rich. A growing class divide may yet prove the greatest threat to Republican unity. These clashing internal economic interests are an enticing topic for the future evolution of the party. They merit more discussion than this brief book offers.

In his final “moral trap,” Patterson reminds us that Republicans once led through their ideals, including their fight for abolition, small farmers and conservation and against monopolies. Democrats fell far short in history’s judgment by their embrace of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny. Today, the GOP is no longer committed to the traditional norms and institutions that once were firmly held conservative standards. Disenfranchising minorities through voter suppression and gerrymanders, weaponizing the judiciary, and debasing the office of the presidency through racial attacks on immigrants have undermined whatever moral leadership the party could once claim. The coarsening of America’s political debates, in which fact and fiction are no longer distinguished, has largely been the result of this Republican death march from conservative to reactionary. For his party, Trump is an accelerant, not an aberration.

This argument that the current Republican Party has deviated from the norms found in the two-party system and will be appropriately punished at the polls parallels that found in Andrew Hacker’s Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party. But Patterson is more interested in the reasons for the party’s long-term demise—though not extinction. He does hedge a bit, predicting that if the GOP wins the next election, it will be the last one for quite a while (p. 142). Hacker, who teaches at Queens College in New York City, proves unwilling to grant the incumbent the 2020 election. Instead, using data from the 2018 midterm elections, he predicts a resounding defeat for Trump and his party.

For Hacker, the 2018 midterms were a referendum on Donald Trump, bringing into question his 2016 ascent to the presidency. That path to his party’s nomination was paved with his 15 seasons on the reality television show The Apprentice, which gave him both the standing and the facile sound bites to easily outdistance a mass of challengers, none of whom had the national stature to withstand his steamroller. With a political party only a shadow of itself, there was no leadership to unite behind one candidate in opposition to this media celebrity’s rise. With his populist flair, Trump managed to outflank and outperform his GOP rivals.

In the general election, Trump’s “bad-boy magnetism” attracted angry and not-so-angry supporters. Hillary Clinton helped by never giving Democrats much of a reason to choose her, other than that it was “her turn” for the presidency. Clinton lost not because Obama’s supporters ended up voting for Trump. Just as bad, enough of them simply stayed home. With a smaller share of the electorate than Mitt Romney got in losing in 2012, Trump narrowly won in a few critical states. He took the White House by essentially gaining the same vote totals as other Republican candidates won in most states.

This will not happen again, according to Hacker. The proof lies in the 2018 midterms, where an outsized Democratic majority demonstrated their eagerness to oust Trump. The key figure here is 93 percent—the percentage of the Democrats’ 2016 vote that turned out in 2018, the highest midterm turnout for any party ever. This was despite the president’s uniquely active campaign outreach that had him speaking in 23 contested states. The result was a vote on Trump’s presidency and a clear majority eager to oust the incumbent. Hacker goes further in his crystal ball gazing by expecting similar anti-Trump majorities in Senate and House races.

To win reelection, Trump needs to better the 46 percent of the popular vote that he won in 2016. The midterms conclusively demonstrated that whoever the Democratic candidate is—and presumably Joe Biden is pretty close to a generic party nominee—the president cannot be reelected.

For both authors, the current Republican Party and its deviant offspring are infections of the American body politic, soon to be overcome by the aroused antibodies produced by the nation’s resilient institutions, traditions, and voters. Perhaps.

As two of our country’s leading political analysts, both Patterson and Hacker inevitably tend toward an equilibrium in drawing conclusions about the workings of the American system of governance. Implicit in this approach is the lurking liberal bias that the system will right itself, that our political institutions will prove enduring, if reformed, and that the democratic order will prevail. The current unpleasant incumbency is too far outside the norms and boundaries of freedom’s progress to prevail for any but the briefest of times. They may be right, but the professors’ virtues are their vices as well.

The very history that Patterson recounts shows a party with a chameleon flexibility in molting from a stodgy middle-of-the-road conservatism to fire-breathing reactionary populism. In the quest for power, both parties have shown an uncanny ability to adapt to the lessons that elections offer. It is not beyond the imagination that a post-Trump GOP will find refuge in identity politics under a minority/female/ethnic/youthful leader who sands down the rough Trumpian rhetorical edges and successfully markets an America First line, favoring the same economic privileges that now prevail. Proof positive that identity politics do not have to be progressive.

And then there is the Democratic opposition, too often paving the path to power for Republicans. Both authors veer perilously close to the iconic historian whose book on the reasons behind Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg neglected to mention the Union army. Democrats did manage to lose their comfortable majority after 2008 despite a charismatic leader, a successful economic recovery and moderate reforms.

One can argue that the Democrats were out-hustled, out-organized, and out-politicked by an aggressive minority of conservatives. Washington liberals neglected their grassroots connections to the working class on which the modern party was built, while their national leadership twisted themselves around internal arguments over correct speech, tribal representation, and proper political behavior. Yet if the Democrats continue to fail their traditional base of blue-collar workers by presiding over an ever-more unequal economy—led by their own tribe of internet professionals—then when the inevitable Republican marketing changes occur these disillusioned voters will be available for the next new thing.

Writing this under the weight of a paralyzed economy, a spreading pandemic, and a leadership that lies about both, the prophecies of the ruling party’s demise seem like just deserts. Yet the thought intrudes that these analyses could have been written prior to 2016 with the same reasonable conclusions that Republicans couldn’t possibly gain the presidency or retain their position as the majority party. The Democratic congressional victories in 2018 may not be a signpost for an inevitable future. Few of us who demonstrated in the 1960s for civil rights and against a failed war could imagine that our successes would be followed by decades of conservative ascendancy led by forces that we inadvertently unleashed. We were right, and we lost.

In a phone call from one quarantined house to another, my 90-year-old uncle offered his definition of an optimist: someone who cannot imagine that things can get any worse. That may be what is lacking in these insightful arguments that the modern Republican Party has failed the democracy it has led.

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