GOP conservatives forced to confront Trump’s “base”

The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. provides strong evidence of the widening division in American politics.

President Trump’s reaction shows a new stage in the rightward evolution of the Republican Party, one rejected by many GOP leaders.

He would not single out the far right demonstrators for responsibility, even after one of them had killed a woman.  Two days later, he read a prepared statement criticizing white supremacists, only to revert to assigning equal blame to racists and their angry opponents.

The GOP has evolved from Lincoln’s war to defeat slave state rebellion to a party led by a president giving comfort to racism.  After the Civil War, the GOP became the dominant party.  Its platform favored business, while keeping government small and workers under control.

The Great Depression of 1929, the deepest economic crash, revealed the limits of Republican policy.  With Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and a larger role for government, it lost its dominance.

Sen. Susan Collins remains loyal to many of the values of the traditional, pro-business Republican Party, while accepting the need for change.  In her views, voters can see a mix of conservatism and practical concern for the less fortunate.

But the party came under the influence of leaders exploiting social issues and opposition to gun control.  Under President Ronald Reagan, the party moved to the right.  The 1994 congressional elections brought a disciplined and strongly conservative GOP to power in Congress.

The GOP has been tightening its grip on power through the successful use of tactics designed to suppress Democratic voting.  Traditional Republicans have been increasingly challenged by strong conservatives, some of them participants in the Tea Party movement, and the elected face of the party became more conservative.

Social conservatives, most of whom would pare government back to little more than national defense, came to dominate the GOP.  To them, Collins, though a lifelong party member, is seen as a Rino – a Republican in name only.  They now own the brand name, not her,

Trump’s election represented the next step in the rightward evolution of the party.  His anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-“politically correct” rhetoric made some on the far right, who had remained outside the world of politics, believe they now had a one of their own as president.

They suddenly feel free to express and act on their views.  Believing them part of his political “base,” Trump seems reluctant to reject their overt and extreme racism.  Hence, the Charlottesville rally and Trump’s reaction, applauded by right-wingers promoting white supremacy.

The reaction of elected Republican conservatives suggests that, while the party may have shifted to the right and chosen to emphasize wedge social issues, the party is not ready to embrace racist elements even for their votes.

Still, today’s Republican Party is deeply conservative on a broad range of issues.  Because its electoral success appears to be based on a combination of traditional GOP support and the newly self-confident hard right, it is reluctant to compromise with Democrats.

The Democrats run the risk of insisting on a similar degree of strict adherence to a set of principles enforced by real party discipline.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders may legitimately feel their man would have won the presidential election if he had overcome the Clinton forces control of the Democratic Party.  The party had not been neutral and had lost.  Now, some Bernie activists want to purge the party’s traditional supporters, whom they see as discredited.

A key to the Democrats’ historic strength has been its openness to a wide range of views.  Roosevelt transformed his party’s traditional reliance on the South into a broad coalition including northern liberals.  Eventually that combination would break apart after southern conservatives moved to the GOP.

The 2018 congressional elections will be a test to see if conservative Republicanism, in which Trump welcomes extremists, will be sustained or rejected.  But the Democrats must do more than merely stand by the pick up the pieces.

The 2020 presidential election may show if progressive Democrats accept the need for a “big umbrella” more than the creation of an uncompromising, ideologically pure party.  It may also reveal if the GOP recovers its traditional conservatism or continues its drift to the hard right.

For many people, what is of greatest importance is not the triumph of a party or a political philosophy, no matter how correct it may seem, but whether the political divide has become impossible to close, making compromise impossible.

The survival of the American system of government, operating in a vast and diverse country, depends on compromise.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.