The future of the Republican Party may be written in London.
The splintering of the British Conservative Party over Brexit looks remarkably similar to what might happen to the Republicans.
The Conservatives, known as Tories, were taken over by right-wing activists and tossed 21 members of Parliament out of the party after they refused to give the Prime Minister a blank check to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
U.K. voters had decided to quit the EU, mostly because they opposed more European immigrants and following EU rules. Right-wing politicians seized on that vote, trying to force the U.K. to “crash out,” while ignoring the economic cost and rebuilding barriers between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland.
They have an even more important political agenda. They want to eliminate moderates and make the Conservative Party an anti-government, anti-immigrant party, seeking an impossible return to the past glories of the British Empire. Boris Johnson, the colorful, former mayor of London, became their leader. He had no Brexit plan.
Britain does not have a written constitution but relies on a collection of common understandings, developed over centuries, about how government is supposed to work. The Tories split when Johnson abruptly overturned historic practices in a blatant grab for personal control, bypassing Parliament.
Some British wits have remarked that the unwritten constitution is now not even worth the paper it isn’t written on.
Leading moderates announced they would put country above party and not support Johnson. They were almost instantly expelled, meaning they could not run for office as Conservatives and probably ending most of their careers. Johnson unsuccessfully sought a snap election in which he could seize control and win Conservative seats filled with new right-wingers.
The Conservatives face the opposition Labor Party, whose position is weakened by an unpopular leader, and several smaller parties, expected to gain from the collapse of traditional conservatism. If enough Conservative voters are turned off by the next elections, Johnson’s party could be reduced to a weakened hard-right force.
It’s easy to see these events as a close parallel with the Republican Party today.
The GOP in the House of Representatives has been taken over by right-wingers. The Senate often falls in line with President Trump, thanks to the tight control of Mitch McConnell, its Republican leader. Like Johnson, he exercises power by overturning historic understandings about how congressional business is done.
At the heart of Republican strategy, thanks to Trump, is an anti-immigrant policy. The U.S., like the U.K., would block new arrivals. Like Brexit, his trade policy endangers the economy.
Trump also harks back to the past. Under the guidance of historical right-wingers, he systematically strips the government of protections covering policies from civil rights to the environment. He is changing the definition of what it means to be a Republican.
The GOP has also sought to drive out moderates. Members of Congress must either line up with Trump or face primary challengers. That can be a losing proposition, because many Republicans loyally support their party’s president.
What will happen with traditional Republicans, pro-business and anti-big government, but who do not share the views or methods of Trump and the right-wingers?
The party may slowly self-destruct as moderates are driven out and more non-whites and liberal youth become voters. This is beginning to happen, and Democrats are gaining at the expense of Trump Republicans. The party could survive as a minority, right-wing force.
Alternatively, traditional GOP leaders could try to recapture control of their party. They could dump McConnell and show an increased willingness to compromise. Of course, they might risk losing elections, a risk taken by the 21 British Conservatives.
Sen. Susan Collins could lead the resistance to a hard-right takeover. She’s the GOP’s leading centrist, willing to seek workable compromises. Instead of accepting the Trump party line, she could appeal to the endangered GOP mainstream.
Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Collins’ proclaimed role model, courageously spoke out against a dangerous senator and his allies in her own party. She later became the first woman to seriously seek the presidential nomination of a major party.
If Collins wants to run for office again, she might follow Smith’s example and run against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. She is better known, with broader appeal, than Trump’s three opponents. A loyal Republican, she could provide a real alternative Trump could not ignore.
At this stage of her career, even losing by vigorously defying Trumpism, she would write more history than by running for re-election as a member of the current GOP.