The American political narrative has just reached another tipping point; a tipping point as important as the events that culminated in the Civil War and what followed. Biden clearly recognizes that we cannot go back to the way things were. The power of money in politics and the pandemic crisis have revealed economic and social fissures in American society that left unaddressed will cripple the country. Most dramatically, the insurrection of January 6 and the subsequent commentary by some politicians demonstrated a catastrophic lack of education in American civic values. Biden may be on the right track but without the participation of a loyal opposition he cannot succeed. Without an opposition that shares an understanding of our problems and has the willingness to discuss the way forward, nothing Biden does will survive the next Presidential turnover.
The only political party that might once have played the role of a loyal opposition is the train wreck calling itself Republican. Once a centrist, pragmatic and business-oriented Party with tinges of libertarianism, today’s GOP lacks any discernible governing philosophy that would allow it to participate in a national reevaluation. To make matters worse, one man, Donald Trump, has turned it into his personal brand. Cooperation with Biden would render him irrelevant; he has no incentive to do so.
The next few years will decide if the GOP can fix what ails us. Donald Trump, although defeated in the last elections, still owns the minority of the Party that votes in primaries. He can thus cow any aspirant for nomination to any election list. The second faction consists of a number of younger, ambitious GOP politicians, let’s call them the ‘Trumplicans’, who vie for his favor while competing to wrap themselves in his mantle once he is out of the picture. A small number of traditional Republican politicos, dazed by recent events and vilified as ‘RINOs’ by Trump and his followers, have wandered off into the desert unable to coalesce around any new leader. They do not know if they want to try to recover Party leadership, form a new Party, or just give up politics entirely. They exist only on the margins.
Trump is a ‘dead man walking’ politically even if it does not look like that today. He brought out 74 million voters mostly by appealing to their resentments and hatreds and demonizing a plurality of American citizens. But he never offered any ideas or policies beyond “trust me, I have a plan to make everything perfect.” He needs a pulpit to retain his appeal. Losing the White House took away the most powerful pulpit in the land. Kicking him off social media tightened the muzzle. It appears he will soon be swamped by a perfect storm of huge overdue personally guaranteed debts, a business empire drowning in red ink, unresolved federal, state and local tax issues going back a decade or more, several outstanding civil lawsuits that will resume now that he has lost the protection of the Presidency, and a serious criminal investigation in Georgia. He lost the popular vote decisively in 2016 AND 2020. He cannot win reelection, but he can prevent any other Republican from winning.
His zealous would-be political heirs (the Trumplicans), including but not limited to Senators Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Josh Hawley, Rick Scott, and one or two state governors are waiting for him to die (literally) so that they can take up his mantle. As noted they cannot challenge his leadership. Given Trump’s age, diet, and obvious manic symptoms, this is not an unreasonable hope. The Trumplicans would love for him to go to jail as this would give them the best of both world. Trump in jail cannot run and deny them the Trumplican nomination, but they could then run on the same ‘stir-up-hatred’ platform and a promise to pardon him when they came into office. Having said that, they all lack Trump’s atavistic appeal – no matter how hard they blow on the dog whistle. Furthermore, history shows that heirs to a populist politician invariably turn on each other. Whatever their political fortunes, however, they would be signing their own political death certificates if they demonstrated even the slightest willingness to cooperate with Biden and the Democrats. They voted against Biden’s relief package despite the fact that the majority of Republican officials from their own home states supported the bill because they are going broke. Most of them played to the Trumplican core by reflexively voting against almost every Biden cabinet nominee.
The relatively small number of self-identified ‘wanderers in the desert’ (at least those who have not yet abandoned politics) share one common characteristic: they have a local base so solid that Trump cannot defeat them in their primaries. Mitt Romney in Mormon Utah and Liz Cheney in Wyoming fit that description. A surprising number of old-line GOP senators have announced they will not run for reelection in 2024. This has put Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a pickle. He had made it clear that he detests Trump, to the surprise of many, but still needs to hold the party together if he has any hope of regaining the power of Majority Leader in two years. There is no hope that the surviving ‘wanderers” can swing enough votes to secure anything more than their own reelection. Nor have they shown any interest in forming an alliance with the few remaining centrist Democrats. Nowadays, sadly, party loyalties and labels take priority over loyalty to our country and to its citizens.