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From the file

Battlegrounds | In the race towards US polling day on 3 November, we decided to look at electoral battlegrounds: the intellectual battle for the future of the Republican Party; Black churches’ fight for relevance in the Black Lives Matter movement; and Donald Trump’s determination to cling onto the Evangelical Christians who voted for him in 2016

Head and heart

Tuesday 27 October 2020

The heart of the Republican party belongs to Donald Trump. There’s a fight coming to control its head.


Until Donald Trump secured the presidential nomination in 2016, Evan McMullin, a Mormon former CIA officer, was a committed Republican. He was chief policy director for the House Republicans, and he remains a party member. Appalled by his party’s candidate, he decided to run against him for President, as an independent. Undaunted by the result (third, with 21.5%, on home turf in Utah, but few votes elsewhere), he then co-founded Stand Up America, one of an ever-expanding army of organisations dedicated to rescuing their party, and the country, from a leader they see as utterly incompatible with the principles of the party and the health of American democracy.

Some of these groups have operated largely below the radar, often in bipartisan initiatives focused on safeguarding the machinery of democracy and trying to reduce the chances of a defeated Trump clinging to power or making mayhem out of his transition from it. Others have taken the fight to him directly. Some of the most savage attack ads against the president, described by some pundits as “’anti-Trump porn”, are the work of the Lincoln Project, a group named after the great Republican presidential saviour of the Union, formed by several longtime party grandees. John Kasich and Christine Todd-Whitman, two former Republican governors, endorsed Biden on stage at the Democrat National Convention, among several hundred (and counting) prominent members of the erstwhile party establishment publicly to urge a one-time switching of sides.

A Lincoln Project campaign featuring Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner

Today, these groups are necessarily focused on the immediate problem of the election but they also herald a battle to come; a fight for the future of a party which has given its heart to Donald Trump but whose head is asking some increasingly pointed questions about whether it has fallen for the right guy.

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November 3rd, or shortly after, will reveal if all this activity has been a masterpiece of spontaneous micro-targeting (Stand Up America going after the female religious waverers, Republican Voters Against Trump after college-educated whites, etc), or, as some resistance leaders fear, a terrible missed opportunity to coordinate a more joined up Republican revolt.

Certainly, if Trump wins, there will be little room for principled internal opposition. In an administration with a mandate to do whatever the boss wants, there will be none of those pesky “grown-ups in the room” left to say no. Perhaps Trump would be generally too lazy in his autocracy to eliminate all resistance, but the likeliest path for Republicans who don’t like him would be to join the Democrats, try to form a new party (a longshot, at best) or to give up on politics altogether.

Donald Trump Jr. fronts a “Keep Iowa Great” event

Lose, however, and there might be a half-chance of a real contest over the future direction of the Republican Party. But make no mistake, barring his well-earned retirement to a dacha in Russia (you never know), this would almost certainly be in the context of a Martyr of Mar-a-Lago Trump, proclaiming himself the victim of an election fraud and plotting to run again in 2024 or install one of his kids in the White House. That would likely be Don Junior, who seems to have inherited more of the father’s base-appealing rabble-rousing genes than cheer-leadery Ivanka.

If not a personality cult, then what?

If Trump loses legitimately, there are likely to be several competing narratives explaining why. Besides alleging electoral malfeasance, Team Trump is likely to emphasise the rotten luck of a global pandemic coming along to undo all the President’s great work on reviving the economy.

Others might start their election post-mortem with his woeful mishandling of a crisis that could have been much less deadly and economically destructive. They could include up and coming stars who have supported Trump so far, but see his defeat as an opportunity to present themselves as more competent and wholesome deliverers of essentially the same political strategy: elite-bashing, isolationist-nationalistic, trade-sceptic, pro-life and authoritarian. Perhaps they will be less prone to peddling conspiracy theories and wolf-whistling white supremacists. Two ambitious young senators, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, might fancy pitching themselves to the base as effective alternatives to the Dear Leader’s kids, if not to the man himself.

Serious infighting among Trump loyalists seeking to take up his torch would increase the chances of Republicans with different visions for the party. As well as the public critics of Trump, they would likely include ambitious leading Republicans who so far have opted to keep their criticisms to themselves rather than risk a public Twittering from the president. Names that often get mentioned as likely heavyweight proponents of various alternative strategies include Senator Marco Rubio, former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Paul Ryan, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, who has launched the American Idea Foundation, focused on “evidence-based” policy making (not a high priority for the Trump administration).

Former Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, after signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act

Central to any battle for the soul of the party will be the question of whether the Trump presidency marked a decisive move away from the “grand bargain” between evangelicals and big-business-friendly libertarians that had shaped the Republican party since the days of Ronald Reagan.

Particularly given his limited personal piety, Trump has done a remarkable job of appealing to the Christian right, but as a campaigner he has frequently attacked big business and its free trade and balanced budget priorities. In 2016 he also went out of his way to cold-shoulder the big donors who had poured fortunes into promoting their libertarian, small government agenda within the Republic party – even shunning the billionaire Koch Brothers.

Yet one of the paradox’s of Trump’s political career is that in his four years in Washington he has, as a practical matter, pursued the libertarian agenda to such an extent that, when his appointment of three business-friendly pro-life justices to the Supreme Court is added to the tax cuts and deregulation, history may judge this term the high water mark for the grand bargain. There are suspicions that much of this may have been far from deliberate. Apart from his immediate entourage, the likes of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump brought few people with him to the capital, so ended up filling government jobs with Republicans already in DC. Many of them were steeped in the libertarian ideology of big, influential organisations backed by the Kochs and other like-minded tycoons, such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. And, the argument goes, in the absence of any specific contrary direction from above, they simply got on with implementing the legislative agenda for which they had been groomed.

Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing

Nevertheless, several new think-tanks have been created as part of the Republican Resistance that see Trump’s electoral success as a sign that the grand bargain has run its course, but hope to offer far better ideas to replace it with than his autocratic, divisive nationalism. American Compass, for example, was founded this year by Oren Cass, a former economic advisor to Romney. With language that would not sound out of place coming from Bernie Sanders, it channels Trumpian elite-bashing into policies designed to benefit ordinary working families, while attacking hedge funds and private equity. It has criticised a narrow focus on maximising GDP and called on the Business Roundtable to follow through on its public conversion to “stakeholder capitalism” with real actions to benefit workers and communities. Instead of espousing deregulated market fundamentalism and bashing big government, American Compass talks about “helping policymakers navigate the limitations that markets and government each face in promoting the general welfare and the nation’s security.”

The Niskanen Center, a think tank that in August co-hosted a rival to the official Republican National Convention, wants to shift the focus of the party from small government to effective government. Jerry Taylor founded Niskanen in 2015, quitting the Cato Institute having lost faith in its libertarian ideology, which he felt had led to the weakening of essential aspects of government needed to address the big problems now facing the country, including inequality and climate change. “There are too many issues on which artificial left-right conflicts are created that aren’t necessary”, says Taylor, who says his new political philosophy is “moderation”. The signature Niskanen Center report, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy For An Age of Extremes”, tries to get beyond such fake partisan conflicts with novel policy proposals such as for what it calls a “free market welfare state” that can, say, protect workers displaced by globalization.

A key factor for the chances of such ideas becoming mainstream in the party would be a significant movement of donor money to support them. Intriguingly, the surviving Koch brother, Charles, has been showing less interest in pursuing his libertarian agenda within the Republican Party (though some sceptics say this is more rhetorical than substantial). Instead he has been focusing, through his renamed philanthropic arm, Stand Together, on addressing challenges facing society caused by the deterioration of key institutions essential for people to flourish. On some of its initiatives it has partnered with progressive organisations. Indeed, it has been working on criminal justice reform with the Open Society Institute of George Soros, uniting in a common cause the two favourite billionaire bogeymen of the left and right. Last year, Koch and Soros joined in financing the Quincy Institute For Responsible Statecraft, a new foreign policy think tank in Washington, DC, focused on diplomatic engagement and military restraint.

Donald Trump and supporters after a rally in Mobile, Alabama.

Whether this is the start of a larger transition by Koch remains to be seen. But Tyler Cowen, an influential economist who runs the Koch-backed Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has been advocating something he calls “state capacity libertarianism”. While he readily admits this is not the catchiest name, he argues it is a big, timely idea that recognises that prosperity based on free markets needs to be underpinned by government with sufficient capacity to be effective. The pandemic has highlighted the extent to which the US government currently lacks that capacity. Intriguingly, he thinks this is a concept that would appeal to his sometime collaborator, Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire investor in Facebook, Palantir and other big tech companies who endorsed and financially backed Trump in 2016.

A shift from rallying the base to finding solutions to the problems of the mainstream might pay-off handsomely – though getting there will be hard given the bias towards the extreme in America’s primary elections and a partisan media whose business model thrives on amping up conflict rather than encouraging moderation. Yet in its research on “The Hidden Tribes of America”, the group More In Common identified a large part of the electorate it calls the “exhausted majority”. These Americans are fed up with political polarisation and yearn for a pragmatic approach to solving the problems facing the country based on finding common ground. While not wanting to deny that there are real differences over some issues, according to the research they “want to return to the mutual good faith and collaborative spirit that characterise a healthy democracy”. By European standards, they skew centre-right, with a preference for self-reliance, hard work, faith and family, and they may be as much as two-thirds of the American electorate.

Joe Biden with union members in a supporter’s back yard

In the current battle for the White House, Joe Biden has done a better job than his opponent of speaking to this exhausted majority and distancing himself from the extremes of his party base, says Tim Dixon of More In Common. Yet, should he win, it remains to be seen if he can keep that up in office. If he does, then it would not be surprising if a significant part of the Republican Resistance joins him rather than get sucked into a fight with a riled up defeated Trumpist base. If a President Biden were to move leftwards, there would be more of a case for staying to fight for a different sort of Republican Party or maybe even start a new party to fill the gap between the extremes of left and right. But such speculation is not for now, points out Stand Up America’s McMullin: “First we need to make sure we remove Trump, otherwise there is no hope of reform anytime soon.”

Next in this file

The protesting church

The protesting church

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