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The debate
Campaigning is afoot for the US midterm elections in November. Though both parties are gearing up for the fight, with hundreds of billions of dollars already raised, it is widely expected that the Republican Party will reclaim the House of Representatives and very possibly the Senate. If so, the party would find itself able substantially to dictate the domestic agenda for the remainder of Joe Biden’s term.

It therefore matters what kind of party it wants to be. After Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, there was some hope among his critics that his defeat might break the fever of delusion and grievance that had consumed the Grand Old Party (gop), as it is colloquially known. There has been little indication of any such respite. The party has become dominated by a Trumpist faction and its hero might well make a second bid for the presidency in 2024.

No political party has a divine right to exist. Indeed, American parties that once seemed to be inexorable fixtures have faded and expired: the ninth, 10th, 12th and 13th presidents were all Whigs, a party that disbanded in the 1850s. But no sensible citizen wants to live in a one-party state, even if it’s the party they vote for, and any grown-up democracy should include a party that represents the conservative case, ideally with phlegmatic common sense.

Can the gop be returned to its upright and serious founding principles? If so, how? And if it can’t, or won’t, then what?


Meet the panel

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Peter Meijer
The congressman

Meijer is the member of the US House of Representatives for Michigan’s third district and one of only 10 Republican congress­people who voted to impeach Donald Trump after last year’s Capitol riot. Prior to his election in November 2020, Congressman Meijer worked in conflict analysis in Afghanistan and disaster response in South Sudan and elsewhere. He also served in Iraq as a US army reservist.


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Kathryn Cramer Brownell
The historian

Cramer Brownell is an associate professor at Purdue University, where she teaches 20th-century US history. She specialises in the intersections of American politics, media and popular culture, and is the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. Her forthcoming book documents the political history of US cable television.


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Tom Nichols
The pundit

Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of several books, including The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters and Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy.


Congressman, you’re running for re-election. Let’s imagine that I’m an open-minded constituent of Michigan’s third district. What’s your pitch to me?

peter meijer: If you look at what has gone right in this country, it has been things that have focused on more regional governance. What we’ve seen in Washington, in less than a year, has been a strong consolidation of power not only by the federal government but also within the federal government, by the executive.

Is the Republican Party still capable of delivering those, though?

pm: Right now it’s the only party that has at least a pretence of the ideological underpinnings that could.

Tom, you’ve been a very vocal ex-Republican in recent years. Would you still consider yourself such?

tom nichols: Oh, yes. Today more than ever. I just disagree with the congressman. There is no ideological underpinning to the Republican Party. There is no policy more important than the constitutional integrity of the government. And that’s under attack from the Republican Party – my former party, of which I had been a member since 1978, which has become an authoritarian vehicle. I’m no longer a Republican but I’m a conservative. I have plenty of issues with the Democratic Party but I’m standing with a pro-democracy coalition against authoritarianism. To me, that’s the only issue.

Is what has happened to the Republican Party in the past five to 10 years unique in US history?

kathryn cramer brownell: Over the course of the 20th century there was political realignment in both parties but what is new is this emphasis that began under Donald Trump’s presidency on conspiracy theories and misinformation as a way to govern. That’s different. Politicians frequently try to manipulate and spin information but this invention of an alternative reality is now very much the crisis of the Republican Party.

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“Politicians frequently try to manipulate information but this invention of an alternative reality is now the crisis of the Republicans”

We shouldn’t spend too much time on the problem – but to find a possible way out of it, it’s worth considering whether this was inevitable. Was it?

tn: No. If I had to put my finger on when I began to feel unease, it was when I worked in the Senate in the 1990s for John Heinz, who today would have been hounded from the party. It was Newt Gingrich’s revolution, where winning became more important than believing in anything and making other people mad became more satisfying than governing. Now is the first time that a major party hates and fears its own constituents. That’s partly why I don’t hold out any hope for the Republicans.

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“Fox exists for the same reason that junk food exists: it’s bad for you but people like it”

Congressman, does the Michigan third frighten you?

I’m wondering whether there’s a conversation among Republicans about a fear of confronting the manias of their voters who might be very angry – and armed.

pm: On the margins. But the broader trend is just a lack of conviction, or lack of leadership. I talk to plenty of constituents who vehemently disagree with some of my stances but are desperate for somebody whom they can look up to. This is part of the reason why you saw a reversion to a Trumpian mode after [the Capitol riot]: this window opened and nothing filled it.

Is there any hope that things might correct themselves if Trump were no longer involved?

kcb: He’s not the first politician to have created this celebrity persona: you saw it in Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He’s the culmination of many shifts in media and politics, the fusion of entertainment and politics, over the past century. But the party leaders’ dedication to him as an individual, not standing up to him when he does egregious things – not just flouting norms but potentially the law – that’s different with his presidency and post-presidency.

tn: I want to push back on a couple of things. We’re talking about Donald Trump as if he is in a tradition of outsized presidential figures and not what he is, which is a mentally unstable, sociopathic autocrat. I also want to push back on congressman Meijer’s narrative that, well, what can you do? That’s a rationalisation for having to deal with the fact that those voters just want to trust someone. The reason that they don’t is that they won’t turn off their televisions, won’t read a newspaper and gorge themselves on a steady diet of insanity that they love. Fox, the internet and these podcasts don’t exist because they’re trying to get the truth to people. They exist for the same reason that junk food exists: it’s bad for you but people like it. And they eat it by the tonne.

Is there a chance that we could see that appetite starting to ebb, if it becomes more obvious that the falsehoods reported by conservative media and the online realm simply aren’t happening?

kcb: This has developed over time; it has strength and has become embedded in conservatism. It’s also about what sells. Today if you look at some of the financial structures around subscription television or podcasts, they don’t necessarily have to be dependent on advertisers; they just need the loyalty of their viewers. So there’s an emphasis on getting a very loyal viewership. That outrage drives the programming and cultivating it helps to do that.

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“I talk to plenty of constituents who disagree with some of my stances but are desperate for somebody whom they can look up to”

pm: In order to exploit something, you can fabricate it – and there certainly have been fabrications – but it’s a lot easier if there is a modicum of truth. We are, for now, the sole global superpower and yet the amount of mediocrity and incompetence that we seem to tolerate in any number of areas is what gives rise to that impulse, which is exploited by the extreme media.

tn: And this is where a responsible conservative party would throw some of this back onto the citizens of the US and say: “You have to take some responsibility here. You have to be stoic. You have to be an adult.”

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“Certainly one of the lessons that we can take from the 2016 election is the importance of calling out misinformation”

Would it help if the media was more rigorous in how it reported the Trump phenomenon? How do you cover someone who thrives on attention?

kcb: One of the lessons that we can take from the 2016 election and the Trump presidency is the importance of calling out lies and misinformation. But another issue that is not talked about enough is the need to teach media literacy: how to understand information and evaluate sources and biases.

Congressman, do you have any worries that maybe you’re not the future of the Republican Party?

pm: To be clear, the likes of [Georgia representative and Trump ally] Marjorie Taylor Greene are exponentially more powerful and influential within the gop today than they were a year ago. But we were missing the forest for the trees a little with the role of Trump in the existential dilemma. In my view, the threat is the person sitting there taking notes and saying that we can do this in a smarter, sharper, more disciplined, more strategic way, so that in our quest to accumulate and exert absolute power, we don’t make the same mistakes that Trump did.

tn: I don’t think that rescuing this Republican Party from extremists is going to happen. Marjorie Taylor Greene scares [House minority leader] Kevin McCarthy and if McCarthy becomes speaker, you’ll have a Congress run by kooks. There is no path back from this, other than to defeat the Republican Party as an institution, to prevent it from holding those levers of power.

Is there a way of working around the extremists? Is there a viable centre ground in the Republican Party that can be reclaimed – and if so, how?

tn: No. The Republican Party I knew died at least four or five years ago. I wish the congressman all the best but the moderate Republican Party can’t just be him, me, Liz Cheney and three other guys in Rhode Island.

pm: There are normal people planning for what comes next. And there are also some very crazy people doing the same. Our thoughts should be on both: supporting and buttressing institutions, keeping people who are thinking about the long term in office, getting people who have that orientation into office and not just succumbing to accelerationism. I mean, you either stay or you go. I’m going to stay and fight. Not screaming from a mountaintop but in a quiet, persistent way. But as a freshman member of Congress, I’m under no illusion about my degree of power or agency.

Let’s try to be a bit optimistic. If we’re all agreed that a sensible and serious conservative party is a necessary component of a great democracy, who would we choose as a unifying, stabilising figure to be the Republican nominee for president in 2024? Congressman Meijer might just be old enough by then...

tn: I wouldn’t nominate the congressman because I wouldn’t do that to him; that’s just unkind. I would love to see a bipartisan government of national trust. There are centre-right figures who could be part of such an administration. But until the madness passes, I don’t think the answer lies there.

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“The party has become one of complaint, grievance, victimhood and misery about how they’re the most put-upon people in the world”

pm: I have who I would like it to be and then I have who could actually win – and the centre of that Venn diagram is challenging. The challenge for a moderate, which I do not define myself as, is that it becomes squishy. You can wind up with the worst of all worlds if it’s someone who doesn’t really stand for anything. I share Tom’s concern that I taint anyone I endorse but perhaps Chris Sununu, governor of New Hampshire. I love the fact that he held a press conference at which everybody wanted him to run for the Senate and effectively just said, “Yeah, Washington looks like it sucks.” You need someone who’s going to be a bit pugnacious but who only does that when they need to, who isn’t waking up every morning thinking, “Who can I swing at?” But the idea that the president is going to be a saviour is part of our problem. We’re always looking for that salvation.

kcb: As a historian, I do not predict the future. But what would be most important is someone who is rooted in reality, respects the democratic process and institutions and has done something to actually defend democracy at this particular moment, when it is being threatened. We need someone who navigates in facts, rather than conspiracy theories and misinformation.

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“The idea that the president is going to be a saviour is part of our problem. We’re always looking for that salvation”

tn: With the honourable exception of the Republican congressman in this conversation, the party has become one of complaint, grievance, victimhood and misery about how they’re the most put-upon people in the world. That is not the conservatism that brought me into the Republican Party. That was not the party of Ronald Reagan, which won 49 states in 1984. This is a party that has a vested interest in terms such as “American carnage”. Until that ends, there’s no way out of this.


Conclusion
The US, like every democracy, needs a party making the conservative case – and in the US the case for individual liberty and responsibility should, in theory, be easy to make. The Republican Party remains fond of pitching itself as that of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan. It would be something to see the gop conduct an honest and open conversation about why it would not now nominate for president anyone resembling any of those leaders.

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