As the Trump campaign flounders under the accumulated weight of the pandemic, the economic crisis, the mass protests and a Twitter account plugged straight into the president’s limbic system, I wonder: What if the parties mattered?
I’m a subscriber to a counterintuitive school of thought popular among some political scientists. Their belief is that partisanship is so strong today because our parties are so weak. Both Democrats and Republicans have become incapable of defining and protecting their long-term interests on a time horizon longer than the news cycle.
Prior to the “reforms” of the early 1970s, our democratic system depended largely on the internally undemocratic nature of the parties. Under the pre-1972 system, independent socialist Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have been allowed to run for president as a Democrat, and Donald Trump wouldn’t have gotten within 100 miles of the Republican nomination.
Because we live in such an unthinkingly populist time in which even the president can whine that the “system is rigged” without irony or fear of correction, it’s difficult for many people to grasp how totally democratized the parties have become.
Consider two examples. In 1968, then-President Lyndon Johnson beat Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, but by such a small margin — a mere seven points! — that Johnson dropped out of the race. Yes, he wanted to avoid humiliation, but he also believed it was the best way to help his party and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the candidate Johnson preferred over McCarthy. McCarthy received 39% of the vote in the primaries. Humphrey? Just 2%. Humphrey got the nomination — because the party mattered.
On Aug. 7, 1974, a contingent of Republicans visited President Nixon to explain that, for the good of the party and the country, he should resign. He announced his resignation the next day.
Fast-forward to today. Right now, things look very bad for Mr. Trump. His coalition — which pulled an inside straight in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote — has shrunk. In 2016, he won the suburbs by four points. Now, he’s losing them by 25 points, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. His hold on white voters and older voters is eroding, too, though not as dramatically.
He can turn it around, of course. As poll mavens like to say, the polls are just a snapshot. The funny thing about that snapshot cliché is that people use it to make the point that things can get better. True enough. But they can also get worse. There are plenty of snapshots of the Titanic leaving port in Southampton.
Assume things do get worse for Mr. Trump. Maybe the pandemic will run rampant in red states, leaving Mr. Trump with the no-win choice of admitting failure or sticking with his wish-it-away strategy, as some core voters die before they get the chance to prove their patriotism by voting maskless and in person. The economy could tank again. He might even tweet a video of a supporter shouting, “White power!” (Whoops, bad example.)
Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg told Politico recently that if Mr. Trump’s standing eroded much further, he’d be facing a landslide Electoral College loss and “would need to strongly reconsider whether he wants to continue to run as the Republican presidential nominee.”
Mr. Nunberg’s right. But notice what he doesn’t say: that at some point the Republican Party would need to strongly consider throwing Mr. Trump overboard. In a sense it would be a silly thing to say, because no one thinks the GOP is capable of such a move. Also, no one but the most Kool Aid-besotted loyalists thinks Mr. Trump is capable of putting the interests of the party — or nation — above his own.
If Mr. Trump were a somewhat normal president under similar circumstances, it would be easy to see Republican candidates breaking with the White House. But partisanship today doesn’t just mean excessive loyalty to a party and its program. It implies a kind of secular faith. And on the right in particular it resembles a Trumpian cult of personality. “Undemocratically” defenestrating Mr. Trump for the good of the party would be like the Vatican firing the pope for the good of the church.
The Manichaean logic of Mr. Trump’s campaign message is that the Democrats are so terrible that patriotic Americans must vote Republican regardless of their qualms about the GOP candidate. A Republican Party that believed this was true but also cared about its long-term viability would recognize that this argument would work just as well for a Pence 2020 candidacy. But for a Republican Party that is merely a pliant vessel for the loudest bloc of its customer base at any given moment, such thinking is unthinkable.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.