The Unwanted Ghost of Trump?

Robert W. Merry of The American Conservative has written a commentary calling on Republicans to hold on to pieces of the Trump legacy while ridding themselves of their “toxic” leader. According to Merry, Trump succeeded in his efforts to change trade policy, keep us out of wars, and protest the Left’s attack on “Western heritage.” But now Republicans must push beyond their disgraced and deeply flawed standard-bearer to remake themselves under new leadership:

In order to stay in the game they must do what Trump could not–namely, fashion a political dialectic and a mode of expression that keeps the Trump coalition intact while ousting the Trumpian fringe and luring to the fold those more centrist folks who are uncomfortable with the current Democratic direction but have been repelled by Trump. Crafting such a dialectic won’t be easy for a party in chaos, as the GOP likely will be in the midst of its current despond. And luring those centrist folks won’t be possible so long as the ghost of Trump hovers over the party.

It seems that Trump, with his polarizing personality, scared away the “centrists” and “moderates” whom Republicans need if they hope to build a winning coalition. They must therefore find a way to graft elements of the Trump agenda onto a more mainstream form of politics, one that will allow Republicans to reach across the aisle to “moderate” Democrats and presumably soccer moms who felt abandoned by their party under the Donald. 

Unless I’m mistaken, Merry is hoping to go back to a centrist bipartisan politics in which Biden might choose to be a player, along with the nicer, clubbable sorts of Republicans—perhaps Senators Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), or maybe Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). Meanwhile, Trump will be fed to the wolves or treated as an indigestible mistake that both parties might agree to pretend was never there. 

Allow me, however, to raise a few questions, without challenging Merry’s underlying premises—for example, that there were no massive irregularities in the election that needed to be challenged, and that Trump thoroughly disgraced himself by “inciting” an “insurrection” on January 6. Although I believe neither, I shall concede both points because they don’t change the nature of my questions. How exactly does Merry intend to make Trump’s base forget about their leader? 

A few weeks ago, a Gallup poll found Trump is the most admired man in the United States. Even after the late unpleasantness in the Capitol Building on January 6, his popularity, according to Rasmussen, soared to 48 percent. No other American politician, certainly not Sleepy Joe who continues to ooze sympathy for Black Lives Matter, enjoys a level of popularity comparable to Trump’s.  How does Merry propose to exorcise “the ghost of Trump” hovering over his constituency? Are we supposed to offer these voters, who would walk over glass with bare feet for their leader, a more palatable mainstream alternative?  I cannot think of any substitute for Trump who has Trump’s support among so many Americans. Can Merry?

I’m also at a loss to know where Merry believes we can find all of these moderates who would join the renamed and reconditioned Trumpites. The divide in the United States is profoundly ideological. When Congress voted to impeach Trump for his phone call to the Ukrainian president, all Democrats voted to impeach him, however ridiculous the charge seemed. Democrats also ran to accept the canard that Brett Kavanaugh raped a woman several decades ago under circumstances that even the supposed victim couldn’t clearly recall. What drove this united front in fantasy was opposition to putting a non-leftist judge on the Supreme Court. 

Bipartisanship is now a country-club Republican illusion, although one that Democrats periodically trot out when they want the Romneys, Murakowskis, Toomeys, etc. to vote with them. Bipartisanship was evident when the Senate voted 96-3 to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and 87-9 to confirm Stephen Breyer in 1994. The same comradeship was not present when Democrats voted near unanimously against Trump’s judicial nominees.  

Finally, why should I think the leftist media won’t treat another right-leaning presidential candidate or occupant of the White House as they did Trump? Even granting that Trump was especially persistent in pushing back against the “fake news,” why would the media desist from throwing similar vitriol against other Republicans? 

They went after the conflict-averse Mitt Romney in 2012; and even the painfully centrist Jonah Goldberg expressed horror at how the media slandered his candidate for president. That onslaught took place because the media wanted the more left-wing Barack Obama to win. Does anyone doubt that the same enemy on the Left would savage a Mike Pence or Marco Rubio if he stood in the way of electing a Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg? 

Merry’s vision of bipartisanship is a memory from a different time and a different America when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan traded Irish humor over drinks or when Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey hammered out together the final wording of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But those days are long gone—and not likely to return any time soon.

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About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

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