Make America Sane Again

Trump has dominated the GOP for too long. We need a center-right party to restore reason.

Series Introduction

It’s tempting to write off the GOP after the Trump years and Republican officials’ complicity in his behavior—to believe that the health of American democracy depends on ensuring this party never again occupies the White House. But in a two-party system, it is neither likely nor healthy for one side to be in power indefinitely. This is why Persuasion is publishing a series on the future of the Republican Party, including Geoffrey Kabaservice on what’s next for the GOP, Linda Chavez on why the party must appeal to a more diverse America, and now Mona Charen on the need for moderates after Trump. I hope you will enjoy the articles and see their value, even if (like me) you are left-of-center. —Yascha Mounk

Part Three: Make America Sane Again

By Mona Charen

At the dawn of the great unravelling—around 2015, when Trumpists sprouted on the right like dandelions—those of us who protested this degradation of the Republican Party were accused of being indifferent to the needs of working people. We “elites,” they charged, were wedded to something called “zombie Reaganism.” 

Parties must change with the times, and it’s true that some elected Republicans displayed a lazy dependence on aging talking points. Some of us warned against this before Donald Trump burst on the scene, pointing out that all the attention to business-owners left out many Americans with only a high-school diploma who were struggling to get by.

Today, the Republican Party is unrecognizable. Despite brave claims of populism, the actual policies pursued during the Trump years were mostly Chamber of Commerce wish lists. Far from serving the interests of working people, the party under Trump has cut income taxes, which are mostly paid by the better off, and settled into the four-year clown show we are all familiar with. The Republican Party is at best a personality cult, at worst a bid to undermine democracy.

It turns out that “owning the libs” is really what many Republicans wanted above all. They are more wedded to Trump than they were to Ronald Reagan, at least in part because the nation is more polarized than in the past. Reagan’s average level of support from Republicans was 83%, whereas Trump’s approval has hovered around 86%.

Admittedly, Trump’s party is contracting. At the start of 2020, 47% of registered voters were Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. By June, that share had declined to 39%. Trump lost to Joe Biden because a key Republican constituency, suburban voters, shifted blue (a trend that first surfaced in the 2018 midterms). But Democrats’ down-ballot losses in the House, the Senate, and in state legislative races vitiated the case that Trumpism itself was costly for Republicans. As Trump himself lamented as he scanned the election results, “So I led this great charge, and I’m the only one that lost?” 

That “great charge” is an admixture of nativism, protectionism, scapegoating and conspiracy-mongering. With the blessing of Trump, two supporters of the QAnon conspiracy won seats in Congress, and a sitting Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, campaigned with one of them. There are more supporters of QAnon in the Republican caucus than there were supporters of Trump’s impeachment.

Because the voters failed to rebuke Republicans for their embrace of Trumpism, most in the party will see no reason to turn the page. In the post-election period, we’ve witnessed behavior that, had it been predicted by Never Trumpers, would have been dismissed as Trump Derangement Syndrome. Trump and his increasingly hysterical hirelings (along with the claque at Fox News, Newsmax and other outlets) have taken the country down a demented path, not just failing the elementary test of civic hygiene by acknowledging and congratulating the winner, but with press conferences featuring tales of vote-rigging by a dead Venezuelan dictator, flagrant lies about truckloads of Biden ballots delivered in the night, calls for security officials who certified the election as free and fair to be shot, and former National Security Advisors endorsing military coups.

Through it all, Republicans leaders, along with most of the rank-and-file, have blandly blinked it all away, reciting pablum about the president’s right to pursue his legal options. Anyone observing our 2020 election from abroad would be forgiven for wondering whether the United States remains a stable democracy.

The descent of the Republican Party into crackpottery is a loss for the country. When one whole party loses touch with reality, the nation’s antibodies against authoritarianism are badly weakened. 

It is also a loss for the country because we need a sane, center-right voice in politics. The Democratic Party, for all its virtues, has blind spots. And even if it were the perfect embodiment of sound policies, the lack of constructive engagement from another point of view would quickly distort it.

Most Democrats overestimate the capacity of government to solve problems, and underestimate its capacity to make things worse. Indeed, an entire cadre of Democrats, the neoconservatives, joined the Republican Party in the early 1980s precisely because they’d become disillusioned with Great Society efforts to improve cities. Democrats, they argued, refused to acknowledge when well-intentioned programs were having unintended, deleterious consequences.

Ideally, a center-right party would be a voice not for business, and certainly not for big business, but for consumers. That means ensuring that businesses are regulated wisely, and guarding against efforts by some industries to use government regulation to quash competition. It’s a cliche to say that too few politicians have ever met a payroll, yet there is truth to it. In 1992, the liberal icon and former Democratic Party presidential nominee George McGovern published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal reflecting on his post-senate experience running a small inn. He called for tort reform and less paperwork!

Democrats are aware of racial, sexual and ethnic sensitivities, and that’s a plus. But it can be taken to extremes. A self-confident center-right party would stress the importance of treating Americans as individuals, not as group representatives, and would court voters of every background and ethnicity.

Trump has moved the Republican Party in a nationalist and protectionist direction, undermining one of the core insights of conservatism—that commerce enriches. It does so domestically, and does the same internationally. Under U.S. leadership in the post-World War II era, trade lifted hundreds of millions of people from desperate poverty while also improving living standards in the developed world in unprecedented fashion. It’s not true that international trade has decimated the working class. Most of the job loss in manufacturing over the past 50 years is attributable to automation.

The Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is hostile to trade domestically and internationally, and Biden has been sounding worrying signals. We need a center-right party to advocate for free trade, and to reaffirm America’s leading role with other free nations. 

The national debt has come to symbolize our collective failure to govern ourselves responsibly. Neither party can claim clean hands on this. A better conservative party would stress that borrowing in a time of crisis—as during a war or a pandemic—makes sense. But borrowing when the economy is roaring, as Republicans did during the first three years of the Trump administration, is reckless. 

Congress annually fails to pass budgets, engages in destabilizing games of chicken with the debt ceiling, and palms off real policy-making to executive agencies and the judiciary. Attempts at reform are welcome, but a center-right party might want to pull back from the emphasis on Washington in favor of renewed federalism. This has particular salience at a time when regional differences are so bitter. 

Finally, a healthy center-right party would look to support struggling families. Changes in family structure over the past half-century have exacerbated inequality, have handicapped poor children, and contributed to what the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case call “deaths of despair.” Some of these trends are beyond the capacity of government to influence, but to the degree that tax or other policies disadvantage marriage, they should be overhauled, and all parents should be given more support than they receive. Democrats have been allergic to any discussion of the importance of the two-parent family. Perhaps now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, we can focus on two-parent families without further inflaming the culture wars.

The Republican Party is slip-sliding toward brainless nativism. It may be that it is responding to market demand, but the country desperately needs better.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her most recent book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.