Is Donald Trump a cancer inside the body of the Republican party that eventually dies? As outrageous as the question may sound to hard-core Trump supporters, it is not unreasonable. Trump has been indicted for 91 felony counts, accused of rape in the E. Jean Carroll case, found guilty of business fraud in New York, and is engaging in progressively more worrisome rhetoric, including racist statements, threats to prosecutors, and intimidation. Given the party’s continued embrace of Trump, likely to result in his nomination for another term as president, it is easy to say that the party is rotten to the core and should die.
Time will tell whether the surprising (to some of us) revival of Trump mania will blow up later this year. Among the foreseeable scenarios are one or more criminal convictions; dramatic new disclosures graphically documenting Trump’s attempt to retain power through violence becoming public; and Trump finally doing something that convinces his base that he has gone too far. What might that be? How about a campaign commercial claiming that “God Made Trump.” The Trump campaign apparently did not make the commercial. However, the ex-president posted it on social media when he saw it. He apparently found it accurate. Something that should scare all Americans.
In the 1970’s, an incumbent president, Richard Nixon, was found to have lied to the American public, authorized a break-in at the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee.. Voters responded to Nixon’s resignation, taken to avoid impeachment, as an admission of guilt. They rejected Gerald Ford in the 1976 election as a repudiation of Nixon and his party.
Watergate not only cost the Republicans the presidency in 1976 but also led to the election of large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The newly elected legislators were dubbed “Watergate babies.” Several of them served decades in Congress. But in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency. The GOP was back.
Unlike Nixon’s years in politic, Trump’s career is more of a personality cult than the embodiment of a political philosophy. There are, however, similarities. Both presidents promised to fight the crime that they claimed the other party encouraged. Both presidents promised lower taxes. Both presidents claimed to be foreign policy geniuses, although Nixon was more subtle about it than Trump. Nixon won re-election in 1972 by a landslide. Trump lost in 2020, in large part, by alienating a large part of the American electorate with racism and politics of division.
Today Trump is running a campaign built on the assumption that many voters, including sizeable blocks of Democrats and independents, have lost faith in Joe Biden largely because he is “too old.” He is counting on potential Biden voters staying home. He also is working to maintain his base through a bizarre campaign that ranges from calling judges and prosecutors names and promising retribution against his enemies, who, Trump claims are also the enemies of the rest of us.
Earlier this week I saw the “God Sent Trump” video. It is disgusting but, despite apparently being produced as satire, some Trump supporters apparently agree with it. An interview with a pair of likely Iowa caucus members included one Iowan explaining that Jesus Christ suffered persecution to save us, and that Trump is doing the same. Had I not known better, I might have thought I was watching a Saturday Night Live skit.
History suggests that political parties survive crises. Thus, the prayers of some of us that the Republican party will die and be replaced with a more principled conservative party are likely to go unanswered. Both of today’s principal political parties have survived periods of extreme division. I just finished reading President Garfield, a biography of the 20th president. James Garfield won the 1880 Republican nomination as a compromise candidate on the 36th ballot. (He was assassinated less than a year into his presidency.)
The probability is that once Trump leaves the political stage, the party will undergo a period of soul searching to find a new philosophy. That likely will result in Democrats, if they can control the centrifugal forces within their ranks, enjoying an electoral revival. When will this happen? It could start as early as 2024 if Trump is escorted, possibly by federal marshals, from politics but definitely by 2029 when the possibility of Trump serving as president will end. (I hope.)
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.