It is pretty clear now that Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is complete. Even politicians who criticized him after the events of Jan. 6, like House and Senate Minority Leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, have come crawling back. The party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower is now just a pathetic claque of sycophants kissing up to a tyrant because they are terrified of the tyrant’s deluded popular mob.
The few elected Republicans who have not fallen in line (like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney in Congress, or the Republican elected officials in Georgia who refused to cave in to Trump’s demands) will surely face primary challenges, and may not survive them.
Yet there is a substantial constituency among the public for a Republican Party that returns to its roots as a traditionally conservative, pro-business party. Some of these people are “Never-Trumpers” who refused to vote for Trump either in 2016 or 2020, but still consider themselves Republicans. Others didn’t like (even despised) Trump, but voted for him because they thought the Democrats were worse. In Trump’s Republican Party, these people are exiles.
Some of these anti-Trump Republicans dreamed of taking back their party after Trump.
But we haven’t yet reached “after Trump.” And in any case, the Trump base has a vice grip on the GOP primary election vote, and they will punish any politicians who fail to toe the party line.
The logic of this situation suggests that the anti-Trump wing needs to get out of the GOP. That would free them from the threat of being “primaried.” They could then establish a new party (call it the Conservative Party) to compete on a national scale. Such a party, even if it’s wiped out by Trump in rural areas, could expect to do well in cities and suburbs.
It would thereby weaken the Trump GOP, and it could actually displace the GOP as the second party in the country (behind the Democrats).
This last point is critical, given the way we do elections. Almost all elected offices are filled by “winner-take-all” elections, which typically marginalize parties that rank lower than second. So if the Conservative Party reached that second rank, voters who opposed the Democrats would tend to vote Conservative rather than Republican, because the Conservatives would have a better chance of beating the Democrats.
The Republicans actually benefited from this in 1856, when they eclipsed the Whigs. They then won the presidency in 1860 with Lincoln.
And in the United Kingdom, the Liberals were similarly eclipsed by Labour in the 1920s. The Liberals were for a century the main rivals of the Conservatives, but they have never again been a major party.
Such a development is crucial for the stability of our democracy. If Trump’s Republicans remain the main alternative to the Democrats, we have a democracy in which the main opposition is hostile to democracy itself.
They only like democracy if they win. In contrast, stable democracies have alternation in power by parties that disagree on policy while supporting the basic framework of democracy and accepting the verdict when they lose.
We all, even progressives, need a viable, democratic conservative opposition, for the sake of our treasured democracy.
John Peeler is a retired Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Bucknell. He lives in Lewisburg.