A little more than six months from now, on November 7, the sun will rise on a political landscape wrecked by President Donald Trump’s first midterm election. Thanks to a map that puts more Democratic than Republican seats at risk, our party will still cling to control of the Senate, but GOP House members lack insulation: They will crawl out from the smoking rubble of a 40- to 50-seat pounding to find they have lost their majority.
Paul Ryan will be gone. The former Great White Hope of the Republican Party sneaked out of town before reveille, leaving his troops facing extinction. Our remaining soldiers, stunned or wounded, will also have blown the bugle of retreat, fleeing to the shelter of the party’s shrunken conservative base. Our eyes will turn to those survivors, the leaders of a broken party, one only they can restore. They will determine where the Republican Party goes next. How do we renew our party in the Age of Trump?
We don’t have to wait for November’s cataclysm. We can begin now with a strategy to harness Trump’s base and add swing voters, even as we remain faithful to our principles.
To begin, we need to recognize that, although Donald Trump often appeals to the worst in us, the fears that fueled his election are legitimate. They need to be respected. We need a Republican Party as big as those fears and as great as America’s challenges. We need a Republican Party to address the twin concerns that rocketed an inexperienced businessman past both irrelevant political parties and made him president of the United States.
Fear No. 1: Our country fears it is losing the future. A broad slice of working-class voters fear the American dream has become the American game. They believe it has been fixed by the big guys, for the big guys, against the man who drives an F-150 and built their mansions. It was rigged by the very political leaders Americans sent to Washington to guard the future’s gates.
Donald Trump not only harnessed the resentments of Roosevelt’s “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” but he also offered them a solution, resurrecting the old Reagan slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Like Trump, our most successful political leaders have always offered blue-collar America a transformative vision of their future—FDR and his “New Deal,” JFK and the “New Frontier,” Reagan and his “Rendezvous with Destiny,” Bill Clinton and his “Bridge to the 21st Century,” and Barack Obama with “Hope,” “Change” and “Yes, We Can!” Yet no leader in either political party today offers America’s working class a compelling vision to compete with that of our president. We’ve left Trump a monopoly selling sunrises. There are no rivals on the shelf.
Fear No. 2: Our country fears it is losing its identity. We’ve always shared common beliefs, tenets that unite us as Americans. Our flag and anthem bind us into a nation because of the principles they represent: freedom, individual responsibility, the rule of law and equality of opportunity for every American. We have been united by one inspired national culture, open to and supported by all Americans.
Uniting America is not about “going back” or preserving these values only for male or white Americans. Diversity, equality and an open society are all pretty darn “American” these days. However, our openness no longer seems to have a uniting purpose. There is no better example than Hillary Clinton’s procession for president. Instead of running one campaign, she ran a confederacy of them, micro-targeting groups because of their differences. She found no larger slogan to unite voters beyond the vacuous “I’m With Her.”
As Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla notes, “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
Whether in politics, the media and entertainment businesses, or college campuses, our nation is sick with division because diversity no longer serves a larger purpose. There is no unifying national identity to bring us together or give our unique, individual contributions a common objective. Instead, the welcome ideas of “openness” and “diversity” have displaced what unites us. And when there is nothing to which we all belong, diversity becomes division. Openness, without a common, uniting culture, becomes chaos and America becomes a tribal combat zone, a scary, divided, self-segregated field of battle. Without the North Star of a unifying national identity, our country cracks into angry, razor-edged shards until its blood is drained.
When Americans fear they are losing both their future and their identity, what do they have left? Amid this great unraveling, a good but unnerved people become a mob and march on the walled fortresses of the establishment. They turn to the leadership of the autocrat. In 2016, a crowd-pleaser filled this vacuum with his strength.