These are grim times for many Republicans. Their nominee espouses many ideas contrary to long-held principles, and his immediate reversion after the convention to JFK conspiracy-mongering convinces some conservatives that he is just plain nuts. (“Either [Donald] Trump believes Rafael Cruz was involved [in the JFK assassination] or he’s making the implied accusation in a continued attempt to discredit Cruz’s son,” writes Stephen F. Hayes. “In either case, this isn’t the behavior of a rational, stable individual. It should embarrass those who have endorsed him and disgrace those who have attempted to normalize him.”)
Nevertheless there are many silver linings one can glimpse in the dark clouds hovering over the beleaguered GOP:
We now know that the Republicans who back Donald Trump (and surely know better) lack the right stuff to lead the party. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) insists that Trump will understand Russia is not our friend when he gets briefings. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker argues Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was wrong not to endorse Trump. They might as well say, “We know he’s unfit, but we put party loyalty above concern for the country.” At least that would have the benefit of being candid.
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2 Trump has helped bury gay rights and same-sex marriage as wedge issues. His only mention of gays in his convention speech was in a positive context (we must defend the LGBT community against Islamist terrorists). Surely evangelicals who now support him cannot expect to keep that issue alive, right? The country has moved on, and so must the GOP or else it risks political irrelevance.
3 Speaking of evangelical conservatives, many have revealed themselves to be charlatans, willing to shill for someone embodying none of their values or concern for their issues. One commentator for the Religious News Service explains:
“They are willing to give Donald Trump their endorsement and mobilize voters for his campaign even though he offers nothing religious in return. They will preach his politics despite him being someone who does not share their faith or their social agenda. It is ‘religious sequestration’ in the extreme. ...
“Why? They are not nave. They do not expect him to change or to listen to them. Instead, my hunch is that they see politics as only that – politics. They will lend their name and proclaim Trump’s name in exchange for political power.”
This recognition should deprive the religious right of a veto over future candidates and give candidates leeway to treat them much like any other special interest. Republicans can pick and choose the issues on which they want to support evangelicals and where they prefer not to. That allows the GOP to shed the image of an intransigent, intolerant party and appeal to a younger demographic (even young conservatives) among whom acceptance of gay marriage is widespread.
Democrats have now become the anti-Russian, pro-internationalist party. In taking exception to Trump’s aversion to NATO and even the World Trade Organization, Democrats have the opportunity to step back from a McGovern-Obama national security approach. That, in turn, presents the opportunity to forge broad bipartisan agreement on a range of foreign policy issues.
5 Republicans have figured out that Fox Non-News is pretty much what critics said it is. Early morning and evening hosts (as opposed to straight-news people such as James Rosen, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace) are no more than embarrassing shills for Trump, unmoored to any philosophy or principles. They simply want to be buddies with the winner. As my colleague Erik Wemple put it, Fox hosts “have enjoyed free rein to say pretty much whatever they want, facts notwithstanding.” In short, more Republicans now realize the programming they’ve been gobbling up is neither accurate nor supportive of true conservative goals. Liberated from a steady diet of junk news, conservatives may become more clear-eyed about the world and conservatism itself.
6 Talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, who have been facing the challenge of aging audiences and changing listening habits, no longer get to claim the mantle of “pure conservatives.” They are Trump cheerleaders and purveyors of his nativist outlook. They have every right to take whatever ideological stance they please, but they don’t get to define this as “conservatism.” Perhaps lawmakers and other elected officials will stop listening to them and start paying more attention to constituents.
7 There is newfound camaraderie among principled conservatives, moderates and libertarians in their rejection of Trumpism. They recognize that specific differences on specific issues pale in comparison with some shared values and insistence on character as a requirement for Republican office-seekers. That broad agreement on character, limited government and fiscal conservatism — not to mention rejection of bigotry, misogyny and unhinged rhetoric — can be the basis for the post-Trump coalition on the right.
8 There is new appreciation that the Republican National Committee cannot simply defend anyone with an “R” after his or her name. Reince Priebus’s rationalization for Trump’s outrageous rhetoric and bully-boy tactics at the convention, as well as his unwillingness to set boundaries on acceptable conduct in the primary and his failure to defend conservative principles, make him (despite financial success) the worst RNC chairman in history, the chair who oversaw the hostile takeover of a once-great party. Now he says that the party must reject David Duke, who wants to run as a Republican. Why then would Priebus stick by a candidate who wouldn’t repudiate Duke until hounded to do so and whose anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic rhetoric is right up Duke’s alley?
Priebus’s tenure should be a lesson to future party chairmen: Either stay out of sight and be a neutral functionary — or publicly defend conservative principles against snake-oil salesmen. Serious thought should go into remaking the primary rules, debate criteria and platform process to keep the party from going off the rails once again.
9 Trump’s example of over-the-top rhetoric and the politics of personal insults could prompt Republicans to reassess their tone and rhetoric. Too many pundits, elected officials and candidates seem to think that anger and rudeness are indicia of conservatism. Republicans should reject Trump’s flight from reason and civility. The party of Ronald Reagan now faces off against a ticket with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who embodies the spirit of a happy warrior and projects a genial, kind demeanor. Republicans have a lout and a bully. In the future, they should find someone Republicans are comfortable letting their children watch on TV.
10 Maybe, finally, Republicans will realize that they cannot win presidential elections by appealing only to white voters. There is nothing like losing a winnable election to convince consultants and candidates that a minority party cannot survive without getting a larger share of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate.