If the battle within the Republican Party were a movie franchise, the latest episode would be “The Establishment Strikes Back.”
Even as various Donald Trump imitators and wannabes jockey for the role of his political heir, some pre-Trump Republicans and party allies are trying to pull the GOP back toward a different set of sensibilities.
Former president George W. Bush is urging not just a gentler tone on immigrants, but a more generous policy as well; former House speaker John Boehner advocates reembracing traditional Republican themes; and a wide array of business leaders have rejected the GOP efforts at voter suppression.
All of which has added another dimension to what’s already one of the most fascinating stories in US politics: Whither the GOP?
In broad strokes, this is the story of the continuing tug of war between the governing and populist wings of the GOP. It’s hardly a new struggle. Pat Buchanan’s conservative-populist 1992 campaign prefigured Trump, as did the more recent Tea Party battle with the Republican establishment.
The big difference, notes Republican pollster Whit Ayres, is that the GOP’s populist wing had not elected a president until Trump’s 2016 victory. With that win came wide-ranging reversals of previous GOP stands and sentiments. From a policy standpoint, that was true on free trade, free markets, internationalism, and immigration; tonally, it was also true on spending restraint and the rule of law.
But with Trump having lost — and disgraced himself in the eyes of many Americans by instigating the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol — some prominent Republicans are now pushing back against Trumpism.
Most notable is George W. Bush. Last week, in a guest column in The Washington Post, the former president argued for an approach on immigration that sounds positively centrist: a path to citizenship for recipients of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an out-of-the-shadow status for undocumented immigrants under which, after paying a fine and back taxes, they could get in line for legal residency or citizenship; and a guest and seasonal worker program.
Although his message was ostensibly directed toward both parties, Bush’s real target was unmistakable. In a Tuesday interview on NBC, he called the Republican Party ”isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist.” And he noted, pointedly, that immigration is an easy issue to use in an attempt to scare people.
Meanwhile, in his new memoir, “On the House,” Boehner, who has said he voted for Trump in November, blasts him for inciting “that bloody insurrection,” an event that “should have been a wake-up call for a return to Republican sanity.”
In a Sunday CNN interview, the former speaker urged his longtime party to return to its pre-Trump principles.
“Republicans have to go back to being Republicans,” he told CNN. “Focus in on the principles of what it means to be a Republican: fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense.” (Fiscal responsibility, it should be said, is a principle the GOP has honored mainly in the breach, at least in the decades since George H.W. Bush’s 1990 tax hikes.)
And then there are the many members of the business community, who, despite warning snarls from several prominent Republicans, have spoken out against efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote, one of the main ways the GOP is responding to its 2020 election losses.
This all comes as Trump held a self-aggrandizing pity party, replete with trademark nativism, in an interview with Fox News’ chief Trumpswab, Sean Hannity, during which he suggested that he might run again.
My bet: That won’t happen. But if it does, that would be good news indeed — for Democrats. After all, Trump’s role in inciting the storming of the Capitol has rendered him even more of a pariah in non-Republican eyes.
Still, too many in-office members of the GOP’s governing wing are keeping their heads low, hoping that time and tide — and financial and legal problems — will erode Trump’s hold on the party’s populist wing.
More should speak up. After all, there’s future honor to be had in helping reclaim the GOP from the many divisive aspects of Trumpism.