‘Panic” may be too strong a word to describe what many establishment Republicans are feeling about the insurgency that has taken over Congress and the presidential campaign. Then again, maybe not. “We have to end this. We look absolutely crazy,” said New York Congressman Peter King after a bloc of 40 Congressional ultras tipped over the neatly-set table of succession in the US House this month. David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called the GOP’s turmoil “more than a little frightening.” On the campaign trail, party regulars are alarmed that half the nation’s likely Republican voters — or at least, the half who talk to pollsters — prefer a president without a lick of government experience. “The usual ways voters judge a candidate — experience, governing achievements, mastery of issues — have been devalued,” lamented Peter Wehner, who served in three Republican administrations. “Reason has given way to demagogy.”
None of these worrywarts would ever be mistaken for liberal. But they are pragmatists: They want to win. And after weeks of being gobsmacked by the rise of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the fractious Freedom Caucus, the establishment has begun to rally, prodding an uneasy consensus around Paul Ryan for house speaker and trying to slow Trump’s march as the party’s standard-bearer. “It is very important for Republicans to demonstrate to the country that they can trust us with the government,” said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
But really, why should any of these sober-minded veterans be surprised? After 35 years of Republicans relentlessly bashing government, voters have been well taught to mistrust politicians and demean public service. They are drawn to candidates who reflect their own contempt. And if campaign rhetoric is rude, crude, and seemingly stewed, so much the better.
The party is reaping the bitter fruit of a carefully sown disdain. When Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, said that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” he may only have been promoting a fiscally conservative ideology as a corrective to Great Society spending. But after decades of Republicans demonizing people on welfare, degrading teachers and other public workers, starving the public sector enough to guarantee its inefficiency, and demeaning the office of the presidency, voters got the message that all politics is rotten. Now these over-plucked chickens are coming home to roost.
Republicans have become adept at manipulating census data to draw congressional districts that only conservatives can win. But they’ve crafted them too well, because now even powerful Republican incumbents are being tossed out by uncompromising newcomers who claim to be free of Washington’s taint.
The ironies thicken. Leading the charge to stop Trump is the political arm of the Club for Growth, which has done its best to drive moderates and other apostates out of the party. The group’s PAC spent $1 million on anti-Trump ads in Iowa last month, tarring him with their worst epithets: “very liberal” and “just another politician.” But voters are drawn to Trump because he is antiestablishment, any establishment, and the Club for Growth will have to do a lot more to contain the untethered monster they’ve created.
It’s enough to give Democrats a good case of schadenfreude. But they shouldn’t get too smug. Government dysfunction is especially hard on the people Democrats care most about: low-income families, schoolchildren, frail elders, those who depend on public support to get by.
The steady debasement of politics has hurt the entire country, not just Republicans. It turns off the rational center and polarizes the electorate. When fewer people vote, extreme positions dominate, and it becomes impossible to govern. Just ask Barack Obama.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.