Of greatest consequence, of course, were the ongoing revelations of Russian entanglement with members of Trump’s inner circle. News of Jeff Sessions’ contact with Russia’s ambassador and his recusal from further involvement in related investigations quickly overshadowed the media’s high praise for Trump’s address to a joint meeting of Congress the day before. But that speech was important, in substance if not in the style that caught the press’ attention. 538’s Ben Casselman characterized it as “quietly radical” in calling for complete overhaul of U.S. policy on taxes, trade, immigration and health care.
Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman extended his relentless criticism of Trump by accusing him of lying “on a different plane from anything we’ve seen before.” Disparaging not just Republican but the media’s embrace of “a speech filled with falsehoods and vile policy proposals,” Krugman concluded darkly that “if that’s all it takes to exonerate the most dishonest man ever to hold high office in America, we’re doomed.” For Krugman fans, that column was enough, but it was Brooks’ essay on the other side of the page—one that examined what exactly was radical about the speech—that made the remarks in tandem compelling.
Largely alone among prominent columnists, Brooks has recognized and commented on the fissures that lie beneath a presently united GOP. Describing Trump’s address as “an utter repudiation of modern conservatism,” he pointed to Trump’s budget-busting proposals absent any attention to preserving world order or embracing Republican-friendly “social values,” Looking at the blows delivered to each of the three wings of traditional conservatism, Brooks concluded, “The Republicans who applauded Trump on Tuesday were applauding their own repudiation.”
Before Trump’s election, Brooks had welcomed a new direction for the GOP, writing on October 28th, “Blinkered by the Republican Party’s rigid anti-government rhetoric, conservatives were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time. For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void.”
Brooks proceeded to express confidence in the next generation of conservatives, writing, “A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth. It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.”
With Trump’s victory, such hopes had to be dashed. Nothing in Trump’s presidency, let alone his address to Congress has spoken to what Brooks described in October as young conservatives “comfortable with diversity” and “weary of the Fox News media-politico complex.” Nor would the promise of greater freedoms in a market economy serve swing voters to Trump who already have enough risk in their lives, as Brooks noted today.
As both Brooks and Krugman acknowledge, Trump continues to hold power over the GOP, despite his overt lies and repudiation of traditional conservatism. In perhaps the smartest move of his campaign, Trump held out the prospect of a conservative jurist being appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s hard to imagine any Republican Senator voting against the current nominee, and the prospect of another court appointment should serve to hold the Senate together.
But fissures are still emerging, most notably in health care where the far right has signaled it will accept nothing less than the complete repeal of Obamacare,and in the frightening prospect of Russian interference in American affairs, detailed so thoroughly in this week’s New Yorker.
On the eve of the fall presidential election, Brooks pined for a new party that might rise out of the ashes of Trump’s defeat: “a compassionate globalist party, one that embraces free trade while looking after those who suffer from trade; that embraces continued skilled immigration while listening to those hurt by immigration; that embraces widening ethnic diversity while understanding that diversity can weaken social trust.” With the transformation of the GOP under Trump, the party in power certainly is not that party. It remains to be seen whether there remain Republicans with enough courage to embrace an alternative, closer to their own roots, but updated to include a new generation of members.
Don’t expect that to happen without the eventual collapse of the Trump administration. If and when that happens, we’ll look back to both the Krugman and Brooks of today’s columns for clues as to how the GOP embraced its own demise.