At a 2008 campaign rally, John McCain was approached by a woman who claimed she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because of false things she had “read about him.” McCain pushed back. “No ma’am. No ma’am,” the candidate said as he interrupted her rant. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” At the same event, when a man said he was “scared of an Obama presidency” because he “cohorts with domestic terrorists,” the candidate defended Obama as a “decent person”—and was booed by his supporters.
McCain’s attempts at civility were lost in a campaign defined by the wild, incoherent diatribes of Sarah Palin, who owed her fifteen minutes to McCain himself. Having played on the rage and anger of talk radio and come up short, McCain tried in the campaign’s waning moments to un-roil the waters. He could not. Anger unleashed is hard to contain, especially when propelled by a torrent of hyperbolic rhetoric.
There weren’t enough angry white voters to put McCain over the top in 2008, or Mitt Romney in 2012. But the strategy worked brilliantly during the off years. The problem is, you can’t keep an angry electorate on the shelf and take it out when it serves your purposes. And when base voters twice handed Republicans stunning off-year victories and all they got in return was scores of pointless votes to repeal Obamacare, they turned their anger on Republican leaders who failed to fix the larger-than-life threat they had created by turning Barack Obama into an alien, illegitimate, un-American figure. So now the party is saddled with Donald Trump, the grotesque but fitting culmination of a strategy of anger. Therefore:
The third of the five steps is for Republican leaders and officials to confront rather than condone the outrageous and angry rhetoric of talk radio and cable television.
In Donald Trump, Republicans have a candidate who embodies talk radio. This is exactly what they don’t need. Whipping the base to a froth has created in Trump a force that party leaders cannot control, and they are now experiencing what it is like to have that rage directed at them. If anger is the fuel that propells the GOP engine, we are seeing what happens when the gas line ruptures and flames begin to engulf the vehicle. This should be enough to motivate party leaders to remove the fuel once they extinguish the flames.
It is convenient to blame the fire on Republican voters. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently did just that, deriding the base for choosing a nominee who speaks the language and reflects the values of talk radio, and while his diagnosis of the problem is correct he misstates the cause. The worst rhetoric may be on talk radio, the Internet and cable television, but Republican leaders have as a deliberate strategy echoed and amplified those messages as a way to keep the base in a state of perpetual agitation.
Angry voters are motivated voters, and motivated voters turn out. Since 2008, Republican elites have fanned anger by delegitimizing Barack Obama, questioning his birth, his national origin, his religion, his loyalty to America. They continue to do this today. What does it say about the official Republican view of the incumbent’s legitimacy when their argument against holding hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is that we must wait until we have a legitimately elected president, as if we didn’t get one in 2012? It says Republicans have benefited from denigrating Obama and his coalition.
But the strategy of reinforcing right-wing media messages has reached its limit and become broadly counterproductive. It prevented Republicans from reaching out to the emerging electorate as the RNC’s post-Romney autopsy report said it must. And now it has produced Trump, a candidate whose numerous personal grievances channel the grievances of the frenzied base, whose irrational behavior makes perfect sense in a looking-glass world. Republican leaders may not have created this world but they have validated it, and they continue to validate it every time they do not challenge it.
Repudiating angry rhetoric requires leadership, which should be far easier to find once excruciating step #2 is completed and party elites have liberated themselves from the need to win down ballot with the most problematic elements of their base. Once there is nothing left to lose, it will no longer be necessary for Republican elites to declare moral bankruptcy every time one of them supports but does not endorse their nominee, or announces plans to vote for him after denouncing his words as racist because, well, it’s never really clear why. This is pure cowardice in the face of voters who were pushed to irrational levels by a right-wing media enabled by the very Republican leaders who now resemble pretzels.
How liberating would it be for them to relinquish this straitjacket of lies and stop parroting and condoning some of the ugliest rhetoric saturating the popular culture. Yes, it will anger a lot of voters—for now. But there is no way around it if Republicans want to return to competitiveness and respectability, and reclaim their party from its most reactionary elements. The time to do this was eight years ago, when Republicans had the opportunity to challenge rather than seek to destroy everything touched by the Obama administration. They didn’t, and the job is much harder now. But it isn’t going to get any easier after Donald Trump.
The greatest advantage of toning down the rhetoric is the opportunity it presents Republicans to be a functioning opposition party, what they should have become after losing the 2008 election. This will lead naturally to the realization that as the opposition, Republicans will forfeit for now the ability to set the terms of national debate. Without its angry base, Republicans will be a minority party, probably for some time. Because they are not prepared to lead a highly diverse nation, there is no way for them to emerge as the dominant party in a future alignment without first spending time in the wilderness and regenerating their intellectual core. This costly concession is step #4.