Ronald McDonald Exits Stage Right

We are witnessing the end of a political regime in real time. It may not be fully apparent just yet, but the curtain is coming down on a forty-year political alignment that began with Ronald Reagan and will end with Donald Trump — what I will call the Ronald McDonald Era. Its replacement will look and feel different — unlike anything we have ever seen — as is always the case when we transition between political eras. It will be different from the Reagan years and different from the New Deal coalition that preceded it. But more on that in my next post. For now, I want to explore the possibility that by asserting its power, the House has struck a blow for regular order that the White House cannot match and has unleashed a set of institutional forces that could be the undoing of the modern Republican Party.  

In one important respect, the mighty Reagan coalition of white economic, religious and foreign policy conservatives died a decade ago, when Barack Obama foreshadowed the future by rising to power on the strength of young, female, and multicultural voters. What’s left of the Republican coalition is hardly recognizable — a rump assembly of blue-collar whites and white evangelicals willing to set aside their values in order to keep their fingertips on the levers of power, underwritten by the uber-wealthy who reap the benefits of Republican economic policies. It is hardly conservative in any meaningful sense, nor is it principled or ideological, nor is it a majority. It just clings to Donald Trump as he clings to office. Given no alternative, Republicans who also wish to preserve their power cling to Trump as well.

Until last month, it was unclear to me what would become of this end-stage white dwarf of a political party. I have written about how Republicans, long unwilling to be the opposition in a new partisan alignment, have moved to undermine and dismantle democratic safeguards in a brazen attempt to remain permanently in power as a minority party. Under Trump, the alternatives have become stark: we can have a republic or a Republican Party, but not both. With Republicans choosing political self-preservation, with Democrats reticent about using the powers they inherited with their takeover of the House last fall, and with Trump using the power of the state as a shield against the slightest investigation of his behavior, you could see how a democratic experiment built as much on norms as institutions was in peril. 

Let me be clear — that peril remains. Donald Trump retains the strong support of an intense minority of citizens who see him as their last line of defense against cultural and economic change. But for the better part of the Trump administration we have seen the opposition either unable or unwilling to stage a coordinated counterattack. Then came the Ukraine scandal, an easy-to-explain cutout from the larger Trump-Russia scandal that finally gave House Democrats the political cover they needed to make their move. The results have been quick and stunning. By speaking with urgency in a unified voice, Democrats have spearheaded a head-spinning reversal in public opinion about impeachment, unifying partisans and moving independent voters behind the investigations and — even more dramatically — behind removal from office, which has inched above majority support. 

All this has prompted an equally dramatic resurgence in the rule of law. With House Democrats making it clear they have the votes to impeach and intend to be aggressive in the face of brazen administration stonewalling, pre-Trump norms of accountability have awakened from dormancy. This has led second-tier participants, including careerists caught up in Trump’s lawless behavior, to think about the consequences of continued silence to their reputations and their freedom. First the fabled whistleblower came forward. Then a second whistleblower. Then the former ambassador to Ukraine, who was forced out for doing her job. Even the ambassador to the European Union, a Trump benefactor and appointee, testified that Rudy Giuliani was pressuring Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden’s son at the direction of the president. There will be more.

As the normal political process reasserts itself, normal outcomes become possible, and expectations have been changing accordingly. Five weeks ago, the conventional Washington narrative held that Nancy Pelosi was never going to permit impeachment to happen. A month ago, Beltway wisdom coalesced around the acknowledgment that impeachment is inevitable, but it would be dismissed quickly in the Senate. Today’s speculation assumes there will be a thorough Senate trial, and there are loud whispers that removal from office is more than hypothetical — still highly unlikely but no longer unthinkable. What happens if a few Republicans peel off? Could a trickle of defections become a flood? Does impeachment become slightly more likely each time Republicans are faced with another indefensible situation, like Trump’s abrupt decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria, the administration’s announcement (later reversed) that Trump intends to host the G7 at his own resort, or Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s unhinged admission (then hurried retraction) of a quid pro quo in the Ukraine affair?

Cracks have emerged in Trump’s once-solid wall of resistance. The courts are pushing back on his made-up claims to privilege. Fox News is grasping to figure out how to stage a defense against a story that a majority of Americans perceive as indefensible. And Republican officials continue to remain silent and evasive weeks after this scandal broke open.

There is no easy way to resolve the cross-pressures squeezing Republicans. They have to navigate between a president with such control over base voters that defying him is career-ending and a growing public understanding of that president’s criminality. Except for Republican senators in states with more cattle than voters, impeachment will drive a wedge between core supporters demanding loyalty to Trump and independent voters who will not forgive a vote to acquit. Avoiding an issue of this magnitude will prove to be impossible. There are no good options.

Donald Trump has consumed the Republican Party, once the party of Reagan conservatism. With the acquiescence of party leaders, he is destroying the party the same way he destroyed everything he touched in his business career, and his downfall, either in the Senate or at the ballot box, will be their downfall. There will be no way to run away from it or pretend it never happened. The extent of the departure from normalcy and the intensity of the public reaction to what has been happening in this country make the Trump era too big to cram down the memory hole. New Deal liberals ran against Herbert Hoover for a generation, just as Reagan conservatives ran against Jimmy Carter. Expect Democrats to run against Donald Trump for a long, long time. 

We have seen this happen to political regimes before. In fact, it is the natural state of things that regimes will weaken and crumble over time as the country and circumstances change. Alternation of the parties in power is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. What has made this moment different is the real possibility that our democracy is too sick to sustain a normal realignment. Now, with the impeachment process starting to regenerate respect for democratic norms, it’s possible to imagine an outcome that — while wrenching — will not be destructive. Republicans made their peace with Donald Trump three years ago when their base embraced him, but as impeachment has begun to make defending him costly, it is possible for the first time to imagine the Ronald McDonald era may yet end with the republic in one piece. 

The potential demise of the Republican Party will be the subtext to the impeachment trial once it starts in the Senate. It will be the subtext to the upcoming election. As battered democratic institutions — the courts, the bureaucracy, the House — push back against this administration, they make it a little more likely that the republic will hold. And if the republic holds, the Republican Party will not.