The Republican Party is experiencing an identity crisis. The establishment wing, the part that pines for a Mitt Romney or a Jeb Bush, wants to convey a mainstream image, something that appeals to right-leaning centrists. The conservative base, however, isn’t interested in centrism. They want ideological purity. They want a party of and for the fringe.
This split at the heart of the party is playing itself out in the presidential race, and the fringe is winning. The race has been hijacked, for the most part, by Donald Trump and Ben Carson (and now Fiorina), both of whom are outsiders and anathema to centrists. In a New York Times analysis, Jonathan Martin describes how Republican leaders, in the aftermath of Ben Carson’s comments on Islam and the Constitution, are concerned about the absence of a moderate voice within the GOP:
In the years since President George W. Bush sought to separate the Islamic extremists behind the Sept. 11 attacks from millions of practitioners of what he called a religion of peace, many in his party have come to reject the distinction. It is hardly the only point of disagreement between Republican leaders who are determined to reorient the party to win in a changing country, and activists who are uneasy about what they see as threats to their way of life. But the debate over Islam is particularly worrisome for Republicans because it so vividly highlights the vacuum that has been created by the absence of a unifying leader who can temper the impulses of the rank-and-file.
Whether they know it or not, “Republican leaders” have already lost this struggle. They don’t have the power to “reorient the party” because it’s no longer their party to reorient. The GOP is now the party of Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC, doesn’t wield half the power that Donald Trump does – not in this climate.
The Republican power structure has to reckon with the consequences of having sold out to Fox News and the conservative mediascape years ago. As I wrote in July, figures like Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee are products of the new GOP ecosystem. Due to the fragmentation of the media and the resulting decline in political parties’ power, the RNC can’t unite the party behind a single person or theme. And the reason is simple: they can’t control information and talking points.
“The conservative movement needs a pope,” Matt Lewis, a conservative writer, tells Martin. “Whether it was William F. Buckley writing the Birchers out of the movement or George W. Bush using his voice and office to speak about Islam, we need people who, like them, will take leadership positions.” As Lewis must know, the party does in fact have leaders – they’re just not the leaders the establishment prefers. And they’ve pushed the party well to the right of the rest of the country.
The most prominent voices in the GOP today are the ones the reactionary base most want to hear. The RNC is now hostage to the narratives manufactured by Fox News and talk radio, because that’s where their base gets its news. And these are the narratives that dominate discourse in the party. Fox News has played to the populist Tea Party hysteria for years, and the GOP has been the immediate beneficiary of this. But they’ve paid a price for that. All the race-baiting, all the demonizing, all the cultural panic – did the RNC think there wouldn’t be long-term consequences if they aligned themselves with this? Now that it’s backfired, now that their party is led by Trump and Carson, they want to pump the brakes? Now they want an adult in the room, someone to calmly “reorient” the party to the center?
Republican leaders are right when they say the country is changing: It’s becoming less white, more progressive, and more culturally diverse. As long as their party is defined by an angry and disconnected base, Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to appeal to anyone near the center. And in this media landscape, it’s not possible for the establishment to dictate who the “leader” of the party is. Instead, the base will continue to flock to fringe candidates who echo their grievances in the clearest of terms, and that will empower those candidates in ways the RNC can’t control.
What Carson said about Muslims last week is not a minority position in the conservative base. It’s telling how different Trump’s reaction to the question about Obama being a Muslim was from John McCain’s in 2008. This nativist bile was already in the air in two elections ago; the only difference is that the base has rallied behind a non-establishment candidate who’s willing to indulge it.
Tony Fratto, a former press secretary to George W. Bush, expressed what I assume is a common concern among establishment Republicans: “Having a leaderless party makes it more likely that those voices [fringe voices] that were always there can arise.” Fratto is half right. Those voices were “always there” (every party has its extremists) and they are more vocal now, but that doesn’t mean the party is leaderless.
On the contrary, the Republican Party has it leaders – their names are Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The problem isn’t a lack of leadership, in other words; it’s that the fringe has become the majority, and they're leading the party into an abyss.