It was not particularly surprising when longtime conservative commentator George Will announced over the weekend that he is no longer registered as a member of the Republican party, declaring that today’s GOP — that is, Donald Trump’s GOP — is not his party. Since Trump began his campaign last year, Will has been — like most establishment writers — a frequent critic, and there was never any doubt that he would oppose the billionaire if he did get the nomination.
But it is still rather symbolic for the most prominent conservative writer in the business to publicly breakup with the so-called "conservative party." Will is clearly concerned about the possibility of Trump winning in November, and seems to believe that if the billionaire is elected president (as a Republican), his beloved party will be irredeemable.
And so, instead of supporting an egomaniacal demagogue like Trump solely to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House — as other skeptical Republicans have resigned themselves to doing — Will appears content on giving the Democrats four more years in the executive branch.
“Make sure he loses. Grit their teeth for four years and win the White House,” remarked the columnist.
While it is certainly commendable for Will to stand up to Trump — something that very few top Republicans have been willing to do since he secured the nomination two months ago — it is also hard to believe that a man as smart as him didn’t see this coming. Not Trump per se — no one really expected him to be the nominee — but the rise of his style of politics: reactionary and paranoid populism that thrives off of the prejudices and (irrational) fears of the populace. While Trump is certainly a contender for having the most crude and unsophisticated rhetorical style in history, his politics are not new, and the Republican party has been exploiting the same popular impulses for decades (albeit more subtly).
Over the past 40 or so years, the Republican party’s dominant ideology has gone from being the elite and snobbish conservatism of William F. Buckley (and George Will) to the delusional and paranoid extremism of the John Birch Society (and Donald Trump). Though there are a variety of different factions within the GOP, the loudest and most prominent members of the party are now either Tea Party extremists — half Christian theocrat, half libertarian (with none of the good aspects) — or fact-free demagogues running on a platform of political nihilism, eager to burn down the RINO establishment without any due consideration for those in the crossfire. Moderate Republicans — those who were once called Rockefeller Republicans — have grown ever so rare in recent years (and even those who are considered somewhat moderate, e.g. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, are belligerent war-hawks).
After the election of President Obama, the spread of right-wing extremism and political nihilism, which had been slowly taking hold of the Republican party for decades, began to accelerate. The election of a black man with an unusual (and foreign-sounding) name triggered a massive reactionary backlash, and with the success of Trump, there can no longer be any doubt that the president’s race was a significant factor. If the president was a white man named Barry O’Brien, for instance, it is unlikely that conspiracy theorists would be professing him to be a closet Muslim who wasn’t born in America — and even more doubtful that the opposing party’s presidential nominee would be the most prominent popularizer of these ridiculous conspiracy theories. But alas, Obama is an African American, his middle name is Hussein, and Donald Trump is the GOP nominee.
Of course, establishment commentators on the right have long rejected the notion that the Obama backlash, seen in movements like the Tea Party — which George Will strongly supported — was inspired by white resentment. Pundits like Will have argued that it was a principled small-government movement challenging the “creeping socialism” of our (centrist) president.
But if the Tea Party movement had truly been about small-government principles, would Tea Partiers (like Sarah Palin, for example) be supporting Donald Trump today? Trump is many things, but he is no small-government conservative. While the Republican candidate’s politics are oftentimes incoherent, he is ultimately an heir to the paranoid style of politics that historian Richard Hoftadter wrote about fifty years ago, with strong authoritarian and reactionary impulses.
In an article for Politico last September, Michael Lind summed up how the success of Trump has exposed the Tea Party movement (and essentially the GOP) for what it genuinely is:
“The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism... Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.”
Though George Will is no longer a Republican, he clearly believes that the party is redeemable, and that small-government conservatism can still win the day — if only principled conservatives take a stand against Trump. But that ship has sailed. The GOP became the party of Trump long before Trump became the nominee. The billionaire may be more outwardly vulgar and fact-free than any of his Republican colleagues, but his paranoid style of white-identity politics was inevitable in a political party that consciously chose to exploit white resentment and racism decades ago with the Southern Strategy.
And thus, Will may be gritting his teeth for much longer than four years.