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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
The U.S. has only one political party. The Democratic Party.
For almost a century, the country has been given a choice between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. But that has changed — radically.
When Donald Trump entered the GOP primaries in 2016, he faced a collection of traditional conservatives. One of the defenders of traditional Republican conservatism was radio host Rush Limbaugh. He opposed Trump. In Limbaugh’s view, the New York real estate figure was not a real conservative.
But, in what must be seen as an excellent political analysis, Limbaugh understood the essence of Trump’s appeal. It had nothing to do with conservatism.
He said in 2016, “if conservatism were this widely understood, deeply held belief system that united conservatives and united people as conservatives, then outsiders like Trump wouldn’t stand a prayer of getting support from people. Yet he is.”
Limbaugh concluded, “there are other things at play.” He found, “The thing that’s in front of everybody’s face and it’s apparently so hard to believe, it’s this united virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama.”
In short, there stood the Democratic Party, which had long set the legislative agenda of the country. Its progressive or left-of-center approach had brought Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, the election of an African-American president, and the likely nomination of a woman as its presidential candidate.
The way to stop the Democrats was not to offer an alternative and hope to arrive at some kind of compromise between the parties. That would be what conventional Republicans do.
The answer, as Limbaugh would soon come to agree, was to attempt to destroy the Democrats. The opposition would not have to offer alternative policies to deal with common problems. It would simply be dedicated to repealing as much of Democratic policy as possible and to preventing it from holding power.
Driven by intense personal ambition, Trump did not have much of a policy of his own, but he set out to benefit from the equally intense feeling among many Americans that the Democrats had gone too far.
He picked the most obvious sore point with them: the election of Barack Obama. The absurd charge that Obama was not born an American became a ready rallying point for people who felt that Democrats had showered privileges on minorities, women, and environmentalists at the expense of their jobs, homes and hopes.
In a badly split presidential race, Trump was able to exploit enough support to knock off his opposition and gain the nomination. The desire of the traditional GOP to recapture the White House and widespread dislike of the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton narrowly carried him to the presidency.
He revived the Republican Party by bringing into it people ranging from the ignored to the ignorant, the struggling middle class to outright racists. The party’s newfound strength and the ardor of his followers led to a transformation in party leadership and activists.
Trump developed a co-dependent relationship with the GOP. The people he added strengthened the party, while making it subservient to his whims. But, without much of a program of his own, he became a conduit for conservatives and the far-right. By courting their support, he might remain in office.
The GOP saw itself at war with the political system created by the Democrats. The recent poll showing that most Republicans see Democrats as the enemy not the opponent reflected this view. It means that the only policy the GOP needs is to tear down the Democrats’ work.
Look at Trump’s hallmark policies. Reduce environmental rules and taxes, abandon the world from NATO to free trade to disarmament, abolish Obamacare, and even downplay the federal role in dealing with a national health emergency. All negative, all anti-Democratic. But they did cut unemployment, whatever the cost.
Despite promises for an infrastructure program and a replacement for Obamacare, nothing was forthcoming. Nothing needed to be proposed, because the Trump policy was to destroy the Democrats’ programs. The wall was to be built not only against refugees, but against progress.
Calls for cooperation across the political spectrum may appeal to independents but they are a sham. There are no moderates who consistently seek compromise. At best, Republicans in Democratic states, like Maine’s Susan Collins, and Democrats in Republican states, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, would be swing voters.
The situation that Trump exploited left the country with the Democrats and the anti-Democrats as its two parties. The traditional Republican Party can only be revived if it has supporters.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden, recognizing that compromise won’t work and that he may have a small window of opportunity, is moving briskly to restore the momentum the Democrats had lost.