The Republican Party woke up in Trump Tower after Election Day, lying in a marble bathtub full of ice. Its back hurt and a kidney was missing.
Hitting rock bottom hadn’t come overnight. The troubles had been brewing for years, well before it sealed the deal with Donald Trump one night in Indiana. Once there had been dozens of suitors: governors, senators and even a pediatric neurosurgeon. But the choice between Trump or Cruz—a celebrity demagogue or a friendless ideologue—was a measure of how low things could go when the field narrowed to different flavors of conservative populist: angry and absolutist. The final decision wasn’t driven by love as much as desperation.
There had been attempts at intervention. Some friends warned things were getting out of hand after a few crazy hate binges dragged the party far off-center. But the rock-ribbed conservatives always pushed back and said those so-called friends were disloyal closet Democrats who just didn’t know how to party.
Sure, there were some wild nights where candidates talked about banning Muslims, building walls to keep out Mexican rapists, and rolling back rights for gays, but this was just serving up the red meat the red-state base wanted. Stop taking policies so seriously. Civility is for sissies. Loosen up. Hate a little. This is all just part of the dance.
Four years before, the party had flirted with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and that blast from the past named Newt. Bible-thumping Rick Santorum won a few states, but the party finally settled on Mitt. Responsibility reigned and even though Romney lost to an illegitimate president, the party rebounded to win back the Senate in the next midterm election. Experimenting with a bit of crazy was no big deal.
But the party had been sneaking the hard stuff on the side for quite a while. At first it was done in secret—mimeographed Bircher screeds and backroom deals to convert George Wallace’s conservative populists from Democrat to Republican. Direct-mail consultants got rich by exploiting cultural and racial resentments. Right-wing talk radio turned into right-wing cable news—correcting implicit liberal media bias with explicit conservative bias sold under the banner of “fair and balanced.” Then the conservagencia fractured further into microsites populated largely by conspiracy entrepreneurs like Glenn Beck pushing Birther theories and selling survivalist kits.
As the party moved further right to play to the base, moderates were purged and whole regions of the country were surrendered. There was less and less of a constituency for responsibility. The inmates were running the asylum, first taking out Eric Cantor and then John Boehner. To conservative populist ears, George W. Bush’s call for compassionate conservatism—warning congressional Republicans to “not balance the budget on the backs of the poor”—sounded vaguely socialist. Sarah Palin’s screeds about “real America” made her sound like a prophet.
Both Trump and Cruz drew on this tradition, and it’s fitting that they split the support of one-time Tea Party icons Palin and Beck. The rest of the 2016 field was quickly squeezed out, with longtime governors and senators dismissed as “squishes” because they’d had the temerity to occasionally work across the aisle. Playing to the partisan primaries and partisan press, this all briefly sounded like it made sense.
Insult comedy on the campaign trail was seen as the antidote to pervasive political correctness. An arms race to see who could say the most outrageous thing became the surest way to dominate the news cycle. We defined deviancy down and started seeing politics as an extension of entertainment. In the scrum, it didn’t seem to matter that the party was alienating voters it would need to attract to win a general election.
But by mid-May, the GOP was blackout drunk every day, alternating between adrenaline-fueled denial and moments of deep despair. Partisan pundits spun feel-good tales about magical battalions of Reagan Democrats rising from their graves to change the demographic math of the 2016 general election. Amid the angry bluster, the Republican Party lost almost all the women in its life.
Up until Election Day, there was an entourage of enablers. Some were suffering from a political form of Stockholm syndrome, thinking their captors were their friends. Others were the kind of people who cluster around bullies to feel the false courage that comes from briefly being part of an in-crowd. But on Wednesday morning after the election, they’re all gone, looking for their next gig.
And so it’s here, soaking in an ice-cold tub of reality after Election Day that the real sober action of rehab for the Republican Party needs to begin. There will be those who argue that the party’s only mistake was nominating Trump instead of Cruz, that a full-spectrum conservative populist ideologue could have won the election without reaching beyond the base. But rebuilding electoral strength requires taking responsibility and admitting that the party has a real problem. You can survive with one kidney, but you’ve got to stay off the sauce because you can’t keep filtering out the same levels of poison and still survive.