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An Unhappy Marriage with No Hope of Divorce
A Republican looks at the internal workings of her party and despairs
by Danielle Pletka
If Donald Trump is the titular leader of the Republican Party, does it follow ipso facto that his positions on foreign and domestic policy issues are the policies of the Republican Party? And if that is so, where does Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) fit in? How about former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, now one of Trump’s few declared 2024 opponents?
To put it another way, does Trumpism, with all the stop-the-steal-January-6 baggage, now equal Republicanism? Has it redefined conservatism? Or are there two GOPs living in one body—Dr. Reagan and Mr. Trump—each struggling for primacy, each with its own views, constituencies, and Fox News hosts?
Good bloody questions.
Much has been said about the Republican Party’s ongoing identity crisis. But the reality is that it is not actually a crisis of identity—it is the ill-suited marriage of two worldviews that have little to do with each other, two sides who see America and the world completely differently.
One is the group of traditional post-World War II conservatives, who, with the likes of William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, wrested control of the GOP from the Harding-Coolidge faction who owned (and almost destroyed) the party before the Second World War—call them the OG-GOP. The other is a group of political left-behinds who almost certainly would have voted for Democrats in decades past—and many actually did so—before the Democrats became the party of woke coastal elites and petty authoritarians. Working class, big on industrial policy, suspicious of free trade, hostile to immigration, tolerant of big government, skeptical of American intervention overseas—this is the other, Neo-GOP.
Both groups voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and it was that election that spawned the Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde or reality show—pick your analogy—that has been the Republican Party ever since. The phenomenon is much like the ongoing struggle of the Tories in the UK. Boris Johnson’s eleventh-hour conversion to Brexit swept him and British Conservatives to a monster victory in 2019, the largest majority the party enjoyed in the British parliament since 1987. But the people who voted for Boris and Brexit, like the people who voted for Donald Trump, were not all conservatives—not by a long shot.
Not unlike the Tories, the GOP has desperately been trying to figure out how to get it all back and party like it’s 2016. Winning was so great. Nor have losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022 chastened those looking to replicate Trump’s 2016 miracle.
The crux of the problem is that these two parts of the GOP can’t be reconciled. It doesn’t boil down to Trump and Never Trump—this is as much a disagreement about substance as anything else, though no one wants to admit that for fear of offending Jekyll, Hyde, or both. OG-GOP recognizes that bullying corporations drives them offshore, taking jobs along with them. Neo-GOP is grossed out, Warren Buffett style, that the superrich don’t pay more taxes. OG-GOP understands that while it has some serious warts, free trade is actually at the root of American prosperity. Neo-GOP thinks free trade is great for elites with Teslas and is furious their jobs have gone to Mexico or Vietnam or India. Both have legitimate points and grievances.
OG-GOP believes in legal immigration, and recognizes that American innovation and leadership has often flowed from the new blood infused by immigrants. They agree with Neo-GOP about illegal immigration, but that’s where the consensus ends. OG-GOP is for small government, and reviles the growth of the administrative state, endless government interference in education, private life, small business, and the like. Neo-GOP is A-OK with big government when it benefits them—indeed, the ten states with the highest dependency on government handouts are, eight to two, red versus blue. Ditto for government interference in education, business, and all that, as long as that interference is DeSantis style. But nowhere is the divide as stark as on foreign policy, with Ukraine the main example.
The reaction to the arrest of Air Force classified document leaker Jack Teixeira lays bare the fundamental divide. The Neo-GOP’s pitchfork carrier, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), tweeted this out:
In contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told ABC News that, “If you’re a member of the military intelligence community and you disagree with American policy and you think you’re going to be OK when it comes to leaking classified information, you’re going to go to jail.”
Scraping away Greene’s hottest of hot takes, there are serious people with real and substantive arguments against U.S. support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. The intelligentsia of the Neo-GOP wing argues that Ukraine is a distraction from the real war ahead with China, and Putin’s rise, or fall, is of little interest to them. Their counterparts on the left likewise spool out the usual “give peace a chance” line with a comparable indifference to Ukraine’s survival or the “battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
Another area of substantive disagreement between the two wings of the GOP is defense spending. For the vast mass of Americans, no matter where they land on the spectrum of AOC to Donald Trump, defense spending isn’t the first, second, or even tenth thing they think about each morning. Nonetheless, defense of the homeland and the safety and security of the American people is the paramount responsibility of the commander in chief, and it matters. Republicans have historically been viewed as the party of national security; indeed, if it weren’t for the so-called Reagan build-up in the 1980s, it might not be possible for the United States to maintain its limited leadership role in the world today.
But the Neo-GOP isn’t the party of national security—far from it. The OG crowd, including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican member on its Senate counterpart, remains staunchly committed to rebuilding the nation’s defenses and shoring up its faltering defense industrial complex. But the Neo-GOPers, by contrast, argue that defense should be on the table with other budget cuts. The argument has pitted Republican against Republican in the Congress, and in the policy community, the American Enterprise Institute (OG) against The Heritage Foundation (Neo), once the stalwart of Reaganism in Washington, and now a member of the defense budget cutting chorus.
How does this all sort itself out? Per Donald Trump, the OG-GOP “ruled by freaks, neocons, open-border zealots, and fools” is dead and the Neo-GOP of MAGA hats has won—end of story. It’s true: the OGs at the helm in Congress are not young, and poor Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—he who lives this internecine battle every day—is always a vote away from the end of his speakership. Indeed, it wouldn’t be wrong to think the Neos are in the ascendant, had they not, you know, lost all the elections. Pace Donald Trump, the OGs are still kicking both among the money men and among the rank and file.
Others embrace a Great Man theory of resolving GOP schizophrenia: one amazing leader will unite the party, take all that is good from the OGs and the Neos and win the White House, and we will all live happily after. (I’m looking at you, Marc Thiessen.) Well, maybe. Increasingly, though, it’s looking like Ron DeSantis is not that Great Man. And it’s not at all clear that there are any other knights in shining armor out there.
In a world without Twitter and cable TV and the internet, the two sides would fight this out in the primaries and in moderately intelligent debates. In the real world of the twenty-first century, unfortunately, that’s not a thing. Indeed, we must accept that the OG-Neo battle may never be won. Or worse yet, that it will require a deus ex machina—a shock akin to Pearl Harbor or 9/11—to rescue the GOP from its internal crisis.
Only two things are sure: the clock is ticking, and Donald Trump won’t live forever. There is no obvious successor to the Neo-GOP MAGA king. Will the party revert to its previous form? Perhaps, but the OGs ain’t got much either. But Republicans can console themselves with one thing: in the long run, we’ll all be dead.