“Five, 10 years from now–different party,” then Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump told Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green in May 2016. “You’re going to have a worker’s party.”
Trump was wrong. Just two years later, the Republican Party is now largely an angry, hollow, populist vessel. Congressman Mark Sanford’s (R-SC) defeat for the “mortal sin” of putting principle ahead of President Trump’s agenda is just the latest evidence of how rapidly populism has advanced within the Party.
The contemporary Republican Party has now largely abandoned the principles upon which it was established. Those principles enabled it to carve a rich political legacy that included turning back a bid to break up the nation during the Civil War, ending slavery, and facilitating a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War in favor of the world’s free peoples. The Party of Lincoln and Reagan connected with the nation’s people and achieved great things, because it was anchored in principle.
The Republican Party’s first platform in 1856 proclaimed:
Resolved: That, with our Republican fathers, we hold it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the primary object and ulterior design of our Federal Government were to secure these rights to all persons under its exclusive jurisdiction; that, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished Slavery in all our National Territory, ordained that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, it becomes our duty to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing Slavery in the Territories of the United States by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein. That we deny the authority of Congress, of a Territorial Legislation, of any individual, or association of individuals, to give legal existence to Slavery in any Territory of the United States, while the present Constitution shall be maintained.
In 1984, the Party’s platform espoused the same message of human liberty, demonstrating that enduring principle remains relevant with the passage of time and changes that take place. It explained:
The Republican Party’s vision of America’s future, the heart of our 1984 Platform, begins with a basic premise:
From freedom comes opportunity; from opportunity comes growth; from growth comes progress.
This is not some abstract formula. It is the vibrant, beating heart of the American experience. No matter how complex our problems, no matter how difficult our tasks, it is freedom that inspires and guides the American Dream.
If everything depends on freedom—and it does—then securing freedom, at home and around the world, is one of the most important endeavors a free people can undertake.
Today, the Republican Party faces a grim situation. Women, younger people, Latinos, and the college-educated are streaming from the Party like refugees fleeing advancing enemy forces. Such erosion of support has less to do with a fundamental shift in the nation’s culture than it does with a Party that has disconnected itself from the principles on which the nation was established.
Still, the populist offensive continues. Populism is squeezing the weakening Party on two fronts. On one front, President Trump and his Administration are increasingly seeking to pervert the justice system to serve its political interests, assailing the nation’s press, undermining markets through tariffs and bailouts for preferred companies, and undermining the nation’s alliances. On the second front, Talk Radio, FoxNews, Breitbart, and additional channels are pushing psychological operations-scale disinformation and deception to break resistance to the advancing populism. In the face of this assault, the “fight” has already left many Republican members of the House and Senate.
Only a handful are now reliably waging the battle in which Sanford is the latest casualty. In the Senate, the ranks of Republicans consistently defending free markets and free trade have dwindled to Senators Alexander, Corker, Flake, Johnson, Lee, McCain, Moran, Sasse, and Toomey. By next year, that number will have diminished further, as both Corker and Flake are retiring.
Some big names are missing from this struggle. Their disengagement from the trade battle has been rationalized as a pragmatic decision that should be understood on grounds of political necessity. That argument is wrong.
Free trade and free markets are inseparable from the larger idea of individual freedom. When voluntary choice ceases to exist in the marketplace, the loss of individual liberty is no less than if a person were deprived of the ability to speak or worship freely. The trade front is where perhaps the existential battle for the Party’s soul is now raging. If elected Republicans won’t defend such a basic principle, they cannot be relied upon to defend any principle when confronted with populist alternatives.
Great parties and great nations are not built on political expediency. Moral and political cowardice are not the hallmarks of great leadership. Silence and collaboration are no way to sustain, much less advance, the nation’s founding principles.
It is no accident that a growing number of Americans are losing faith in the Republican Party. Responsibility for that trend lies not with the American people. That trend is not the result of the Democratic Party’s offering superior ideas–indeed, the Democratic Party is experiencing an internal battle of its own between far left populist and more centrist elements. The loss of faith in the Republican Party is squarely the result of the Party’s having elevated unprincipled populism above enduring principle.
A party that won’t stand for principle is one that offers no basis for trust. It is unworthy of governing.