Trump-ism without Trump: New York and Kansas show the way

By Richard Brodsky |  

August 9, 2016 |  

We're in the middle of a political realignment. Two years from now we won't recognize the Republican Party. Maybe not even the Democratic Party.

New York did its share to fan the flames. Republican Congressman Richard Hanna broke ranks and endorsed Hillary Clinton. It's a big deal, but carefully considered, it sidesteps the problem Republicans face. Hanna said, "My reasons were simple and personal. I found him profoundly offensive and narcissistic, a world-class panderer." It's a reasonable conclusion to draw, but it's not at the heart of the dissolution of the Republican Party, in New York and nationally.

Switch over to Kansas. Congressman Tim Huelskamp lost a Republican primary. He was an obstreperous Freedom Caucus-er, Tea Party-ite and Ted Cruz-er. He was also a rabid anti-Trumpist, part of the "NeverTrump" movement. His explanations are rather self-serving: Too nasty, too disruptive, Trump/Establishment revenge, etc.

Both events are explained as reactions to personality flaws. What's actually happening is a dissolution of the Republican Party into its three constituent parts. Trump leads an anti-establishment populist wing that's angry, but not particularly ideological. Movement conservatives still pretend that economic austerity and social reaction are politically popular. Center-rightists want a place in a party that has excluded and scorned them.

Trump won the nomination fair and square. He understood that more Republicans care about immigration and unfair trade deals than they care about shutting down the government, cutting taxes for the rich, or even abortion, guns and gays. Republican voters, in the midst of all the anger, are returning to a practical concern for what candidates and government can do to improve their lives. But the losers – candidates and constituencies – are at war.

At the moment it seems like a prescription for disaster. Trump appears headed toward a shellacking on November 8 that will drag down Republican majorities in the Senate and House, and leave the national party in tatters. The long knives are being sharpened and will be brandished. As foreboding as it may seem, it's also an opportunity for resurrection.

The next iteration of the Republican Party will not be a stitched-together replica of the pre-Trump GOP. Someone will emerge. It's pretty clear that the disrupters and yellers have had their day. They never had big numbers, and the national mood is beginning to swing toward compromise. Movement conservatives have the Big Money and a sellable, if ancient, message. There just aren't enough Republican moderates left to take over.

When the dust settles, the best chance for a new Republican Party will come from a kind of Trump-ism without Trump. Imagine a political party that focuses on middle-class anger at being left behind by elites of both parties, one that doesn't want to savage Social Security and Medicare, that would consider taxing hedge funds or stock transfers, that wants gigantic investment in physical infrastructure, and that rethinks corporate globalism – but without the jerky, rude, demeaning, bizarre and downright crazy behaviors of the Donald. It would attract a much wider base of support than the Democratic or Republican Establishments would find comfortable.

Before Trump, there was the Norman Thomas-led socialism turn into the New Deal and decades of left-wing policy. Then we had the Goldwater reaction turn into Reagan and decades of austerity and backtracking on voting rights, social programs and social policy. Now Trump points us toward a kind of re-focus on the middle class and government as a vehicle to reinvest in people and infrastructure. It makes sense.

Trump also unleashed a lot of ugly attitudes toward minorities and immigrants and a tolerance for divisive politics that can't be ignored. But there's reason to trust in the innate common sense and decency of the American people. Time and again we've emerged from times of stress and re-embraced the better angels of our nature.

The 2018 gubernatorial races will test whether either party, particularly the Republican Party, can lead the nation. Here again, New York and Kansas will show the way. Kansas Republicans will boot Gov. Sam Brownback and the hard-right in exchange for a center-right, pro-government politics. New York Republicans will choose between the bizarre Carl Paladino wing or a moderate like Harry Wilson to challenge the beleaguered Gov. Andrew Cuomo or some Democratic successor unwilling to rock the boat. I suspect that Wilson will emerge as a formidable challenger, and help develop a workable model for the post-Trump Republican Party.

Trump has exposed profound contradictions and flaws in our politics and it's time to consider what we want New York and America to look like in the aftermath. We are in the middle of a profound and necessary realignment. Large numbers of Americans and New Yorkers have had it with the conventional political arrangements, and rightly so. Out of the ashes of the Year of the Donald needs to come a new, perhaps even a better, politics.

Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.

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