Vance: Trumpism could leave moderate Republicans ‘politically homeless’


I am not old enough to remember Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy and King assassinations. But I do remember the start of the Gulf War and 9/11. The election of Donald Trump has produced an outpouring of emotion akin to those events. And believe me, it’s not just among Democrats. People I have worked with in the Republican Party for years — Reagan Republicans who, like me, did not support Trump — are just as shocked.

In the wake of the election, I fear becoming politically homeless. If Trump governs as he campaigned and attempts to implement the policies he ran on, and the Republican Congress supports him, I am going to have to decide whether or not I can remain in the GOP. That is hardly something I imagined was possible 14 months ago when I announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

I ran for the Senate because I am extraordinarily concerned about the gridlock in Congress, and the inability of Republicans and Democrats to work together to solve any problems, particularly our unsustainable national debt.  My campaign was based on the belief that voters would be ready for change, and 2016 would be a Republican wave election in which I could seriously compete with 24-year Democratic incumbent Patty Murray. Washington has a history of close statewide elections when Republicans are doing well nationally.

Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate completely changed the dynamics in ways both political and personal. For 36 years, I have fought for the GOP, as a staff person, an elected official, a candidate and as state party chairman. I took no joy in opposing the Republican nominee for President, but the question as to whether or not you support Trump could not be avoided, and I could not lie.

While my opposition to Trump was a popular stance among many people in this state (he won only 38 percent of the vote in Washington, far less than any other recent Republican nominee), it complicated matters on the campaign trail.

One of the blessings of the campaign was having my 25-year-old son, Adam, with me as I travelled around the state. But after I announced my position on Trump, things were often tense. On two occasions, confrontations with Trump supporters nearly got physical. Relationships with very old friends and colleagues were strained, if not broken.

I took a stand against Trump because, for the first time in my life, I looked at the core issues our national party was advancing in the election and was forced to say I don’t agree.

For 40 years, the Republican Party has largely been guided by the policies and philosophy of Ronald Reagan. Reagan supported free trade. Reagan supported immigration reform that included a path to legality for those already here. Reagan worked with congressional Democrats to reduce the debt and stabilize Social Security. Reagan never would have failed to defend our NATO allies, or encouraged other allies to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

Trump ran on a very different set of ideas.

An article in the Claremont Review of Books that has received a lot of attention laid out the intellectual case for Trumpism. That article defines the core issues of the “movement,” as Trump routinely described his campaign, as “secure borders, economic nationalism and America-first foreign policy.” I would phrase it differently and say that the movement is based on protectionism, nativism and isolationism. And I would add a fourth element: irresponsible, unrealistic economic populism.

These ideas aren’t new. Trump’s message is strikingly similar to Pat Buchanan’s message. The alt right’s rhetoric is a modern version of the John Birch Society’s. The difference is, Pat Buchanan never became the Republican nominee, and Birchers never became the intellectual leaders of the GOP.

Now we have a man at the helm of the GOP whose ideas stand in complete opposition to many of the major policies upon which the party has stood, and he and those closest to him aren’t shy about making that clear. Steve Bannon, soon to be counselor to the President, said last week, “We’re going to build an entirely new political movement. The conservatives are going to go crazy.”

Our tent is big, but no party can support two opposite sets of policies at the same time. We can’t embrace protectionism, nativism, isolationism and big-spending, debt-raising populism and remain the party we have been since Reagan. Trumpism and Reaganism are irreconcilable.

Some say we need to change our core philosophy. I don’t agree. I will always advocate for policies, and a Republican Party, built on freedom, economic growth, free trade, embracing diversity and active American leadership in the world.

So where do we go from here? Ever since the election of 2000, when Republicans began losing power in the suburbs, moderate Republican leaders, including me, have talked about the need for the GOP to change in order to appeal to moderates, younger voters and non-white voters. Remember the RNC’s autopsy after the 2012 election?

Instead, the Trump campaign listened to voices in the conservative movement who have long urged the GOP to double down on winning more white voters, especially working class “Reagan Democrats.” And they won. So much for a “Republican Civil War.” No one at the national level is going to be interested in reforming a party that now controls the White House, both houses of Congress, 33 Governors, and 69 of 99 state legislative chambers.

Trump won because he was able to harness working class and conservative anger, and because, according to exit polls, Hillary Clinton ran significantly behind Barack Obama’s percentages among men, white voters, young voters, and African Americans.

Washington is home to fewer evangelicals, and more affluent college graduates, than the national average, so the Trump formula doesn’t work here. If Republicans cannot attract more college educated white suburban voters in the “J” of urban counties that circle Puget Sound we will never elect a Governor or U.S. Senator, or win sustainable legislative majorities.

But the Trump realignment did show up in part of our state. Trump, and other Republicans, won the small counties on the coast and in Southwest Washington where timber and fishing used to provide good, high-wage jobs. (In the arc running from Clallam county in the north, to Klickitat count in the south, excluding Clark County, unemployment is double what it is in King County.) Washington’s Timber Belt voted like the Rust Belt, switching from D to R.

But this victory comes at a potentially high price. If Donald Trump governs as he campaigned, traditional Reagan Republicans may eventually leave the GOP.

The Democrats face a similar choice.  If they move toward Bernie Sanders and something approaching socialism, what happens to moderate, affluent, high-tech suburban Democrats, and corporate friendly congressional Democrats, like Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who have supported trade deals?

If the Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump populism, and the Democratic Party becomes the party of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pramila Jayapal, a yawning gap will open in the center of American politics. Who will speak for the business community, moderates, and those who support traditional national defense and free market policies?

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If this gap opens as a result of the 2016 election it will be filled in one of two ways; either one party or the other will move towards the center as the New Democrats did in the not too distant past, or a new party will form. David Brooks and other serious people are talking about this. Time, and events, will tell.

The world is waiting to see how President Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress now choose to govern. No one is more anxious for answers than those of us who wonder whether or not the Grand Old Party will remain our political home.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.