In the days since John McCain’s funeral there have been two pressing questions: what will become of the (former) Republican “Establishment” and who will represent it? In the era of Donald Trump, who will take up McCain’s cause and fight to make America a leader in the world order, while upholding the cause of mainstream conservatism at home? What Republican will be the “maverick” that makes deals in the Senate, such as McCain-Feingold? Who among the Republicans will be the check on Trump’s wilder impulses, as McCain was on repealing the Affordable Care Act and opposing the cozying up of this White House to Putin’s Russia? There is some hope for Ben Sasse to serve that purpose. There is a sense that Mitt Romney could serve in that role, assuming he is elected to the Senate this Fall.
My honest assessment is that the real answer to these questions is no one, and that the GOP of McCain that we all imagine, it no longer exists. You can hope that a McSally, Romney, Sasse, or whoever else you want will be the savior, but you’ll probably be disappointed. We have seen would-be critics from Lindsey Graham to Marco Rubio, all the way over to Ted Cruz, all fold like cheap suits. We have seen Republicans with the spine to fight back, the Jeff Flakes and Bob Corkers of the world, end up falling in line when it’s time to vote, and choose to retire, rather than take Trump on. Even Rand Paul loves Russia now. Those who choose to fight Trump, like Mark Sanford, end up decimated in Trump’s wake. Maybe Mitt Romney will choose to fight Trump on a couple of issues, but it won’t be any real, constant resistance. As much as we have romanticized the McCain-Trump feud, it only existed on select political issues. It’s not as though McCain opposed Gorsuch, or voted against tax cuts.
There’s a reason George W. Bush is off painting pictures and John Boehner is driving on some highway singing “Zippidy Doo-Dah” for Labor Day– the Republican Party created a monster it’s old guard can’t control. From Ronald Reagan’s racist overtones of launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi to Dubbya running against gay marriage in 2004, the GOP stoked the flames of closet racism to win elections for a couple of generations and wondered how Trump happened. Paul Ryan’s talk of “makers and takers” and Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan beating on “welfare queens” created a sense of victimization in the GOP base. You can’t absolve the last couple of generations of Republican leaders for the current state of the party. With the rare exception of McCain, the rest of the GOP refused to tamp down the fires of birtherism during the first African-American Presidency.
I will grant the generation of McCain, the Bush Family, and the Doles that I think they were by and large above the real grotesque racism and bigotry that currently rules the GOP. I think Trump largely does disgust them. While I think they were complicit in creating the conditions for Trump, I agree that they couldn’t foresee this. Even so, the Trump movement is having no mercy on their brand of Republicanism. History will largely show them being overrun by it.
The reason that old-line conservatism is losing to Trumpism is because Trumpism is actually who their base always was. All the talk of “small government” and neoconservative war didn’t mean what they thought it meant to their base. The culture wars of God, gays, and guns wasn’t just a ploy to the Republican base. Men like Donald Trump knew that, while Mitt Romney did not. In the face of a more global, more diverse, more intellectual world, a huge chunk of America wanted someone like Donald Trump- someone who would oppose feminism, “the browning” of America, campus intellectuals, and an America that didn’t seem to value “their” way of life anymore. The motivating factor in conservative politics is stopping the liberal vision of America’s future. Nothing more, nothing less. If it takes giving rich people tax cuts to secure the funding for electoral victories that give them conservative judges and a White House that halts the changing world, the Republican base will take it. They will endure lies, corruption, and hypocrisy to defeat the liberal vision of America. Donald Trump promised them to reverse the Obama course in absolute, culture driven terms, and he didn’t dog-whistle about it. That’s why he owns the GOP now.
So as I said above, there is no new McCain coming, to the extent there ever was one. The “Republican Establishment” is dead, to the extent it ever existed, and it stands no chance against the blue-collar, white politics of Trumpism. What will become of them? At best, not much. At worst, ruin. One can hope the GOP’s future is the “younger” Republican libertarian ideals, which at least give lip service to a less bigoted party. I’m not betting the house on that right now.