It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator Sanford alluded to. If it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.
“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
With Election Day just a few months away, I was genuinely surprised, in the course of recent conversations with a great many Republicans, at their inability to articulate a purpose, a designation, a raison d’être for their party. Everyone understands that Trump is a big-picture sloganeer—“Build the wall!” “Make America Great Again!”— rather than a policy aficionado. Even so, it’s astonishing how conceptually lifeless the party has become on his watch. There is no blueprint to fix what is understood to be a broken immigration system. There is no grand design to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. There is no creative thinking about a conservative, market-based solution to climate change. There is no meaningful effort to address the cost of housing or childcare or college tuition. None of the erstwhile bold ideas proposed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan—term limits, a balanced budget amendment, reforms to Social Security and Medicare, anti-poverty programs—have survived as serious proposals. Heck, even after a decade spent trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans still have no plan to replace it. (Trust me: If they did, you’d hear about it.)