It would be easy to simply blame the president for the party’s disarray. Donald Trump’s aversion to policy detail, his chaotic management style and his combustible personality have all contributed to the party’s failures this year.
Yet it would also be a mistake to pin the party’s problems on Mr. Trump alone. He is not their root cause. Instead, he is an avatar of the party’s pathologies, the culmination of its cynical and shambolic trajectory over the last two decades.
Many of those issues can be traced back to the administration of George W. Bush, which functioned as an enormous political bait and switch. The 43rd president campaigned on humble foreign policy and prudent conservative solutions, but his presidency quickly became oriented almost exclusively around a political defense of the Iraq war.
This meant that domestic policy, and the realm of domestic policy expertise, became an afterthought at best, an opportunity for cynical political maneuvering at worst.
But Mr. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 popularity instilled the administration with an arrogance that extended far beyond the war itself. The president’s inner circle became convinced that the Republican Party was destined for years of unbroken political domination; the ambition-spoiling concerns of the “reality-based community” no longer needed to be taken into account.
National security fear-mongering and culture war controversies, especially over same-sex marriage, were employed to rally the base and ensure its loyalty, even as dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush’s governance continued to grow.
The Bush presidency, then, was both a failure and a fraud. Instead of foreign policy restraint and modest conservative governance, the Bush administration delivered a pair of endless deficit-financed wars, cynical posturing over social issues, soaring federal spending and, eventually, a large-scale emergency intervention in the economy.
Arguably as important as the particular failures themselves, however, was the way the party infrastructure — its leaders and functionaries, its activists and operators — formed a partisan phalanx around the president, playing down his flaws, if not refusing to acknowledge them.
There is always some space between a party’s voters and its leaders, some difference between what the average supporter wants and what the elected representatives are willing to do. But by excusing Mr. Bush’s errors, Republicans radically expanded the trust deficit, creating a yawning gap between the party’s base and its elites, one that has persisted, and grown, in the years since.
In many ways, the party’s hangups stem from its unwillingness to fully reckon with the Bush legacy.
Mr. Bush left many voters on the right angry, resentful and suspicious — of war, of policy, of ideology, of the very idea of political solutions and leadership.
The focal point for much of the post-Bush right’s anger and resentment was the Tea Party, a decentralized movement that variously mixed genuine desire for limited government with white resentment and flare-ups of outright paranoia. It attracted hucksters and manipulators, in the media and in the activist sphere, and embraced a cast of unconventional and unqualified candidates.
Peter Suderman, “The Republican Party Is a Mess”, The New York Times (14 October 2017), A19.