For centuries, the world’s oldest democracy has depended on a productive tension between two major parties. When the political pendulum in Washington swings from right to left and back again, the minority party knows that they will get another turn. Historically the ruling party likewise recognized that they would soon be in the minority, and this led to a government of restraint — one which prioritized stability and order over short-term policy victories. The two-party system enabled Americans across the political spectrum to trust that their representatives would act in good faith.
This balance has thus far prevented an autocratically-inclined leader from undermining our democratic institutions. Today, though, the Republican Party under U.S. President Donald Trump is approaching a populist point of no return beyond which the party, and the liberal democracy that depends on it, will be existentially threatened.
Though at times it feels as if the Republican capitulation to Trump is an endless torrent, voices of dissent from within the party’s leadership ranks are a trickle of hope for those who value measured, open and civil politics. In 2020, the ability of a Republican leader like Mitt Romney, John Kasich or Larry Hogan to defeat Trump in the primary campaign will reveal how much of the traditional Republican core remains intact. It is no exaggeration to say that our political system is riding on their success.
Some may remember a time when the Republican Party stood for fiscal responsibility, security through coalition-building, military prudence and defense of democracy around the world. The entity which we know by this name today should not be confused with the party of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, though it has skillfully convinced many of its loyal supporters that the values they once held dear are no longer worth defending.
To be sure, Trump is not the sole origin of every issue in American politics. His contribution was significant though. By speaking directly to (some of) the American people, he built a party of exclusion and turmoil. To Trump and his supporters, the “true” America isn’t found in coastal cities or well-to-do suburbs. Instead the “silent majority” are those in America’s heartland who work blue-collar jobs. To Trump, these are the citizens who truly matter. As for religious minorities, the LGBTQ community and people of color? Sorry, but you’re not part of the club.
One can’t help but look ahead to the party’s post-Trump prospects. Having passively allowed Trump to change the core principles of the party, Republicans have sold their integrity and, by extension, their hope of earning votes from those who are not part of Trump’s voter base in 2020 and beyond. Tying the identity of the party so closely to the leadership of such a man isn’t just ill-advised: It’s suicidal.
Luckily for all Americans, the Trump Takeover is not set in stone. If the 2016 election was the ramp onto our populist road, then 2020 is the last exit before the damage to our political system progresses beyond repair. The fate of our country doesn’t depend on whether a Democrat wins the Oval Office. Instead it depends on the ability of a Republican leader like Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), former Governor of Ohio John Kasich or Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to defeat Trump in a primary campaign.
Essentially, if Republican voters show widespread support for Trump (and by extension, the combative and exclusionary politics which he employs), then we’ll know that the critical norms of political patience and compromise are fatally damaged. Even if he is defeated in the general election, a Trump primary victory would show that his takeover of the Republican Party is complete. His legacy of democratic erosion would be fully cemented by a second nomination for the nation’s highest public office.
To challenge Trump and his followers is a monumental task. A potential Republican presidential challenger will have to show that they can address the concerns that made so many flock to support Trump in 2016 while also demonstrating that their needs are not contrary to those of other Americans. The Republican challenger will need to prove that what unites the American people isn’t religion or race, but that our national strength derives instead from our diversity and spirit of compromise.
We in Maryland have been fortunate to see first-hand what this brand of Republicanism can look like. Hogan, like Trump, was a politically inexperienced businessman when he was elected in 2014. His willingness to compromise with Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis is admirable. His durable popularity is a testament to his respect for all Marylanders. Hogan has toyed with the possibility of a 2020 presidential campaign, and should he choose to run, he would be uniquely qualified to take up the mantle of past leaders like Reagan and the Bushes. Other potential challengers like Romney and Kasich could play a similar role if Hogan chooses not to run.
That our democratic system has proven one of the world’s most stable is no accident, but the norms that have long laid the foundation of American government are straining under the weight of Trump’s populist appeal. The Republican Party is a vital piece of our democratic system, and its proverbial health bar is flashing red. To overcome the Trump challenge, our country will need a resounding rejection of what the party has become under the President — and that rejection must come from within the Republican Party itself.
Tim Shade is a sophomore majoring in International Studies. He is a member of the Hopkins Men’s Ultimate Team.