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Could Donald take down the entire Republican Party?

BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.

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Depending upon your viewpoint, the 2016 Republican National Convention was either the successful rebirth of conservative American populism or the self-destruction of the legacy of more than 150 years of responsible rationalism. In either case, the Party’s transformation will have an impact on every citizen, regardless of the outcome of this Presidential election. For the
most part, this impact isn’t a good thing for America.

For Democrats, the catastrophically problematic candidacy of Donald Trump is simultaneously appalling and exhilarating. It is appalling for obvious reasons: Trump’s platform is frightening to the diverse constituency that is America. Condescension to Hispanics, Muslims, women and even war heroes, represents the worst tradition of xenophobia and elitism. Yet, it is exhilarating for them because Trump has made what might have been a difficult electoral choice into an easy algorithm. How hard can it be for Clinton to campaign against a bigot? Certainly her campaign staff would rather run against Trump than a candidate from the traditional Republican line-up. This is especially the case because Trump appears to lack a critical prerequisite for the job of President: empathy.

Jimmy Carter’s election ushered in an era in which the American President had to feel personal simpatico with the hardships faced by average citizens. Granted that it was all an act, but Presidents ever since have had to acknowledge at least a symbolic measure of suchunderstanding. We saw this when Carter carried a prop suitcase off his private jet (as if he were just like all of us). Similarly, Bill Clinton pretended that he “felt our pain”, while George H.W. Bush offered himself as a “kindler, gentler” leader. George W. Bush tried to endear himself as a “compassionate conservative”, and Obama assuaged our insecurities as if he embodied America’s hope and dreams. Perhaps all of this was clever marketing, but what moniker can we ascribe to Trump?

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Standing on the podium in Cleveland, Trump looked like a reincarnated Mussolini when he decried, “I alone can fix it”. His lack of empathy for anyone and anything in his path was disquieting. The “lock her up” cries from the crowd sounded more like a witch trial than a presidential convention. How can any legitimate political party recover from this incendiary rhetoric? One might even feel a touch of sympathy for the generally unsympathetic Ted Cruz as he was booed off the stage for merely suggesting that people should vote their conscience. The radicalization and self immolation of the Party could not have been more clear than at that moment.

The defenestration of the Republican Old Guard in Cleveland was palpable. Missing from the convention were not only the familiar faces of the Republican Party of the past (Bush, Romney and McCain) but also legions of backroom backslappers and campaign contributors who provide the sustenance to keep the party humming. Absent these midshipmen, the Republican Party is being left to flounder. Trump will not only drag himself down in November (presuming he loses), he’ll likely drag down the Senate Republican majority and masses of state and local Republican candidates. The juggernaut won’t likely end there. The party itself will have to struggle to shed itself of identification with his infamy. We can only speculate whether the damage he has wrought will be a mortal blow.

While it is unlikely that the entire Republican Party will be going out of business anytime soon, a severely wounded party will have a hard time mustering an electoral upset in 2020 under the weight of the notoriety of 2016. And this is the most dangerous problem for America. Almost since our inception as a nation, the United States has succeeded as a direct byproduct of the two-party dialectic. This competitive system is what distinguishes us from the failed one-party countries of the world (China, Cuba, USSR, North Korea, etc.). Sure, those parties are despotic totalitarian states, but even Mexico’s one party rule under the PRI long hindered them from economic success. Just as our capitalist system prohibits corporate monopolies because of the damage they would certainly do to the free market, so too should we desire to avoid a political party monopoly.

129 years ago, Lord Acton, a member of the British Parliament famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Acton’s words were a critique of the principle of papal infallibility. We might contort his semantics slightly to the present by arguing “bipartisan political power tends to corrupt, but absolute single party power will corrupt absolutely.” The seeds of such corruption could spring from the damage done by the Trump campaign. No one, not even the most diehard Democrat, should feel exhilarated by that prospect.

-Jeffrey Oppenheim, M.D. is a neurosurgeon and former Mayor of Montebello, New York

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