Republicans want to believe that Donald Trump is an aberration. Notables like Mitt Romney are "supporting" the much-hated Ted Cruz instead. But it's cynical, as they don't expect — or want — Cruz to win; they do hope he can win enough votes to force a brokered convention. These so-called establishment Republicans see this scenario as their last hope of maintaining the party they have known for the past half-century.
But the fact is, the GOP isn't a political party — not any longer. James Madison, I believe, would agree that the GOP has transformed itself into a "faction" masquerading as a party. Trump isn't an aberration; he is a champion of faction, which is the secret of his success.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison defines the term: "By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Madison also accepted that factions were inevitable: "The causes of faction are sown in the nature of man, and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society."
The trick was, Madison argued, to force factions to seek consensus and compromise as the cost of pursuing their collective and individual interests. The country, he thought, could accomplish this through the creation of large and diverse republics, otherwise known as states.
Trump and today's GOP faction are clinging to just the opposite modus operandi. They regard consensus to be unnecessary, evidence of unprincipled conduct. (So, too, does Trump.) Worse yet, compromise is viewed as proof of immorality. (Vintage Trump.)
Fearmongering has been the common denominator that knits all this together. Whether in 1949 ("Who Lost China?"), or in the early 1950s (McCarthyism), or beginning in 1968 with Nixon's Southern Strategy, or the Patriot Act, or the invasion of Iraq — it's all been fearmongering. (Pure Trump.)
And it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It took Trump and Cruz only a few days after last week's Brussels attacks to begin their fearmongering: The president should reintroduce torture and assign more police patrols to "Muslim neighborhoods."
The GOP as faction has been sustained, in part, by gerrymandering and voter suppression, but also by the "big smear" — a tactic that Karl Rove turned into a dark art form. Recall the case of Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat who, despite eight years under constant attack, left office with an approval rating above 60 percent, a budget surplus and no war. (That took some political skill.) From almost his first day in office, he was engulfed by a flood of big-smear demagoguery — Whitewater, "Who Killed Vince Foster?" and Travelgate. Not a single Republican had the courage to come to his defense. No, factions don't tolerate breaking ranks.
As noted, Madison assumed that a federal system would automatically produce the necessary diversity, but it didn't and it hasn't. V.O. Key wrote about this in his 1949 classic, Southern Politics in State and Nation, arguing that whatever their differences, the South continued to be bound by what he termed "Black Belt Politics."
Turns out that some things haven't changed much, like injecting race into politics. Let's go back to Ronald Reagan, who launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Or recall George H. W. Bush's "Willie Horton" smear of Michael Dukakis that came out of nowhere in 1988.
Ancient history? OK, let's jump ahead to 2008. I refer to Barack Obama and disingenuous charges that he is really a Kenyan and a Muslim. As recently as 2012, 43 percent of all Republicans still believed that Obama was a Muslim. Nor does the birther story go away, as Trump sent "investigators" to Hawaii just last year. At the Iowa caucuses, 59 percent of Republican participants expressed doubts about Obama's birthplace.
Factionalism in the GOP Senate today is alive, but not doing all that well. I give you Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his refusal to even shake hands with, let alone hold hearings on, the president's excellent Supreme Court nominee. McConnell's actions are at best obnoxious, and at worst seditious. Where does it say in the Constitution that the president's term is three years?
McConnell is no outlier; he is carrying out his faction's baseline rules — no matter the importance of the political question at hand, there will be no consensus and no compromise. It's like Madison said: a "passion... adverse to the rights of other citizens."
The longtime comic-strip character Pogo might observe that in coming face to face with the specter of Trump as their standard-bearer, the Republican faction has finally "met the enemy, and he is us." ♦