As the post-2020 Republican party sorts through the wreckage of a failed election and surpassingly shocking aftermath, it is becoming ever clearer that the GOP is actively dividing into two increasingly distinct – and irreconcilable – factions. And in breaking his long silence this week, the 43rd president of the United States likely made the battle lines more distinct, and the problem worse.
It was incredible, really. The beaming co-host of NBC’s signature Today Show, Hoda Kotb, welcomed Bush 43 into her little corner of the elite media world as if she were reuniting with a long-lost friend. This is the same man savaged by her industry for eight long years. And yet the former president himself responded as if it were old home week. This, after Bush’s conspicuous appearance alongside his Democratic Party predecessor and successor, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, in a widely circulated TV spot urging people to get vaccinated.
Why is Bush, who has made a habit of refusing to defend himself or criticize his successors, re-entering the public stage at this time? And why does the same Fourth Estate that assaulted this president with guns blazing now apparently view this former president in a whole different light? The answer comes in a single name: Donald J. Trump.
The 43rd president did not mention he who must not be named in the Bush household after the 45th president laid waste to him, his brother, and their neoconservative worldview during the 2016 presidential campaign, but it was hardly necessary. His message was clear, as was his apparent mission: to rescue the GOP from the hands of Donald Trump.
How else are we to interpret Bush’s stark description of the Republican Party today: “isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist.” Those are political fighting words.
Indeed, the schism between Trumpists and Bushies is real and growing. The Never-Trumpers who haunted Trump throughout his unique presidency were largely the remnant of the Bush 43 era, longing for days gone by and another president wedded to traditional GOP politics and the neoconservative worldview established by the Bush wing. That was, until Trump came along, most all of the Republican party.
But Trump stormed the gates of D.C., as the old saying goes, not to comfort the afflicted so much as to afflict the comfortable – including but hardly limited to GOP establishment operatives settled into a cushy and permanent beltway existence. Fixtures of the conservative establishment, from George Will to Bill Kristol and well beyond, became apoplectic that Trump proposed, and then was able to achieve, what they had only pontificated and dreamed about for years. And so, they went after the bombastic billionaire with everything they had. And in the process, they served as useful pawns – or idiots – for the Democratic Party.
Never-Trumpism was an internal oppositional movement against a president who had shaken Washington insiders from their pedestals by design. But what we have now is far more dangerous to the future of the conservative movement: an open battle for the heart of the GOP between two dispossessed forces, each seen as disgraced and held in contempt by the other side. And both camps are sensing the peril and opportunity of the here and now, realizing that time is slipping away to establish a firm foothold in the party hierarchy and command the debate over the coming months and years.
It seemed far-fetched to envision George W. Bush – out of the shadows of a presidency which ended in a rock-bottom level of approval – emerging at this time after years of silence to add fuel to a burning fire. Perhaps he is beckoning revisionist historians to take a fresh look at a presidency, which, he must believe, won’t look so bad in their eyes after they were forced to endure Donald Trump. Or perhaps he somehow believes he can serve as a lynchpin for bringing the party back to what he believes is its senses.
Rest assured there will be a stark contrast between the agendas and utterances of those who were all in for Trump over these last years and those seeking a return to the days when the GOP was, as the careerists see it, not isolationist but globalist, not protectionist but free trading, and not nativist but internationalist. There will be name-calling, recriminations, and a battle for the veritable soul of the party.
Trumpists may lose this battle, but not for a lack of grassroots support. Bushies may figure a way to carry the day by replacing the public’s unpleasant memories of the Bush years with Vietnam-style flashbacks of January 6. However, the swampists carry a heavy burden – a worldview which all but destroyed the Bush presidency and was central to the failed campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Indeed, with passion still high for Trump the president if not Trump the man, a mere tactical triumph by the residual forces of George W. Bush and the entrenched establishment would lead to a party-wide conflagration. Such a pitched battle between old-time conservatives and populists/nationalists would create irreparable harm and undoubtedly be too great for the party to bear if it hopes to remain competitive. In the end, a purge of the Trump era by Swamp dwellers would amount to little more than a pyrrhic victory at the cost of the very future of the Republican Party.
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