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Rigid Partisans, Flexible Ideologues

As the past year has shown, ideology can be remarkably flexible in the service of party. Republican leaders are casting aside things their party has believed for generations in order to remain unified around their new president.
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President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena on December 9th, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena on December 9th, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It’s no secret that our partisanship affects how we view the world. Political science has hundreds of findings supporting this conclusion. But many of us had assumed some sort of ceiling for this effect, a limit on what our partisanship could ask us to do or believe. The events of the past year, and particularly the past few months, have served as a test of this theory, and, so far, we haven’t found the limit.

The evidence is being provided by Republican Party leaders in their reactions to Donald Trump’s pronouncements. Political observers early in the 2016 election cycle broadly understood that Trump was not on board with many longstanding Republican policy stances, from Social Security to trade to military deployments.

This isn’t entirely unheard of for prominent presidential candidates, of course. Generally, when there’s such a mismatch between a candidate and the party, one of two things will happen. Either the candidate will simply be eliminated from consideration (think John McCain in 2000 or Rand Paul), or the candidate will sufficiently and credibly adjust his views to accord with the party’s (think McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012).

Once in a rare while, a party will end up accommodating the non-traditional stances of a successful candidate. Republicans were willing to adjust somewhat to accept Dwight Eisenhower’s moderate views in the 1950s, and California’s famously conservative Republicans proved open-minded enough to embrace Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 2000s. Teddy Roosevelt also demanded some adjustment on the part of Republicans. But this is rare and generally not the way things happen today.

This is part of what makes the Republicans’ embrace of Trump so striking. But it’s also the nature of his policy disagreements. It would be one thing if he were simply more moderate than most Republican leaders on some issues, or if he cared about some issue that the party usually ignores. But Trump is pushing against core Republican principles, and many Republicans are adjusting to meet him.

Most recently, this has been apparent in Trump’s responses to reports by American intelligence agencies that Russia and WikiLeaks hacked Democratic National Committee servers and worked to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It is the opinion of the intelligence community that this comprised an attack on America’s election system by a hostile foreign power. It’s hard to find an issue more central to modern Republicanism than asserting sovereignty, particularly with respect to Russia, even in the post-Soviet era. With the exception of a few years when George W. Bush was seeking to improve relations with Russia early in his term, Republicans have basically always been the more hawkish party, and have been willing to tarnish any Democrat even speaking about working with Russia as not having America’s best interests at heart.

Trump has, of course, done far more to excuse and embrace Russia’s position and denigrate its American detractors than any major Democratic figure has in modern times. He has consistently called the findings of the American intelligence community into question, suggested he has other information that might exonerate Russia (which has hasn’t divulged, if it exists), and blamed the DNC for being hacked. And, lest we forget, he publicly invited Russia to hack the DNC during the campaign.

This would all be shocking enough if not for the responses of the normally hawkish Republicans, who instead of calling out Trump are actually embracing his positions. As Jonathan Chait reports, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin, who just a few years ago were declaring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to be a traitor or an enemy combatant, are now happily quoting Assange, apologizing to him, interviewing him, defending him, and praising him. Coulter has called for Assange to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Keep in mind that Assange’s behavior hasn’t changed; just his target has. He’s now working with Russia to hack American websites to help Republicans at the expense of Democrats, and, for these Republicans, that makes him a hero.

With few exceptions, Republican members of Congress and other party elites are standing by Trump and treating this as business as usual. The same people who would see Neville Chamberlain whenever Barack Obama bowed or Karl Marx whenever Michelle Obama encouraged a child to eat a vegetable are now standing by a leader who is openly siding with Russia against America’s intelligence agencies.

Another core tenet of modern Republicanism, of course, is free-market capitalism. The best economic system, the party maintains, is one in which businesses can operate with minimal regulation and thus produce wealth and innovation that benefit everyone. Trump’s approach has literally been the opposite of that. To use the tax code and other tools to selectively bully and punish companies that exhibit undesirable but legal behavior, such as building plants in other countries, is many things, but it’s not free-market capitalism. But many Republican leaders have nonetheless enthusiastically backed Trump’s approach.

One of the more remarkable and unique features of modern party polarization is how enmeshed it is with ideological polarization. We’ve had polarized parties before, but they’re usually not so ideologically distinct. Yet, as the events of the past year have shown, ideology can be remarkably flexible in the service of party. Republican leaders today are quickly casting aside things their party has believed for generations in order to remain unified around their new president.

I’ve used this example before, but I find it instructive. In 1912, Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson for the presidency. To take advantage of an unusual split in the electoral system (he was running against two Republican presidents: William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt), Wilson embraced a range of Progressive Era policy stances that were, in many cases, significant departures from longstanding Democratic ideas. But as a New Jersey politician of the time said:

A platform was hardly necessary for the candidate is a platform in himself. If anyone asks you what the Democratic platform is, just tell him, “Wilson.”

If anyone asks you what the Republican Party stands for today, just tell him, “Trump.” It’s hard to discern anything else.