On Thursday, President Donald Trump capped off the Republican National Convention with a keynote address laying out his vision for America. "The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, goes forward united, determined and ready to welcome millions of Democrats, independents and anyone who believes in the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people," Trump said from the White House South Lawn. "Over the next four years, we will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world," he said. "We will have strong borders ... strike down terrorists who threaten our people and keep America out of endless and costly foreign wars.
It won’t be long before this speech — and other moments from the convention — are chopped up for a new spate of anti-Trump campaign ads.
It won't be long before this speech — and other moments from the convention — are chopped up for a new spate of anti-Trump campaign ads. Doubtless many of those ads will come from a group of disaffected Republican operatives and establishment figures calling itself the Lincoln Project, one of several never-Trumper groups flooding social media and the airwaves. The group, which views Trump as immoral, corrupt and criminal, is a political action committee that has raised millions of dollars, including nearly $17 million in the second quarter of this year.
With impressive dexterity, it is running sharp-elbowed ads against the president — reflecting the founders' decades of campaign experience. Every time a new ad drops, the chattering class eagerly testifies to its brilliance.
But there's one big problem — exemplified both by never-Trumper leaders and by Trump's speech. The problem is that the Republican Party many of these operatives helped create no longer exists — it's Trump's party now. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has veered so far to the left that it offers no long-term home for anyone with a single slightly conservative thought in their head.
As Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and the tea party did in 2010, Trump's 2016 election recast and re-energized the Republican Party. The GOP now has a populist new direction that is responsive to voters — not the governing class.
While the Democratic National Convention featured Republican former governor and Trump defector John Kasich, the RNC presented speakers like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who reflected the new anti-interventionist sentiment that the GOP had adopted under Trump on Monday night. "President Trump knows we are strongest when we fight hardest, not in distant deserts, but for our fellow Americans," he said, a criticism more of the previous two Republican presidents — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — than of any Democrat. And Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who spoke of Trump's determination to tear down the Washington establishment on behalf of average people (also on Monday). "He's taken on the swamp, all of the swamp, the Democrats, the press and the never-Trumpers," Jordan said.
The Lincoln Project's founders are simply part of that bygone governing class. They include George Conway, the bomb-throwing husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway (he withdrew from the group Sunday but still supports its mission); Steve Schmidt, who ran the late Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign; and John Weaver, a strategist who has worked for Republicans stretching back to George H.W. Bush. All of them seem to have little idea where they are leading supporters. Their sole focus is on digging the political graves of Trump, his "enablers" and the movement Trump represents.
They are even working to defeat Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. She is hardly a fire-breathing Trump acolyte but nonetheless a "Trump stooge," according to the group.
The Lincoln Project's mission statement on its website says it is a "nationwide movement with a singular mission: To defeat Donald Trump and Trumpism," offering little about what it would replace them with.
There's a reason for this. According to Gallup, 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's performance as president. That's exactly where Gallup found Reagan's approval from his own party at this point in his presidency. That number could be one key reason that any Republican who hopes to have a future party leadership role — like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for example — has abandoned past opposition and mostly fallen into line.
Support from Trump in a GOP primary is usually a ticket to victory. Former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions found this out after he got on the wrong side of the president and lost his primary to regain his Senate seat from Alabama.
Though the moral repulsion of the Lincoln Project's founders toward Trump may well be genuine, the heart of their effort is typical establishment condescension toward average voters. They presuppose — as do many Democrats and Republican elites — that Trump supporters are mindless, hero-worshipping "deplorables," who have no idea in their Neanderthal skulls other than to bow down to a demagogue. Or worse, that Trump has allowed their inner Mephistopheleses to emerge.
"As Americans," the Lincoln Project's founders announced in their inaugural op-ed in December, "we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character." His "followers" would be 9 out of 10 Republicans, and plenty of independents, too.
These people would comprise a nation that, according to the Lincoln Project, doesn't really seem worthy of defending. "American men and women stand ready around the globe to defend us and our way of life," they write. "We must do right by them and ensure that the country for which they daily don their uniform deserves their protection and their sacrifice."
Among the group's advisers is veteran GOP operative Stuart Stevens. "You have good people letting evil happen," he said in a recent interview with Politico's Michael Grunwald. "For the most part, these Republicans aren't bad people. If you moved in next door, they'd be a great neighbor. But that was true of a lot of segregationists I knew growing up in Mississippi. ... And what is Germany but a story of people who faced a moral moment and failed?"
Those are awful things to say about so many Americans.
No doubt, a figure like Trump, who is compulsively watchable — whether because you can't avert your eyes from a train wreck or you think the locomotive is a thing of beauty — attracts some people with his personality alone. But even those drawn to his flame are eager to see him burn to ashes the policies and practices of the elite leadership in both parties who they believe have been shepherding the United States to Gomorrah — and likely to eventual disintegration.
Trump voters affirmatively chose him for a good many reasons: because they saw a nation losing its sovereignty to the agendas of Republican and Democratic internationalists; erasing manufacturing employment as unmitigated free trade and offshoring exported jobs overseas; getting enmeshed in too many foreign military adventures at once; allowing too much immigration, legal and illegal, for the culture to absorb; and moving too rapidly to abandon long-held norms about marriage, gender, religious freedom and free speech on campuses and elsewhere.
In 2016, addressing these issues wasn't the concern of the Republican conservative establishment and its chosen candidates on the presidential campaign trail. Trump supporters, then and now, aren't fooled into thinking he is a paragon of moral rectitude. They are convinced that his contrarianism, immunity to political correctness and, yes, actual beliefs can resist the changes they believe threaten to tear the country apart.
And they are — whether the Lincoln Project or any other Republicans-against-Trump group approves or not — the Republican Party in 2020.