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Trump is destroying the Republican party. It's up to conservatives to stop him.

We used to have a party of ideas and principles, not one dedicated to a cult of personality. We can get back there again — if we make some hard choices.
Image: Donald Trump
President Trump at a July Fourth event on the South Lawn.Patrick Semansky / AP

The conservative movement used to be rooted in ideas; these days, it’s all about indoctrination into the party of Trump. Republicans need to wake up and realize that their party — the party of Lincoln, the party of free markets and the party of limited government — has been hijacked by a group of people who believe in none of those principles, and Republicans need to condemn what the party has become and leave the interlopers behind.

There are signs that this may finally be starting to happen.

The party has strayed far from its roots because of Trump, most pointedly with his abuses of government power; his recent authorization of military force to quell protests while condoning the use of violence against the American people should be shocking to any Republican who claims to stand for limits on government authority. But since he’s assumed the presidency, Trump has also: stirred up racial tensions in America; condoned and practiced sexist behavior; tried repeatedly to build a costly, enormous and failure-prone wall at our border; separated immigrant children from their families; abandoned and mistreated foreign allies; relied on nepotism within his administration; botched a response to a global pandemic; attempted to restrict and regulate private media companies that challenge him; supported discriminatory policies to prevent LGBT couples from adopting; and led a war on the free press.

His presidency hasn’t been a fight for conservative policies at all, unless one cares only about judicial nominees and a lone tax cut; it’s been about the repeated tyrannical use of government power. Nonetheless, many conservatives have put their former platform principles aside for Trump’s celebrity.

Trump cannot and will never be the standard-bearer of a Republican Party that has somethingmore to offer Americans than a cult of personality; others within the organization need to recognize the dangers to a robust party of allowing him to hold that role for much longer.

I don’t say this lightly, because I used to be a Republican: I voted and worked for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, voted and worked for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012 and even wrote in then-Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on my ballot for president in 2016 — in part because I became a public #NeverTrumper in June 2016. But I officially left the Republican Party in November 2016 by changing my political affiliation to independent; I felt I had to put my principles over politics, even if my party wouldn't.

Since then, Donald Trump has fueled a consistent narrative that you’re either for him and thus America or, if you're against him, you're against America, thereby painting those who criticize him and his policies as fundamentally unpatriotic. He uses rhetoric like this (and much, much worse) to divide our country rather than to unite it, and his shrinking base of fanatical supporters parrot what he says, falsely believing they are advancing conservative, Republican values. Little could be further from the truth: Repeating Trump’s falsehoods and ramblings doesn't help the Republican Party. It simply feeds Trump’s personal propaganda machine, and is meant to build up his brand at the expense of the party's.

And as the party allowed itself to be rebranded in Trump's image, it lost its moral compass and focused on fueling his base to turn them out for elections. The party and its leaders are now even allowing the president to traffic in racist rhetoric without condemning it; instead, they're making excuses for it or ignoring it, including when Trump retweeted (and later deleted) a video of an apparent supporter yelling “white power.” This type of speech is having damaging and dangerous effects, both for the country and for the party that is condoning it.

Polling from the Pew Research Center in mid-June shows that only 19 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning voters are satisfied with the way things are going in our country, a sharp decline from 55 percent in April — and after it had been above 50 percent for nearly all of Trump’s presidency. Trump's approval rating among self-identified Republicans in Gallup's June poll, however, rose to 91 percent, even as it dropped to an all-time low of 2 percent among Democrats and 33 percent among independents — possibly a reflection of voters turning away from Republicans in general. (It remains at 38 overall, slightly above his personal worst of 35 percent.)

The party's and Trump’s rapidly decreasing popularity comes in the wake of his handling of the pandemic and the lack of leadership during the George Floyd protests, and both are starting to have an effect on down-ticket Republican races. That should give these ardent Trump supporting candidates pause: Continuing to unconditionally support him will lead to their political demise.

It is high time for Republicans to stand up to those currently leading the party by leaving it and starting anew. Rebuilding would take time, but it’s imperative to rid the conservative movement of the rot of Trump and return to the days of a big tent party where all were welcome and embraced on the basis of our commitment to a shared set of ideas about how to run our democracy, not how best to worship one leader.

While Romney may be the lone Republican senator to defy Trump at all (since the retirement of Jeff Flake of Arizona and the death of McCain), many organizations like the Lincoln Project, Republican Voters Against Trump, 43 Alumni for Biden and Right Side PAC are forming. All have Republicans at the helm who are publicly supporting Biden in a grassroots effort to take down Trump at the ballot box in November. The focus of many of these groups are swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, which are full of suburban voters who voted for Trump in 2016.

While these groups are encouraging, Republican lawmakers still need to understand that they are going to hemorrhage support until they disavow the Trump takeover of their party. If they want people to remain “Republican” voters such as the ones who belong to these newly formed groups, they need to start rebuilding the party and reground it in the principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility and equality for all.

There can be no room for hatred or bigotry of any kind in our country, and our country’s leaders — and specifically our president — must be willing to stand up against it, not stoke it for perceived political advantage. But each new low to which this administration sinks proves that another four years will make America and its citizens weaker, not greater. This election is truly a battle to reclaim the soul of America — and it’s going to take former Republicans and even current Republican voters to do it.