For decades, Republican Party leaders have given lip service to social issues such as abortion and marriage. This inaction has allowed a militant, secular left to overrun the nation’s main centers of power. Unchallenged liberal court rulings, in particular, have remade America into what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has called “a country I do not recognize.” Should evangelicals and conservative Catholics finally throw up their hands, after years of being herded into the back of the GOP bus and ignored, and bolt, the Republican Party will not survive.
Right before Christmas 2015, a profoundly important political event took place that mostly was lost amidst the holiday celebrations. Franklin Graham, the son of the Reverend Billy Graham and one of America’s most beloved evangelists, announced he was leaving the Republican Party. That this news was largely unreported was less because of media bias than the timing and manner of the announcement. Graham shared this decision with the public on December 21, in a humble Facebook post.
The last straw for Graham was the Republican Party’s betrayal on the issue of abortion. Republican leaders spirited through Congress, right before the holiday recess, an omnibus new spending bill that preserved federal funding for abortion-providing Planned Parenthood — despite recent, videotaped revelations about the group’s ghastly practices. “This is an example of why I have resigned from the Republican Party and declared myself Independent,” Graham explained. He stated his intention to host a series of faith-based rallies in state capitals around the country to try to reverse the nation’s cultural slide.
Even with many competing holiday distractions, conservative news outlets and pundits soon recognized the gravity of this development. Fox News and others speculated about whether the open break between Graham and the Republican Party would lead to an “exodus” of other, similarly disillusioned evangelicals from the GOP. Conservative stalwarts such as Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, were sympathetic. They noted Graham’s walkout was a powerful rebuke to GOP leaders because it came from a spiritual and moral leader rather than a mere politician.
Graham’s pronouncement capped off a year in which grassroots conservatives openly rebelled en masse against GOP leaders, rallying in overwhelming numbers to Republican presidential candidates who pledged to stand up to the party establishment. The ideological betrayals cited by Graham already had driven millions of conservatives away from the Republican Party and into the growing ranks of independents. A plurality of American voters now describe themselves as independents, outnumbering Republicans and Democrats alike.
For many election cycles, deep and intractable divisions had become apparent between Republican leaders, whose campaigns are funded disproportionately by socially liberal establishment tycoons, and rank-and-file conservative voters, who expected action in exchange for their votes and grassroots fealty. During these seasons, a dynamic took hold. Republican politicians systematically made conservative pledges to gain election, then cynically broken these campaign promises as soon as they were sworn into office. Republican politicians’ biannual flip-flops on illegal immigration have been particularly captivating. Their attempts to juggle promises to secure the border, yet please their open-border benefactors, have produced a genuine art form of dissembling. Likewise, social conservatives have been given short shrift because the wealthy donors bankrolling Republican winners overwhelmingly oppose government policies that reflect these values.
For years, Republican voters grumbled but accepted this deceit. Given this acquiescence, their leaders could be forgiven for believing such exploitation could go on forever. But 2015 turned out to be the breaking point. Election-year promises in 2014 to block ObamaCare and liberal immigration policies were, as usual, jettisoned by the establishment after the votes were cast. This time, conservative talk-show hosts and activists erupted. They bitterly condemned the latest betrayal and called upon House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to resign.
After Boehner’s halfhearted effort to roll back President Barack Obama’s immigration policies led to what The Atlantic called “a complete, and ignominious, capitulation,” these grassroots forces boiled over and forced his resignation. By year’s end, it became clear his successor, Paul Ryan, was just as beholden to the GOP establishment. Speaker Ryan pushed through a massive spending bill of almost $2 trillion which underwrote continued illegal immigration and Planned Parenthood subsidies, prompting more anger and talk of a Republican primary challenge for Ryan in 2016.
Republican congressional leaders clearly believed they would lose, from a public-relations standpoint, any confrontation with President Obama that ended in a government shutdown. They feared they would be slammed by the liberal media and blamed in these battles. This assumption may well have been right: Media elites have become the liberal Stormtroopers of the day, enforcing liberal dogma and reacting harshly to such provocations. Conservatives sense, however, that such excuses neuter the Republican Party, rendering it a hostage of the liberal media instead of an agent of change. After all, for people motivated by principle, what good is a political party unwilling to keep its promises and fight for anything other than keeping power?
The 2015 grassroots epiphany revealed the Republican Party as an organization whose leaders are beholden to wealthy benefactors at odds with the main principles of the party and its Main Street members. That has produced a clash of visions that is tearing the party apart. David Frum has brilliantly analyzed the class split in the GOP, posing the question of whether the Republican Party can any longer “reconcile the demands of its donors with the interests of its rank and file.” To date, the reaction of many of those donors to the prospect of, for example, a Donald Trump nomination suggests that for the establishment, the answer is in the negative, as they talk candidly of supporting Hillary Clinton instead.
For his part, Trump is the greatest beneficiary of these fissures. Even if he should lose the GOP nomination, his threat to run as an independent is real; polling so far shows he would have a fighting chance in a three-way race. Trump tends to attract secular-minded voters concerned about the erosion of jobs through trade deals and immigration (the same voters to whom Pat Buchanan astutely and presciently appealed two decades ago).
Yet, the Trump phenomenon is only part of the challenge to the GOP establishment. Franklin Graham’s defection reveals that faith-based concerns may shear off another chunk of the party.
For decades, party leaders have given lip service to social issues such as abortion and marriage. This inaction has allowed a militant, secular left to overrun the nation’s main centers of power. Unchallenged liberal court rulings, in particular, have remade America into what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has called “a country I do not recognize.” Should evangelicals and conservative Catholics finally throw up their hands, after years of being herded into the back of the GOP bus and ignored, and bolt, the Republican Party will not survive.
Next Week: Part II: A Post-GOP Future?
Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and the The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas ran for governor of Arizona in 2014, receiving endorsements from many conservative leaders. He is a fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.