WASHINGTON — President Trump’s sudden pivot to cooperation with congressional leaders to advance hurricane relief and raise the federal debt limit signals a potential disintegration of the Republican Party, as two conservative factions intensify their opposition to its diminishing moderate wing.
Both the House Freedom Caucus, which stands firm against federal expansionism, and Stephen Bannon’sBreitbart News, the ultranationlist and populist website now flexing its muscles, are making rebellious noises. They are aimed not only at Trump but also at House Speaker Paul Ryan as keeper of the GOP establishment flame.
Trump’s decision to start doing business with Capitol Hill Democrats underscored his focus on personal political success over party principles and philosophy. His long losing streak in legislative objectives, from the failure to repeal Obamacare to the failure to finance construction of a wall on the Mexican border, has moved him to unaccustomed bipartisanship.
Ryan so far has seemed to turn the other cheek, saying of Trump’s new willingness to play ball with the equally frustrated congressional Democrats that “the president can speak for himself.” Ryan suggested that Trump, judging the sour public mood, had decided “we needed to come together, not to create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis.”
But coming together does not appear to reflect the desires of either the House Freedom Caucus or Bannon’s re-emerging monkey wrench on the political spectrum’s far right. At least for now, the most vocal Trump voting base seems more willing to fight than to switch.
This internal Republican conflict has begun to fan speculation of yet another of the GOP resurrections that over party history have briefly flared up over the past century and a half. In the 1860s, Republican congressional foes bucked President Andrew Johnson’s post-Civil War reconstruction plans as too accommodating toward the defeated Southern states. The Senate failed to impeach him by a single vote, and he finished his term but yielded the presidency in the 1868 to General U.S. Grant, easily nominated by the Republicans.
In 1912, another GOP breach occurred when former President Theodore Roosevelt broke with his anointed successor President William Howard Taft and started the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. But both lost in the Republican split to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
In 1992, Texas businessman tycoon Ross Perot formed the independent Reform Party and won 19 percent of the vote but ran third after Democratic winner Bill Clinton and Republican George H.W. Bush.
Also in 1992, former Richard Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan ran against Bush for the Republican nomination but lost after winning 3 million votes in the party primaries. Four years later Buchanan ran again on the Reform Party ticket and won the New Hampshire primary, but lost the GOP nomination to Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
In 2016, Trump as a former nominal Democrat took on a large field of hopeful Republicans against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was led by early frontrunner former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of the Republican family dynasty.
Trump, in a slashing and brutal personal campaign against the youngest son and brother of the two Bush presidents, humiliated him as “a low-energy candidate” and routed him with the rest of the Republican field en route to his 2016 election over Clinton. Her own campaign was marred by a Democratic split wherein affirmed party socialist candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders drew heavy liberal support.
Clinton won the presidential popular vote by about 3 million ballots but lost to Trump in the Electoral College. He later blamed that defeat on voter fraud, an allegation widely repudiated by state elections officials.
Trump entered the presidency on the strength of his personal appeal to voters frustrated by partisan Washington divisions and vowing to “drain the swamp” of them. But his failure to do so has now led him to make least temporary accommodation with the congressional Democratic minority, to break the long legislative deadlock.
At stake may now be not only the Trump agenda and presidency but also the future of the Grand Old Party, born out of civil war and sustained until now despite frequent internal ideological skirmishes, like the one now emerging.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.