The Blind Men and the (GOP) Elephant

You’ve all heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant, yes?  A group of blind men who have never before encountered an elephant each feel a different part of the pachyderm — trunk, leg, side, tusk — and wind up in a fight over the nature of the beast.

The elephant is coincidentally symbolic of the Republican Party, and for today’s discussion the part of the blind men will be played by Peggy Noonan.

Mind you, Noonan isn’t blind; far from it, as we’ll see.  But her descriptions of the GOP over time help illustrate how all of us have problems thinking about the whole elephant.

Last week, in criticizing both major parties, Noonan wrote:

Both parties go forward as if they are operating in a pre-2016 reality. But the election, now almost a year ago, should have changed so many assumptions. For instance, when the Republican nominee promised not to cut entitlements, his crowds—Republicans, Democrats and independents—cheered.”

She is right about the assumptions, though the lack of appetite for entitlement reform has been apparent in polls for years, not to mention the failure of Pres. George W. Bush’s 2005 proposal to reform Social Security, which never gained traction with either the public or a a GOP-controlled Congress.

The lesson Noonan draws, however, is that the GOP needs to work with Dems on healthcare reform, and that Dems need to work with the GOP on tax reform.

It was not always this way.

In September 2010, as the contours of a midterm wave for the GOP were becoming apparent, Noonan wrote “Why It’s Time For the Tea Party.”  She provided her explanation of the movement:

I see two central reasons for the Tea Party’s rise. The first is the yardstick, and the second is the clock. First, the yardstick. Imagine that over at the at the 36-inch end you’ve got pure liberal thinking—more and larger government programs, a bigger government that costs more in the many ways that cost can be calculated. Over at the other end you’ve got conservative thinking—a government that is growing smaller and less demanding and is less expensive. You assume that when the two major parties are negotiating bills in Washington, they sort of lay down the yardstick and begin negotiations at the 18-inch line. Each party pulls in the direction it wants, and the dominant party moves the government a few inches in their direction.

But if you look at the past half century or so you have to think: How come even when Republicans are in charge, even when they’re dominant, government has always gotten larger and more expensive? It’s always grown! It’s as if something inexorable in our political reality, with those who think in liberal terms dominating the establishment, the media, the academe, has always tilted the starting point in negotiations away from 18 inches, and always toward liberalism, toward the 36-inch point.


The second thing is the clock. Here is a great virtue of the Tea Party: They know what time it is. It’s getting late. If we don’t get the size and cost of government in line now, we won’t be able to. We’re teetering on the brink of some vast, dark new world—states and cities on the brink of bankruptcy, the federal government too. The issue isn’t “big spending” anymore. It’s ruinous spending that they fear will end America as we know it, as they promised it to their children.

So there’s a sense that dramatic action is needed, and a sense of profound urgency. Add drama to urgency and you get the victory of a Tea Party-backed candidate.”

All very solid, as far as it went. You really should take a moment to RTWT, because Noonan’s conclusion asked the important question of whether the establishment would work with the Tea Party.  We now know they mostly would not.  She also worried:

A movement like this can help a nation by helping to correct it, or it can descend into a corrosive populism that celebrates unknowingness as authenticity, that confuses showiness with seriousness and vulgarity with true conviction. Parts could become swept by a desire just to tear down, to destroy.”

Of course, this largely happened with the “movement” once people saw a way to make quick bucks with Scam PACs from gullible but usually well-meaning people.

Yet as incisive as all of this was, in hindsight we can see the limits of the analysis.  The populist aspect of the Tea Party meant that the bit about the yardstick was not entirely accurate.  The “keep your government out of my Medicare” crowd was a part of the Tea Party before it cheered Trump swearing off entitlement reform.

Conversely, today’s Trumpian populists ostensibly loathe the GOP leaders in Congress… but mostly for cutting “bad deals” made necessary by the Tea Party/Freedom caucus purity.  But if the GOP had gone the purity route, many of the same people would be outraged at GOP leaders for disturbing their entitlements, their health insurance arrangements, etc.

It turns out that the apocalyptic element of the Tea Party “clock” (unfortunately) was less about our fiscal irresponsibility than the romance of apocalyptic politics.  It turns out that bizarrely comparing an election to Flight 93 satisfies the same impulse.

So when Noonan now argues for a moment of bipartisanship, we should also recognize that what fuels Trump’s hardest-core supporters is the desire to anger the Left, including Democrats and the media.  For example, the same polls that show most GOPers willing to let Trump broker a deal with Dems on immigration suggest that the ones who oppose a deal are in that core (which probably partially explains Trump playing to that crowd by attacking player protests at NFL games).

Such is the Trump elephant (and the GOP elephant, though we may also be discussing different species of elephants).  Today, we may be obsessed with the trunk, but the ears are still there, and the tail and the legs.  If one considers “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” you will find those populists getting the media attention today, but the staunch conservatives and free marketeers are still there in significant numbers.  Rather than fight over what the GOP is, we should strive to keep the whole elephant in mind, lest we become as blind as we were before the Trump era.

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