disruptions to the domestic and global political order come and go so fast it can be difficult to assess their significance. Which parts are real and which parts are cotton candy?
The evening before the House election in Ohio’s 12th District, the Republican candidate said: “This has gained so much national attention, and we didn’t want that. We were trying to keep the national media out of it.”
Come again? Everyone knows that on Saturday President Trump sweated through an Ohio rally for a state senator whose name probably half the people reading this can’t identify as Troy Balderson.
The national media tsunami that just washed over central Ohio depicts Mr. Balderson as another anonymous foot-soldier in the Trump party, formerly known as the GOP. It is no doubt true that Mr. Trump, with his insistently constant public presence, has disrupted the already weak standard model of America’s political parties as arbiters of candidates and ideas.
If so, we shouldn’t let Mr. Trump’s feud with Charles and
get flushed like so many others. It was a significant event.
In an interview,
said trade wars and prosperity were incompatible and that his organization’s financial support wouldn’t depend on party affiliation.
This prompted the Trump Twitter ICBM to launch on warning, because naturally Mr. Trump took Mr. Koch’s opinion as a personal insult and threat. Professional Republicans cracked back because the Koch network, considered conservative, made clear its support would transcend party affiliation, for example praising North Dakota’s Democratic
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
on financial deregulation.
This goes down hard in the trenches. Democrats like Sen. Heitkamp are marginalized outliers in a party wholly at odds with the Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. On the left, nothing like these Koch party-crossings is imaginable.
That said, the Koch feud is a portent of more fractures in the party system. Mr. Trump tried to dismiss the Kochs as “a total joke in real Republican circles.” One has to ask: What exactly are “real Republican circles”? Or for that matter, real Democratic circles?
The Trump camp has taken to insisting that Mr. Trump personally embodies both the Republican Party and conservatism. The only people largely forced to opt in to this choice are elected Republican politicians. But what about anyone else who self-identifies as a right-of-center voter?
There is no cult-of-personality tradition in U.S. politics. It was inevitable that someone as prominent as Charles Koch would detour off the Trump highway. The Kochs always made clear that Americans for Prosperity was primarily about promoting political ideas. Their GOP affiliation was an assumed freebie.
Rather than a one-off event or joke, the Kochs look more like a phenomenon emerging on the right and left, including MoveOn, Daily Kos, Breitbart, Black Lives Matter, Club for Growth and Netroots Nation.
Independent and ideological groups are increasingly setting norms for party-affiliated politicians, not the other way round. The parties look more and more like inert vessels or financing institutions.
At last weekend’s Netroots convention, prospective Democratic presidential candidates self-defined in terms of ideology rather than party affiliation. Citing the Netroots issues of race, sexual orientation and gender,
California Sen. Kamala Harris
said, “These are the very things that will define our identity as Americans.”
Asked Sunday if the label “socialism” was a liability for Democrats, the Daily Kos’s
said candidates have to either “embrace the label” or be irrelevant. But asked by a reporter Wednesday if he would self-identify as a socialist, Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous snapped, “Are you [obscenity] kidding me?”
The traditional parties provided stability and predictability, a comfort level. Their competitors—from Trumpism to Netroots—now offer instability and perhaps a period of chaos. Some would call this healthy democratic ferment. Others may doubt the health benefits.
If it is Donald Trump’s strategy to suck all the political oxygen out of the room and choke off his competitors, many voters will be driven elsewhere to get air. Amid major disruption, anything’s possible. It may be that Democrats are drifting left toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but it’s not beyond imagining that a
could emerge as a liberal opt-out version of Charles Koch.
One encounters conservative and even liberal voters who say they couldn’t get enough of politics in 2016, but now they’ve largely tuned out. They aren’t Never Trumpers. They’ve become Fair Weather Trumpers who like some of the policy results but can’t stand the daily hailstorms. Troy Balderson’s near-death experience after his formerly safe Ohio House race was “nationalized” suggests that nonvoting Fair Weather Trumpers are a bad omen for the Republicans.
Beyond a likely GOP loss of the House, what lies ahead isn’t clear. This is Donald Trump’s ultimate disruption: an American electorate in a state of constant agitation and flux. Some voters will tie themselves to the Trump mast and ride it out. But Charles and David Koch aren’t a joke. That feud was a warning shot.
Appeared in the August 9, 2018, print edition.