By Devin Lee, NYU Florence Student
Like most angsty college students, nothing makes me feel more alive than watching accredited intellectuals bash political parties that my grandparents belong to and confirm that every policy I had already decided was terrible is, indeed, terrible. It is that spirit which has rallied so many Millennials against conservatism, painting the Republican Party as the force of all evil, and Donald Trump as its sociopath-in-chief. And I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t have that in mind when I planned to attend a panel on the future of American politics this last week at NYU Florence. The discussion, hosted by La Pietra Dialogues, was set to include panelists from both sides of America’s political spectrum, including a couple of prominent Republican strategists, who I expected to defend Donald Trump and the party he heads against all complaints and concerns from young people like myself, who filled the room at Villa Sassetti on Friday.
That vision quickly crumbled, though, when I heard Todd Harris and Ron Christie, the panel’s Republicans, describe a GOP that was intensely powerful, but unquestionably fragmented, in both principle and leadership. Most surprising of all, both made it clear that even though Donald Trump is currently considered the face of the Republican Party, he is a long way from being its leader.
Todd Harris elaborated by noting that the 2016 Republican primary was an anomaly in conservative politics, one in which over a dozen candidates ran for president, with not one, but several, who would normally be considered “ideal” for taking back the White House. As a result, the conservative vote was split among the most qualified contenders, leaving Trump’s small plurality (and hands) with a clear path to the nomination.
Ron Christie specifically emphasized that “true” Republicans were not Trump supporters, but simply citizens who believe firmly in the political principles of personal responsibility, small government, and strong defence. That being said, however, the phenomenon of Trumpism and the voters it swayed to the party have forced the GOP’s leadership into a precarious position. Trump became the face of a party whose leaders do not support him, but who still rely on the support he drew in order to keep their jobs, and that often leads them to stay silent when Trump resorts to his most xenophobic, racist, and sexist rhetoric, even if they vehemently oppose it in private.
Like most people whose lives have been too short to be fully dedicated to anything, I am often deeply offended by the fact that Republican politicians are not willing to risk their entire life’s work for the sake of making me hate them less (though never enough for me to actually vote for them). But as a student of politics, and as an occasionally rational human being, Todd Harris and Ron Christie made me understand the most difficult questions that any elected official must ask themselves: What do you do when you disagree with the people you’re supposed to represent? What are you willing to risk by speaking up for what you really believe in? And if you lose your job as a result, will someone worse replace you?
At the end of the panel, I raised my hand and asked both panelists how they believed the Republican Party could remain competitive among conservative voters, without falling down the rabbit hole of xenophobia and racism and sexism created by the Trump phenomenon. They were honest, admitting that they don’t really know how the GOP is going to pull it off. But they know that they still believe in the Republican Party. And they aren’t going to give up on it now.