A window into GOP’s struggle

Thanks to Donald Trump, the Republican Party may be about to embark on a crusade to end “birthright citizenship,” under which every person born on U.S. soil is granted U.S. citizenship. And it’s driving moderate Republicans to despair.

“It’s a terrible idea. It’s a politically insane idea. It can’t be done. It’s impossible to achieve,” Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former official in the George W. Bush White House, said this week. “So what’s the point? It’s symbolism and it’s exactly the wrong kind of symbolism. If Republicans want to make this their symbol … they’ll pay a high price for it.”

He’s right, of course. Given the clear wording of the 14th Amendment, there is no feasible means by which birthright citizenship can be overturned. And while GOP leaders talk almost endlessly about reaching out to Hispanic voters, any assault on birthright citizenship will ensure that such outreach is doomed. So why is the GOP seemingly so intent on doing damage to itself?

But there’s another way to look at it: What if the crusade’s futility is actually part of its attraction? What if the political price to be paid isn’t beside the point, but IS the point?

We’ve seen a similar dynamic play out for years now. Whenever it looks as though compromise with the mainstream might be possible, the conservative instinct is not to reach out and meet it halfway. The instinct is to withdraw still further, to retreat from possible agreement and thus preserve the distance that defines it from the mainstream.

Thus, it’s no longer enough to merely oppose abortion. Now it must be outlawed even in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. That new policy represents a taunt of sorts to the mainstream, as if to say “Ha! Compromise with that!!” By taking that position, the line separating conservatism from the mainstream becomes even more stark.

Such extreme positions also serve to test loyalty. How to identify the fellow true believer from the moderate? By constantly raising the price of membership and seeing who will pay it. “This is the new boundary, the line that divides ‘us’ from ‘them’. Who will join us on this side of the line, and who will refuse?”

What matters to conservatives is not the specific policy or position that is being rejected. What matters is the act of rejection itself. It is through rejection of the mainstream by conservatives, and the rejection of conservatives by the mainstream, that today’s conservatism defines and protects itself.

“The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” GOP leaders argued in an autopsy of their 2012 loss to Barack Obama. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

What if a significant portion of the Republican Party does not see that description as a problem for the party, but as a statement of the party’s purpose? What if they want it to be a haven that provides ideological reinforcement for like-minded people, and are willing to pay the price to keep it that way?

Wouldn’t you get what we seem to be getting?

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