A leader of a divided, confused party manages to pull off a narrow upset victory, sparing his party a painful but necessary rethink, but unable to hold the party together after victory. He spends his time afterwards hammering and being hammered by a small intra-party minority to his right until his agenda freezes in its tracks as the electorate turns away and the opposition crushes them all. Of course, I am referring to British Prime Minister John Major, but it could very well become Donald Trump’s narrative.
Trump may be all over the place on issues – in no small part by design – but when it comes to personal grudges, he never lets go. So when he put the House Freedom Caucus in the crosshairs – “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” (New York Times) – folks took notice, but perhaps not for the right reasons.
The last time a party leader tore apart some of his own with such fervor was when Major referred to three of his cabinet ministers as “bastards” (Telegraph) for opposing his pro-European-Union stance (although, in Major’s case, he intended it not to be public). It didn’t go well – not for Major, not for his party, and not for his country.
Major’s comments both revealed (to those outside the Conservative) and hardened (for those inside) divisions within the party on Europe. Major refused to back down from his pro-EU position, and in the process made his party nearly un-leadable. He even offered his head to his Parliamentary Party; they turned it down.
All the while, the voters waited to send Major’s party packing, which is exactly what happened in 1997 – the worst defeat for the Tories in over 150 years. It took another 13 for the Conservatives to return to power, during which time the Labour Party nearly spent the United Kingdom to the apparent brink of insolvency (in reality, as master of its own currency, the UK was never actually insolvent, but neither Major nor his Labour opponent-turned-successor Tony Blair wanted to keep the pound).
For the Republicans, the lesson is alarming – yet almost certain to be forgotten. Of course, Trump, unlike Major, doesn’t need a Congressional majority to stay in office. Unlike Labour, the Democrats have only begun their time in opposition.
That said, the GOP might look to Major’s tenure with caution. If history repeats itself across the Atlantic, the Republicans are in very serious trouble.