‘How ya like me now?” — Barack Obama
OK, so Obama didn’t really say that, but surely, he must have thought it behind a private smile at some point on election night.
There are no smiles among the Republicans, however, only a pressing question: Can the GOP fix itself? Can a party whose appeal is largely white and mainly male learn to appeal to a rainbow electorate that is neither? Especially after it has spent so many years denigrating that rainbow, drawing lines in sand, placing chips on its shoulder.
There are hopeful signs that our long national hissy fit may at last be over. House Speaker John Boehner was making conciliatory noises the day after the election about resolving the economic impasse. Some of the party’s most prominent voices, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have been speaking of the need for the GOP to broaden its appeal. So maybe the adults are finally returning home.
But the place is a wreck, because the kids (looking at you, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain) have been having quite the party. And repairing it is going to be a long and difficult process.
In the first place, any sudden GOP outreach to those it spurned while courting angry older white men must unavoidably appear conniving, self-conscious and self-serving. And once you get past the problem of appearances, there is the simple question of what it will take to undo the damage the party has inflicted upon itself with those groups.
How long will it be before gay men and lesbians are willing to forgive and forget that the party has routinely demeaned their relationships and impugned their moral fitness?
How long will it take before Hispanics are willing to let bygones be bygones with a party that spoke of “self-deportation” and cheered the notion of a border fence to electrocute undocumented Mexican workers?
And how much time must go by before African-Americans are willing to look past the GOP’s unrelenting and deeply personal disrespect toward the nation’s first African-American president, its insistence on treating him as some foreign Other who, in John Sununu’s memorably tawdry phrase, must “learn how to be an American”?
The biggest question
All that said, the biggest question here is not whether the GOP can transform itself, but whether it can even try. At this point, the Republicans are less a traditional political party than what disenchanted former GOP staffer Mike Lofgren has called an “apocalyptic cult.”
And cults are remarkably fact-resistant. Cultists live in a reality of their own construction and, far from being chastened by it, they thrive on rejection. So while the grown-ups in the party may be reading the writing on the demographic wall and believe it calls on them to abandon extremism, there is every reason to believe the rest of the party will think that writing requires them to double down on it instead.
Indeed, even as Rubio and Boehner were talking sense, party icons were talking the same old craziness. Donald Trump called for revolution in the wake of Obama’s re-election. Ted Nugent called Obama supporters “pimps, whores … welfare brats” and “soulless fools.” Bill O’Reilly said people voted for Obama because he will “give them things.”
And so on.
This, then, is the dilemma Republicans have created for themselves by their own short-sightedness. It was all well and fine to embrace angry white male extremism so long as white male extremism was able to deliver elections. That day is passing and the party awakens in a new America, desperately needing to change but quite possibly prevented from doing so by the very craziness it has so long cultivated.
Ain’t that a kick in the head? For years, the party has won elections by inventing enemies for angry white men to fear. But at this point, the GOP has no bigger enemy than itself.