The GOP is a Hot Mess

Pro-Democracy, Principled Republicans Should Look to Build Strength in America’s Cities

The notion that Republicans would move beyond Trump even after he cost them the presidency, the House, and now the Senate seemed dubious from the start. Trumpism broke the national party. As the bizarre censuring of Gov. Doug Ducey, Cindy McCain, and former Sen. Jeff Flake by party officials in Arizona this past weekend highlights—as well as the attempted purge of people like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming who voted to impeach Trump—the Republican Party at the grassroots and organizational level is in no shape to correct itself anytime soon.  

So, what should pro-democracy, anti-Trump, Republican forces do to plant seeds of growth in the aftermath of this political brushfire? Go to places with lots of potential voters and where Trump forces have the least influence over them—America’s major metro areas. 

The main challenge facing a sane center-right movement is that it currently has no institutional or geographic base for political experimentation and development. Almost the entire conservative media and intellectual infrastructure, with a few notable exceptions, lined up behind Trump and his reactionary populism. Party strategists and leaders under the sway of Trumpism seek only to stir up and mobilize aggrieved white working-class voters in small town and rural areas and to forgo entirely the art of persuasion of voters living in suburban and urban environments. 

This is not friendly terrain for a reformist Republicanism to gain momentum. But market opportunities are plentiful for ambitious and smart Republicans willing to build something new outside of the geographically and ideologically limited reach of the current Trump GOP.

Although I’m a liberal and a Democrat, I believe America’s cities could use some real political competition, which is basically nonexistent in the vast majority of urban areas. One party rule is never good for developing new ideas or addressing long standing reform and development needs at the municipal level. 

Yet, Republicans today are mostly absent from political consideration in most cities. At the start of 2021, Republicans occupy the mayor’s offices in only 25 of the 100 largest metro areas in the country, with many of these in Republican stronghold states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, or in conservative regions of states like California or Colorado. 

In my home city of Baltimore, for example, the Republican candidate for mayor in 2020 got a measly 16,664 votes—7 percent of the total. Baltimore hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin’s second term in the mid 1960’s.

Theodore McKeldin provides an interesting case study that offers good lessons for Republicans looking to rebuild today. McKeldin was a true son of Baltimore, attended its public schools, and strongly promoted the city as mayor during his first term in the war years and later during the tumult of the mid 1960’s. He manifested the Eisenhower Republican model of his era—patriotic, humanitarian, for the middle class, pro-economic development and public works, and an ardent supporter of civil rights.

McKeldin actually nominated Eisenhower for the presidency at the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago and went on from Baltimore to serve as governor of Maryland from 1951 to 1959, defeating a segregationist Democratic candidate for reelection in 1954. President Lyndon Johnson later appointed McKeldin to a position on the Indian Claims Commission and sent him in 1967 to Vietnam to help monitor the country’s elections. 

In a retrospective of his storied career, William Thompson wrote that McKeldin was a true “practical idealist”:

His first term was concerned with wartime priorities such as industrial mobilization and consumer goods shortages, although even then he found time to initiate plans for an international airport—now BWI—and for an expressway system and downtown renewal.

When McKeldin returned to City Hall after an absence of 16 years, he found a Baltimore in decline—increasingly nonwhite and poor, and beset by crime, racial tensions and economic stagnation. Although he could do little to stem the tide of white flight, McKeldin did prevent an atmosphere of fear and resentment from permeating the city.

The mayor pushed for civil rights legislation in public accommodations and open housing, worked with CORE during it’s ‘target city’ campaign and called for nondiscrimination in employment. Most important, his moral persuasion defused potential unrest, preventing in Baltimore the devastating riots that tore apart other U.S. cities in that era…

McKeldin often spoke out forcefully for civil rights, bluntly criticizing Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus's actions at Little Rock. He appointed blacks long before most other Maryland politicians did, not only as clerks, but as executive aides and magistrates and to school boards and commissions. His civil rights advocacy resulted in death threats, and on one occasion, a cross burned on the grounds of the governor's mansion. McKeldin also was an unwavering supporter of Jewish causes, especially the State of Israel.

If the Republican Party today wants to rebuild itself as a positive force for American renewal, this model of “practical idealism” in defense of America’s cities and their residents—not in opposition to them—would be a good way to start. Conservative principles can still be brought to the task of governing, but the image and approach should be the exact opposite of Trump’s bombast and culture war division. 

As Democratic House member and later Senator Paul Sarbanes said of McKeldin after his death in 1974, “Theodore McKeldin was a leader of extraordinary humanity and decency. As governor, mayor, and private citizen, his every action was marked by a deep and uncompromising commitment to the brotherhood of man and to the American ideals of equality and justice.”

This is the path the non-Trump segment of the Republican Party needs to adopt if it wants to rebuild a principled and effective governing model. It won’t be easy, of course, given trends within the party and partisan voting patterns in the cities. 

But since the national party has essentially ceded all competition for America’s biggest cities to Democrats—and retreated to ideologically pure environments—reformist Republicans can step in to fill the political gap by going around Trump to make a strong case for a warm-hearted approach to America’s cities, one that is open-minded, focused on private sector development and public infrastructure, and committed to the well-being of workers and families of all races.