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Opinion The Republican Party needs to search for its soul

The Republican Party sold its soul long before Donald Trump, a man who believes in nothing but himself, executed his 2016 reverse takeover of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Historians may quibble over when exactly the GOP initiated its pact with Satan, but it dates at least to Newt Gingrich and his 1994 Contract with America. Under the guise of a principled conservative manifesto, the former House of Representatives Speaker reintroduced a personal viciousness into U.S. politics that, over two centuries, had largely been purged from public life.

The line from Mr. Gingrich to Mr. Trump is a fairly straight one.

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Starting in the 1990s, the GOP became increasingly beholden to a small clique of gassy talk radio and cable news hosts who fomented hate and resentment to boost their ratings. These same people spent the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency attacking his legitimacy – spreading falsehoods about the first black president's place of birth, religion and patriotism – to fan the latent racism of an insecure, white working-class that had been steadily losing economic ground.

A few Republican moderates dared to take on these bile-filled blowhards. But most in the party remained silent, lest they become the next target of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Breitbart News or their like. Republicans in Congress were willing to indulge these agents of darkness just because they could sway votes.

By the time Mr. Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in mid-2015, the GOP no longer had much of a soul to sell. It had become a collection of factions and free agents beholden to special interests. Its anti-tax wing answered only to Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and the Koch brothers. Its second-amendment wing worshipped at the altar of the National Rifle Association. Its social-conservative wing curried favour with money-sucking televangelists. Its anti-immigration wing fed off the talk radio hatemongers. The GOP was still home to a few principled fiscal conservatives, free-traders, libertarians and foreign policy hawks. But they were largely marginalized in a party that had opted for the low road at every turn.

And where did that get it? With a man-child in the White House whose capacity for pettiness and vindictiveness is outmatched only by his utter incompetence in all matters of governing, domestic and foreign. This is the Republican Party's reward for standing silently by while Mr. Trump turned the politics of the indispensable nation into a sideshow of vulgar tweets and banana republic improvisations. A President who is supposed to set the policy agenda has proved incapable of spelling correctly, much less mastering the art of sausage-making.

Health-care reform is all but dead. Tax reform seems likely to follow the same trajectory. A destabilizing showdown with Congress looms next month over raising the U.S. debt limit, risking the stock-market boom that Mr. Trump naturally likes to claim credit for.

Thankfully, there may yet be a silver lining to the national nightmare Mr. Trump has wrought. More and more Republican incumbents in Congress are coming to see the President with the lowest first-year approval rating ever as a liability and are willing to defy him, as they did in voting nearly unanimously this month to impose stiffer sanctions on Russia. And the rare few that have defied Mr. Trump all along, such as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, are finally being heard.

"If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals – even as we put at risk our institutions and our values – then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn't be Pyrrhic ones," Mr. Flake writes in a new book. "If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it."

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Mr. Flake is up for re-election next year in an increasingly purple swing state with a rapidly growing Hispanic electorate. His denunciation of Mr. Trump has a whiff of political opportunism to it. But if his willingness to incur the President's wrath encourages other GOP incumbents to speak out, the party may yet have a chance at redemption. Republicans must have the courage to call out the President each time he crosses the rhetorical line and embrace policies that embody the compassionate conservativism that once made the GOP a worthy alternative to the Democrats.

The GOP sold its soul. Abandoning Mr. Trump is the only way to buy it back.

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