What happened to the Republican Party? Seemingly ages ago, they used to stand for freedom and opportunity, for helping people maximize their potential rather than accept what fate has dealt them. Now, they’re synonymous with Donald Trump, a shady grifter with ties to Russian money laundering beloved by bigots and xenophobes who eagerly crawled from under their rocks to vote for the policies he advertised. To those worried about the GOP, he’s sold as an opportunistic parasite who latched on to the party. But in truth, he’s just the most visible symptom of a far more dangerous disease afflicting the American right. Allow me to explain.
Despite writing for a publication that will unabashedly call itself center-left when asked, I’m actually aligned with conservatives on a number of issues. Back in the days when I was studying civics and taking political orientation quizzes, this used to place me right down the middle of the political spectrum, maybe even a centrist libertarian. But over the last eight years, I found myself shoved ever further left while holding similar opinions. How? Because today, to be seen as anything less than a utopian big government leftist seems to require a degree of antipathy bordering on the sociopathic toward anyone more liberal than you, and that’s a disturbing development for moderates and centrists.
Political centrism is just realizing that both the left and the right have good ideas and we can pick and choose them to have a set of balanced, rational policies. In the olden days of American politics, this was known as “bipartisanship” and it wasn’t levied as a threat to circle the tribal wagons and shove through wildly unpopular bills. It was more or less the norm. People compromised, good proposals could find an audience across the aisle and be adopted into law, and unpopular ideas were quietly left to die instead of rammed down people’s throats as tests of intra-party ideological purity in a process not unlike a gang initiation. So what happened?
The GOP controls all three branches of government. Certainly, while liberals bite their elbows in grief, conservatives and those sharing common ground with them should be celebrating. And yet, they’re not. Fewer voters identify with the party. Many prominent conservatives are publicly distraught at where they’re headed. Why can’t they seem to actually get anything done and are constantly bickering amongst themselves, letting loose with a heavy sigh every time a new challenge they must tackle comes up? Why are they sniping at each other while notable consultants and party operatives are echoing liberal critics in their tweets, media appearances, and columns?
Maybe it’s because the Republican Party, the group that claims to represent them, their ideas, and their interests, is no longer their party, what it calls conservatism is just an angry hodgepodge of grievances and scapegoating, and its leader is a shiftless, amoral populist whose political career is just a publicity stunt that spiraled completely out of control. Even worse, its base seems to display an almost cultish devotion to him, hanging on his every word, ready to turn obvious missteps into tales of victorious triumph over their many enemies. And conservative leaders warning fellow Republicans of this are in denial of how it got this way and just how angry and entitled their base has become at its core.
A Delusional Allegiance To Trump
A perfect example can be found in the now infamous “covfefe” incident when Donald Trump yet again went viral after not proofreading his tweets. But that time, instead of a funny typo (and the perfect name for a weekly column here at Rantt) he mysteriously veered off mid-tweet, creating the word and hashtag “covfefe” to Twitter’s cackling delight, giving people an excuse to giggle at the public mistake. Yet the MAGA faithful’s reaction to this scrambled tweet was both illuminating and deeply unsettling.
According to them, it’s proof that Trump is a real guy not bound by a focus group that vets his communication with the outside world, which is certainly true. But the notion that he’s playing some sort of 7D chess game in which he’s finding verified accounts to block so he can frustrate hostile journalists, or he’s tricking liberals into impotent rage for the benefit of his followers seem far-fetched at best. The truth is very simple. He’s just a very impulsive man who made a mistake and didn’t notice it for a while.
Nobody is being played here except for his supporters playing themselves into thinking there’s both no strategy and tactical genius happening at the same time. Although they are right that what they see is Trump’s id made manifest in real time and off the cuff, what they don’t seem to realize is that this reality show behavior is entertaining but also very problematic. He no longer pretend-fires people on TV for a living. He’s the president. He needs to act like he’s the president, not a radio morning show shock jock.
Presidents think before they act. They rush to fix their mistakes. They use prepared statements and carefully written and rehearsed speeches, not as crutches, but because they care about how they’ll come across and how an unforgiving media organization will scrutinize their highly public actions. This is why Obama most likely scripted his note for the guestbook at Yad Vashem. He knew it would be seen by the public and he wanted to make sure he came across as thoughtful, respectful, and moved. Trump? He scribbled something generic and called it a day.
On the left, via @RaoulWootliff, the note Trump just left at Yad Vashem. 'So amazing!' On the right, the note Obama left at Yad Vashem.
Yes, I really am paying way too much covfefe to this, but the fact that this digital tweet-wreck happened and die-hard Trumpists reacted the way they did, speaks volumes. This boorish, narcissistic man is his fans’ blank slate on which to project their hopes, dreams, and nostalgia-tinted visions of a glorious future that’s much like their past, even if that’s impossible. They’ll even find a way to portray a simple typo as some grand master plan to stick it to the libtards because that’s their #winning in a nutshell.
Like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, they’re happy to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Obama’s 4.5% unemployment was just lies and really closer to 20%, but Trump’s 4.5% unemployment became the truth literally overnight, despite the fact that it would’ve required the then President-Elect to have created 6 million jobs a week, or reshape our entire $16 trillion economy, adding 48 million jobs in his first days in office, which we know could not, and did not happen.
But it’s not just the economy. It’s foreign affairs too. Obama’s support for NATO was always insufficient, Trump’s open disdain for it can’t be praised enough. Russia was our top adversary in 2012, and now it’s our friend despite four years of steadily deteriorating relations, sanctions, and both sides trading very public jabs at each other in the media.
Do you remember how President Obama was skirting treason when he had the temerity to say that other nations also think they’re exceptional in some ways to the same people who were quieter than sensory deprivation chamber when President Trump looked Bill O’Reilly in the eye, called America a nation of killers and advised him to look at our history?
And do you recall that in the throes of a once-in-a-generation financial crisis Mitch McConnell didn’t exactly get booed by the right when he said their number one priority was not saving jobs or fixing the economy, but to make sure Obama was a one term president? Now the same people demand to know how dare two-thirds of Americans be unpatriotic enough to disapprove of the president, apparently wanting him to fail.
Just as a cherry on top, consider that almost half of Trump voters believe that he won the popular vote, attributing Clinton’s nearly 3 million vote lead to illegal aliens and voter fraud. Somehow, the Democrats are capable of organizing millions of illegal voters, hiding all proof of this from the FEC and not triggering the same election alarms that caught a Trump voter trying to cast her ballot twice within hours. But instead of sending them to the Midwestern key states The Donald won by razor-thin margins to secure the presidency, they bussed them all into California, where Clinton was guaranteed to win anyway as if they didn’t know how the Electoral College worked in their own country.
Trying to follow their logic is whiplash-inducing because deep down, there is no logic, only, to quote numerous conservative commentators, a list of petty grievances and sense of wounded pride, informed by perpetually outraged right-wing talking heads lying to them about liberals coming for their guns, money, and property. And the very fact that trying to grasp this naked, self-destructive nihilism is maddening to liberals is a great source of joy to Trumpists. As the less explicit refrain goes, they’d set their house on fire if they knew that a liberal would have to inhale the smoke.
That highbrow, classical conservatism smoking from a pipe and nursing a glass of warm brandy, reading the paper while reclined in the study’s puffy leather armchair has been taken out back behind a dingy, decrepit shed to be mutilated with chainsaws by the likes of right-wing talk radio, Breitbart, and Fox News, who grin gleefully at its agonized screams. The sheer scope of the control the Republican base now demands necessitates a vast authoritarian state, not a limited government focused on promoting freedom.
This is why instead of debating the government’s role in a post-industrial world people who are calling themselves proud conservatives dance in celebration on the grave of what their movement once was because they managed to somehow make life worse for someone they don’t like that day. No longer capable of seeing anyone to the left of them as people with different opinions, but only as traitors and sub-human monsters to be silenced if not subjugated, inflicting pain and misery has become their primary goal.
Against every espoused conservative principle, they desperately wanted to turn the government into a tool to punish their enemies while calling this “enforcing the rule of law.” And this is why they’re happy. That’s exactly how it’s working under their control.
The Republican Base Has Become Destructive
Now, it would be one thing if this was just the opinion of a fringe. Every political movement in every nation on Earth has a small group of extremists who are very vocal, but whose votes hardly steer national policy, if they can even make a dent in their local political landscape. But there’s a disturbingly large number of voters in the Republican base which are totally fine with this and believe Trump is doing a fantastic job.
That might be surprising enough, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some 6 in 10 of them say that no matter what he does, they will never, ever stop approving of him, and after all we’ve been through so far, 96% of them say they’re satisfied with their vote. Far from reflecting on Trump’s job performance as his overall approval ratings keep sliding month after month, they’re doubling down, digging in their heels, and maintaining they didn’t make a mistake and that it’s the world that’s mistaken instead.
And this is an important catch. Quite a few conservative commentators who inhabit Twitter and the pages of right-leaning publications issue full-throated denunciations of Trumpism, but when it comes to the question of what’s happening to their party’s base, they seem to be in denial that the “traditional, salt-of-the-earth people” for whom they claim to speak created this supposedly aberrant phenomenon. Their critics are right. Traditional conservatives are now Republicans mostly in name, not in belief.
Trump did not slide into the nomination on a technicality. He overwhelmingly dominated the primaries and in the process lowered the bar for acceptable behavior for a politician to such depths, even Jerry Springer felt the need to tell him to act like a decent human being. Every week he did something that should have disqualified him from the presidency according to pundits across the political spectrum.
Yet he won, and despite spending much of his tenure in office golfing, tweeting, yelling at the TV, treating GOP lawmakers like his employees, defending neo-Nazis, viciously going after the sick, the poor, minorities, and immigrants, and profusely thanking Putin for every slap in the face on the international stage America has received, nearly 7 in 10 Republicans approve of the job he’s doing.
The party of freedom and personal responsibility has become the party of people who will gladly vote for the chaos candidate and who don’t care about the consequences of their decisions. Across countless interviews, Trump’s supporters will praise the fact that he just says whatever he thinks, that he creates conflict, that he’s a troll, and call a 71-year-old man constantly throwing temper tantrums while whining about how badly everyone treats him “refreshing” in a powerful position, even as he keeps proving he’s woefully unfit for the job every day.
Republicans have also morphed into the party of excuses. Pick a bad predicament they find themselves in, and somehow, there’s always some scapegoat conveniently ready to blame. They can’t get jobs because of foreigners, immigrants, and globalist trade deals specifically designed to hurt them, just because. They can’t run their businesses at a profit because of regulations. They can’t march in a neo-Nazi rally without consequences because of [insert Antifa/Soros conspiracy theory here]. They can’t get laid because of feminism. (And those two are, sadly, somewhat related.)
What about liberals and their victimhood, they cry in a textbook display of whataboutism. What about them? Instead of being interested in setting an example, in being better, in leading the way, Republicans seem wholly content on sticking to their hypocrisy and moving on with the same behaviors they decried as abhorrent just months ago. According to polling data, they truly believe they’re the most discriminated against victims of an evil society and excuse their bigotry, xenophobia, and support for the shattering of basic civil norms within this context. No one can possibly have it as bad as they do, much less worse, they complain.
To them, the economy and civil rights are not things that can grow and support more and more people, they’re fixed quantities and anyone who gains wealth or a stronger voice must be doing so at someone else’s loss, probably theirs. The concept that when a minority group has more rights or a better political standing theirs can be completely unaffected, doesn’t even seem to enter their minds. And pushback when they lash out against others’ gains is instantly held up as proof of their “oppression” because they appear to be immune to the idea of their free speech having consequences, and that the First Amendment doesn’t protect them from others’ criticism.
They’ve also become paranoid of “moochers” and “takers” they’re told are everywhere with anecdotal, often woefully inaccurate tales on TV and in social media forwards. Despite laws on the books making it illegal for nearly all of the people they say eat up welfare spending and dodge taxes to do either of those, they will hysterically screech about however many percent they feel is too much feeding at the public trough at their expense with absolutely zero regard for the facts while their favorite media outlets will eagerly nod along with their histrionics.
Ignoring the fact that older whites in red states are the biggest welfare and public assistance recipients in the nation, they fail to understand that these social safety net programs are poorly designed and often punitively cut or made more inefficient, by the politicians they vote into office no less, and are ready to point their fingers at anyone younger, browner, more liberal, or just plain foreign for the fact that they’re having trouble getting what they want.
Fed on a steady diet of right-wing fantasies about minorities and immigrants living it up on the public largesse, they’re convinced countless billions are there for their taking and dammit, they want a piece because they’re absolutely certain they’re entitled to it by virtue of being born in America. If a single dollar out of the public pocket can benefit anyone but them, they turn rabid with rage and demand the nation’s leaders’ heads on a pike.
The only signs of conservatism they display seem to be their nostalgia for the past. Though not for the norms and ideas that many of us agree made America great, mind you. No, they long to drag the nation back into the halcyon days that exist only in rose-colored history porn packaged by right-wing media for their consumption. They crossed way past conservatism into full-blown reactionary authoritarianism and populism.
The GOP Has Engineered Minority Rule
Make no mistake, populist demagogues are a blight on any political movement because a big part of their appeal is animating Dunning-Krueger into a platform. They look at a complicated, interconnected world with countless interests in play in every major decision and declare that they have simple answers and anyone who says otherwise is a corrupt statist. As we can see by the presidency of Donald Trump, when this ignorance collides with reality, nothing substantial gets done. But Republicans today don’t want to hear it, especially when their elected leader has promised to wave a magic wand and bring back non-existent jobs from China, where they too are endangered.
Far too many of them are convinced their ideas are amazing and would work their magic if only the unspecified, amorphous “crooked elites” hadn’t rigged the system against them, and nothing brings their paranoia out like pointing out even the subtlest little differences between red and blue America. Just consider the comments on an article outlining some of them in the National Review. While the piece itself is fairly calm and asks the question of how we became almost two different nations living within one, the comments are a maelstrom of hatred and conspiracy theories. They gnash their teeth about Soros, Agenda 21, the UN, and how everybody’s out to get them, fueled in no small part by the doomsday rhetoric the talking heads at Fox News and Breitbart have dialed up to 11 for years on end.
Keep in mind that all of this has been happening before Trump came onto the scene. For years commentators were sounding the alarm that the Republican party was borrowing its views on Obama era policies from the likes of Alex Jones rather than actual experts. Republicans came up with every excuse in the book to allow the Senate to pretend that Obama didn’t try to make a Supreme Court appointment after Scalia’s sudden death in no small part thanks to a conspiracy theory that the president had him murdered to hijack the Supreme Court with some “unhinged leftist” who would take away their guns and let Obama impose martial law.
Armed with these fears as their justification, Republicans gleefully broke our democracy through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Two of their last presidents were elected to their first terms with a minority of the popular vote thanks to the Electoral College. The Senate is on track to see almost two-thirds of its members represent less than a third of the population. The House is gerrymandered to within an inch of its life and voting restrictions in more than a dozen states allow politicians, usually Republicans, to pick their voters and discard thousands of voices on the flimsiest of pretenses. This is how they get 1.4 million fewer Congressional votes, yet get a majority in the House.
Across Red America, they raise hurdle after hurdle for voters who are unlikely to vote for them, demanding specific IDs then make getting them harder, looking for any way to purge the rolls, incensed when more people might get to register to vote in elections, and if all that fails, limit early voting and close polling stations in urban hubs to ensure absurdly long lines, and refuse to even think about making November elections a national holiday. And even then, without an assist from the Electoral College, they wouldn’t have had their last two presidencies.
In short, they engineered the system to keep them in power even if they lose the popular vote by complaining that it’s unfair that people who wouldn’t vote for them are also allowed to vote. To say that they’re winning solely on the strength of their ideas rather than white identity politics, ginned up outrage, and picking their voters, would be a lie. Conservatives who celebrate such victories and snidely dismiss gerrymandering and voter suppression by telling people to just show up to vote like a broken record while dodging the issue are lying to themselves when they pretend the problem isn’t nearly as bad as it is. But no matter how much they’ll deny it with electoral numerology or pseudo-legalese, we’re currently living under minority rule.
When a 54% majority still leaves you with a minority presence in government, math and basic logic would tell you there’s foul play involved. History would also inform you that a minority that pathologically hates the majority controlling all the levers of power doesn’t end well, and profoundly damages the nation in the long term. When Trump is no longer in office, his legacy will be the completion of GOP’s infestation with white supremacists, racists, and spineless partisan hacks, and destroying the public’s belief that their vote actually makes a difference.
How can conservatives possibly look at this and not be concerned that the party they back is just rigging the system to win instead of doing it on merit? How can they keep lying to their own faces that they didn’t watch democracy dismantled so rabid extremists can spit in the public’s face for tax cuts and to wage a legal war against their fellow citizens who they hope get nuked by a foreign enemy state? Is this what the conservative project stands for? To empower the kind of people who in lieu of an angel on one shoulder just have another demon, and allow them to rule even when the public clearly and definitively votes against them?
The Way Forward
When I asked Republican political strategist Rick Wilson if he was worried whether another Trump could emerge from the GOP, he simply said “There is no other Trump. Thank God.” But he and his fellow conservatives couldn’t possibly be more wrong as the polling data and voting results show. Trump wasn’t some aberration. He’s the embodiment of today’s typical Republican voter constantly plugged into Fox News and the Daily Breitbart. (Sorry, I meant to just say Breitbart, but with their little globe emojis around every Jewish name they come across it’s hard to tell the difference.)
It’s as if they’re stuck in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend who gets his kicks humiliating and bullying them, mocking their standards and ideals to his friends, but because once in awhile he promises to take them out for ice cream and some tax cuts, they see “potential” in him. And just like every abusive relationship, it’s not going to get better when there are no consequences for the abuser’s bad behavior.
Clearly, the obvious solution here is for conservatives to distance themselves from the GOP and start voting split ticket. Despite what they’ve been told by Fox News, liberals also hate reams of paperwork and bloated, inefficient agencies that take forever to actually get things done, or can’t work in an organized, cohesive way. They’re very aware of many shortfalls in basic processes of government and would be happy to streamline them, or privatize things that can be objectively demonstrated to be better done by businesses. Finding common ground with centrist Democrats is far from impossible because they’re not the treasonous, violent monsters that right-wing media paints them to be.
Voting split ticket and evicting populist authoritarian ideologues from their positions of power is the first, logical step in getting the GOP back to sanity. Ordinarily, I would’ve just said to primary the current elected officials, but with so many Republican voters seeing any attempt to return to business as usual as a plot by “Deep State usurpers planning a soft coup,” that’s probably not going to work. And they may not understand these are the consequences for their chaotic ways for multiple elections. But the GOP was not broken in one election season, and it will take more than one cycle to send the party searching for its soul again.
Of course, this doesn’t mean just giving up on Republican candidates and abandoning the party completely. It’s merely using discretion to make sure another Trumpian demagogue doesn’t get elected. This will be extremely difficult thanks to all that aforementioned voter suppression and rampant gerrymandering, which means that conservatives who want to fix American democracy will have to fight them as well.
They will need to join those who lobby for non-partisan district maps created by algorithms built to be as neutral as possible, extend early voting, voting by mail, end random vote purges, and either revise asinine voter ID laws, or vastly improve access to the services of the offices that issue them and ensure reasonable requirements for voting. You know, letting people who want to vote and meet the basic legal requirements actually vote, not just most of them for some people and calling it a job well done when it comes to ensuring that democracy prevails.
The fact that the GOP does and will continue to fight these efforts tooth and nail should be a huge red flag that its ideas simply can’t win on their own merits. Polling clearly shows they’re wildly unpopular with typically between two-thirds to three-quarters of the country. For conservative principles to win the day and stop the constant violation of our norms, separation of powers, and rule of law, they need to appeal to the public at large, and they must take all voters’ concerns into account and achieve the necessary buy-in for lasting, transformational change.
We all want a smarter, more nimble government that knows how to plan for the future and tackle incoming challenges while allowing new, innovative ideas from the private sector to thrive and improve our lives. But until we can vote freely and stop rabid ideologues who are hell-bent on cutting America off from the world, diminishing our standing, and see their fellow Americans as greater threats than anything else out there, we’ll never accomplish this goal.
One of America’s greatest strengths is its ability to be introspective, talk about its problems, and change course if it doesn’t like where it’s headed. It’s not so bogged down with inflexible, rigid traditionalism that it will remain paralyzed for generations to make necessary reforms. It’s a very big country with a lot of people, but it’s a country used to change and blunt, in comparison to many other nations, self-assessment. Both liberals and conservatives want to preserve this strength and ensure that our shared identity as Americans endures no matter what challenges come our way.
The only way to do it is to unite against those who are now actively sabotaging it, bringing out the worst elements in our society, fueling them with a steady diet of manufactured outrage and venomous conspiracy theories, and giving them unchecked power. Because make no mistake, at its core, the conflict today isn’t really about liberals vs. conservatives. It’s about those who see one nation that needs to move toward the future vs. those who believe it’s their duty to purge the heretics to their cause, drag the nation into the past economically and socially, and freeze it there, regardless of what it takes.
Quoting an unnamed immigrant who wrote him a letter to highlight how special this nation is, Ronald Reagan once said that America was the only country in the world where anyone can come and become an American. He also said that conservatism offers independence rather than uniformity and a group identity. If today’s conservatives still believe those words still ring true and America is a shining city on a hill rather than a paranoid hoarder’s worn-down mansion the occupants of which keep trying to relive their glory days instead of leading the future, they need to break ranks with the party they claim represents them and make their voices heard.
And in the process, they can amplify the voices of other Americans, helping ensure that this nation stays exceptional and once again shows the world that there’s no problem too great to keep us down for long, and that we will vigorously defend and promote our ideas and values not just abroad, but here at home as well. After all, what could be more American than fighting for what you believe in and constant self-improvement?