By the 1960s the Democratic and Republican parties were polar opposites of what each had been 100 years before. The Democrats were Southern plantation owners. Their business model and social structure depended upon slavery’s free labor and the total subjugation of Blacks. Democrats obstructed Reconstruction. But beginning with FDR’s New Deal in 1933, the “Dixiecrats” chokehold on the Democratic Party was waning. The parties were switching ideologies.
We may be seeing the next evolution of American political parties in real time now. Conservatism is no longer the soul of the Republican Party. The Trumpism that has swallowed the party is not ideological. It is a cult of personality.
Newly elected Georgia Congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, calls herself a Republican, but is the QAnon and phony election fraud supporter a conservative? She and like-minded colleagues are at war with their party. Her vitriolic rhetoric is too much for many of them, including neighboring frosh Republican rep, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who made the distinction between free-range conspiracy theorizing and Republican politics, saying, “I’m disgusted by what you and other Q-conspiracy theorists did last week in the chamber.”
Among all the great shames that these times represent, one that really bothers is the collapse of intellect in the Republican Party. I used to be riveted by intellectual giants like Anton Scalia, George F. Will, and William F. Buckley. I rarely agreed, but always appreciated their logic. Today, the party’s biggest stance seems to be for suppressing widespread voting. A party that has so little to offer that the best it can do to stay in power is keep people from voting is completely unhelpful in the national conversation. We need good ideas. Heck, we need bad ideas. We need ideas. Period. Ideas are what start us thinking, then talking (hopefully in that order for a change).
The current wave of voter suppression started in the ’80s when the founder of the Moral Majority and the right-wing think-tank, Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, said the quiet thing out loud: We need to have fewer voters, not more. That sentiment was recently echoed by Donald Trump when he said that if we agree with the Democrats and let everyone vote, there will never be another Republican elected to office. Isn’t it the case that if you had great ideas, you’d want everyone to vote?
We are desperate for a return to substantive debate on the greatest issues that confront us. Polite but passionate, reasoned, informed debate. Not the lies and innuendo promoted by cynical pols playing to the short attention span of social media.
As a liberal, I was a big fan of traditional conservative thought as displayed by William F. Buckley in his publication, The New Republic, and George F. Will who for years owned the endpiece in Newsweek magazine. It expanded my horizons and sharpened my debate skills in an era when big ideas propelled us. Republicans of yore were dedicated to a democratic republic and the rule of law.
Our system relies on new ideas from the edges brought to the middle by sculpting from both sides. The process requires intellectual honesty and rigor. My fear is that Donald Trump‘s lasting effect on the Republican Party is that he has finished the job that Newt Gingrich started, substituting smart ideas and the give-and-take of healthy debate, for the politics of personal destruction. Why debate when you can castigate?
Former RNC chairman Michael Steele on Representatives like Greene and her freshman colleague from Colorado, Lauren Boebert: “They seem to see public service as more performance art than a battle of policy ideas.”
Substituting undemocratic rhetoric for conservative Republican thought, then-candidate Trump, in the run up to the 2016 election, said the only way he could lose would be if the election was rigged. Fast forward to the 2020 cycle, when he said the same thing months before the first vote was cast.
He went on to lose, fair and square by any objective measure, and then Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the founding members of the Look-The-Other-Way Caucus, remained silent. Their fear of Trump and his base never allowed them to express the obvious truth. Through what can only be described as craven ambition, they just pretended there was nothing to see here.
In a move that came too late, Donald Trump was not just de-platformed by Twitter, Facebook, et. al., he was defanged. Perhaps it will be possible now to return a modicum of reason to the Republican Party, but it seems more likely that the party itself will complete its split, with Trumpists going one way, and everyone else waking from the fever dream. Time will reveal what percent of the party is Forever Trump, and what percent is Never Trump.