When Senator Jeff Flake revealed that he would not be seeking re-election, he delivered a moving speech that sounded like an epitaph for traditional conservatism. The senator from Arizona lamented the death of a conservatism based on values, from a bygone era when Republican candidates offered visions and values, using rhetoric and logic to defend those platforms. In his words, “It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party—the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things.” The election to replace him will be the testing ground of that statement, and Stephen Bannon’s faction has produced a champion in the hardline State Senator Kelli Ward. It should be known that Senator Flake is guilty of complicity in the erosion of civic and institutional checks on the president, particularly with his vote to eliminate the filibuster for Neil Gorsuch. However, in this new age of politics, past transgressions can be forgiven through meaningful action taken in the present. The senator’s book, Conscience of a Conservative, offers the critique on Trumpism that has generally failed to gain traction with his fellow Republicans. Tragically, the means by which Trump gained power was paved by his own party’s actions over the last decade.
The great irony is that the Republican Party has launched a sustained assault on the values it supposedly espouses, targeting individual rights with ruthless efficiency in its campaign for power. The Republican Party in its current iteration does not and has not cared about individual liberties and has, in fact, passed policies that greatly curtail basic freedoms. With reckless abandon, the party of small government and individualism has attacked reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and voting rights of Americans it claims to represent. The Republican ideology resembles the thuggish ideology of Putin’s Russia. Principles and ideas have been replaced by incoherence and irrationality, the faces of Republican media openly spew deranged conspiracy theories and actively build a cult of personality around a buffoonish caricature. In an Orwellian fashion, language is being radically devalued and robbed of meaning. Fake news is a cudgel to bludgeon a free press; free speech means ideas cannot be criticized; and liberty is built on the deprivation of rights. In the mind of the modern-day GOP, freedom is zero-sum and can only be enjoyed when others are deprived of their rights. To the Republican Party of 2017, there is nothing more despicable than the liberal, and crushing liberalism is the end goal of this new political movement.
There is a clear authoritarian bent to the new breed of GOP, and they are operating on a playbook that has existed for decades. Authoritarian parties around the world have used the same pillars of anti-intellectualism, intimidation, cult of personality, and propaganda that are now appearing in the modern Republican Party. In his stubborn opposition to President Obama, Senator Mitch McConnell led his party into a Faustian bargain that is in the process of consuming him and his party. His efforts have been rewarded with the lowest approval ratings of any senator in the nation. This self-loathing was exemplified when a crowd at a Trump rally in Alabama booed Senator John McCain. The 81-year-old Vietnam veteran, who is currently battling brain cancer, conducted his campaign against Barack Obama with honor, famously rebuking a supporter after a racist outburst at one of his rallies. In the display in Alabama, he was booed for voting down a bill that only 17% of Americans approved of. He was disdained for standing on principles. He was punished for daring to defy the president.
Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore is a shining example of the new breed of Republican politician. The clear favorite in the Senate election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Judge Moore is a walking amalgamation of the darkest forces unleashed by the newly Russified Republican Party. The fanatically extremist Roy Moore’s well-documented history of racism, bigotry, and authoritarianism are selling points rather than stains on his character. His embrace of conspiracy theories and openly theocratic principles represent the logical conclusion of the GOP’s militant ideology. Despite the recent allegations of pedophilia, molestation, and sexual assault, his poll numbers still put him in striking distance of victory. This embrace of anti-American values started with a tactical response to a growing problem. The GOP has lost the debate on the issues. Its social, economic, and political ideas have lost their sway with the American people. Instead of coming to grips with this or attempting to better argue their case, the GOP has turned to what Senator McCain calls “spurious half-baked nationalism” to gain power through demagoguery.
The GOP has always had issues with ideological inconsistency. When Ronald Reagan was president, he championed free market economics and individualism, yet he took a decidedly Keynesian approach to economics through his heavy investment in military spending. Under the Reagan administration, government spending ballooned from $147.3 billion from $71.2 billion in 1980—a 43% increase. While this inconsistency is often overlooked in the cult of personality that has been built around President Reagan, it is not as severe as the current inconsistencies between the GOP’s stated beliefs and its new de facto ideology. Having essentially lost its economic argument for trickle-down economics and the free market, the Party has adopted the grievance politics that has defined authoritarian states. Adopting Chinese-style nationalism and Russian-style incoherence, the Republican Party has imported these impulses and is locked in a battle against democratic institutions to bring these impulses to life.
The Russification of the GOP has its roots in a dangerous and uncompromising obstructionism. This can be traced to the rise of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his “Republican Revolution.” Most disturbingly was that this effort was rewarded with a crushing victory, producing a net gain of 54 House seats and 8 Senate seats in the 1994 midterm elections. Congressman Gingrich, like his spiritual successor Senator McConnell, was a brilliant tactician and possessed a strong political acumen. His lack of consistency was a blessing and a curse, as he recognized the importance of balancing fiery campaign rhetoric and the need to govern. Senator McConnell did not feel this need under President Obama and chose to simply obstruct without offering alternative solutions to government. By using chaos as a campaign strategy, Congressman Gingrich unleashed the forces that eventually overtook his party. Instead of a “Contract with America,” there was simply a nihilistic and often racist campaign of blind rage and irrationality. Creating a media landscape of propaganda and conspiracy theories, the GOP did everything in its power to delegitimize a democratically elected president. Sore from losing, they simply chose to undermine democracy.
The modern day GOP has lost control of its own voters. The rise of Trump was in open defiance of GOP leadership, and his campaign platform offered a firm rejection of free market economics (and basic human decency). Using racist rhetoric and anti-intellectualism, he turned the GOP’s nationalist populism on its head, directing its voters in a coup against the GOP establishment. Despite this, the president’s love of crony capitalism has produced one of the most right-wing agendas in recent U.S. history. As a sign of this incoherence, the president’s own voters rejected his preferred Alabama Senate candidate Luther Strange in favor of the anti-establishment challenger.
The result of this campaign of weaponized cynicism has led to the importation of a foreign ideology into the United States that fundamentally challenges the shared values of liberal democracy that both Democrats and Republicans are supposed to believe in. The tragedy is that the Republican Party has become the monster it once devoted itself to defeating. The Party resembles the Soviet autocracy and its Russian successor state in far too many aspects. In its zeal and lust for power, it has become twisted into the modern-day American Red Menace.
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