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How the GOP died

In two recent books, a scholar probes the descent of the Republican Party. It didn’t all start with President Donald J. Trump, and it will not end when he slinks back into private life.

Dummerston

Once upon a time, if you asked a member of the Republican Party to tell you what their party stands for, they would likely say they are a party that supports small government, maintaining a strong military, and upholding the rule of law; a party that supports individual responsibility, family values, and respect for institutions and tradition.

Once upon a time, liberals and conservatives might have disagreed on policy, but there was agreement on the big principles — upholding the Constitution, maintaining honesty and integrity in public service, and respect for the rule of law.

All this has vanished, and it vanished long before the horror show we saw inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

We may have two major political parties, but only one of them is reality-based.

The other is a conglomeration of conspiracy theorists, theocrats, racists, firearms fetishists, rapacious capitalists, fascist wannabes, and amoral grifters.

This is the modern Republican Party.

This is the party whose national committee, instead of writing a party platform at its convention in August, issued this declaration:

“WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today; therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

* * *

The decline into madness of the Republican Party didn’t all start with President Donald J. Trump, and it will not end when Trump slinks back into private life.

Thomas E. Patterson teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where I took one of his classes when I was there in 1996-97, but he does not fit the Harvard stereotype.

He grew up in Minnesota and is steeped in the traditional values and culture of small-town America. He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He is centrist in his political views with a Midwesterner’s skepticism about things outside the mainstream.

Patterson, who has written many books about dysfunction in U.S. politics and the press since the 1990s, recently wrote two overlooked books that serve as a good explanation for how the Republican Party and its supporters got to the place they are now: How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019) and Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? (KDP Publishing, 2020).

“American politics is plagued by disorder,” Patterson wrote in How America Lost Its Mind. “Our political institutions are struggling. When not mired in gridlock and brinksmanship, they’re beset by petty feuding and renegade behavior. Our media, which once protected us from fantasy, are indulging in it. Citizens are losing respect for reason and for each other. Stupidity and deception of one form or another are raging, as are anger and anxiety. Intolerance is on the rise. One bad thing feeds off the next.”

That paragraph was written before mask wearing and social distancing became political issues subject to debate. Once the commonsense public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 were reframed as infringements on personal freedom, all bets were off.

The correlation between opposition to masks and support for Donald Trump is easy to see, as is the correlation between the places that supported him for re-election in 2020 and the amount of illness and death in those same places over the past few months.

And How America Lost Its Mind was written long before the unthinkable sight of seeing white supremacists, neo-Nazis, QAnon cultists, and assorted other nihilists storm and occupy the Capitol because they thought their Dear Leader had a presidential election stolen from him.

* * *

When people cannot agree on facts, or even observable reality, madness is sure to follow. That madness has manifested itself in a deadly way, well before the Jan. 6 insurrection, in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaving aside notable exceptions, such as Republican governors Phil Scott of Vermont, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Larry Hogan of Maryland, the Republican Party — following the lead of President Trump — encouraged the politicization of COVID-19. Where Scott, Baker, and Hogan listened to the health experts and took the pandemic seriously, too many other Republican governors did not, with predictable results.

Many other issues divide the United States, and others have amply written about them in this section. But, in Patterson’s view, stoking those divisions are five traps — ideological, demographic, moral, media, and money — that will ultimately doom the Republican Party to fringe status.

The ideological one is the most obvious; the other four, not so much.

There is the demographic trap. As the nation becomes younger and more diverse — more than 40 percent of the nation’s adults are between the ages of 21 and 45 — any political party that wants to be viable has to be inclusive. Today’s Republican Party makes little effort to appeal beyond its base, which is why Joe Biden was elected president in 2020.

“Whatever the short-term advantage of the GOP’s politics of division, it is now facing the fallout,” writes Patterson. “Millions of younger adults, women, Blacks, Latinx, Asian Americans, LGBTQ, and the college-educated will be pulling the Democratic lever for years to come.”

The media trap is also not as obvious. Patterson maintains that Republican power grew as the power of right-wing media grew from the early 1990s onward, as “more than 40 million Americans were listening to right-wing talk shows, with millions more tuned to right-wing blogs and websites” each week.

But that same media that propelled the GOP into power has painted it into an ideological corner.

“The framers of the Constitution designed a governing process based on compromise and accommodation,” Patterson writes. “Yet the mere hint of compromise sends right-wing media into a frenzy.”

That is mainly because of the steady drumbeat of hostility generated by right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and social media platforms. And much of the information these media sources put out is simply not factual. In 2018, Oxford University Press published Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, by Harvard researchers Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, who studied 4 million media messages during the 2016 presidential election and concluded that messaging on the right is laced with “disinformation, lies, and half-truths.”

“When a party makes a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, other things begin to unravel,” writes Patterson. “On everything from climate change to immigration, right-wing Republicans have views that are wildly at odds with the facts.”

The money trap is the dissonance of a political party that campaigns on fiscal discipline but has spent much of its energies giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations. Those giveaways please the people who write the checks that fund the GOP’s campaigns but not working-class and middle-class voters, who are beginning to realize that they are getting the dirty end of the stick.

“Republican voters are united on cultural and national security issues but divided on economic issues,” writes Patterson. “Scapegoating doesn’t work forever, and class awareness is rising in America, propelled by income inequality, wage stagnation, growing personal debt, and high housing and health insurance costs.”

* * *

Finally, there is the biggest trap of all for Republicans, the one that opened up and nearly swallowed our republic whole on Jan. 6 — the moral trap.

“Democracies depend on norms — unwritten rules about how leaders and citizens should behave,” writes Patterson. “One norm is forbearance — the idea that political power should be used with restraint rather than weaponized and taken to its lawful limits. Such norms have little standing in today’s Republican Party.”

In state elections in North Carolina in 2016 and in Wisconsin in 2018, we saw Republican-controlled legislatures rewrite the laws to strip power from the two Democratic candidates who were elected governor in those respective states.

We’ve seen Republican-controlled state legislatures re-draw election maps to ensure that only GOP candidates will be elected, even in states where Democrats outnumber Republicans.

And we’ve seen Republican-controlled state legislatures pass laws to make it harder for people to vote, particularly the young, people of low income, and people of color.

They add up to what has been an article of faith among many Republicans since the Reagan years — the only acceptable election outcome is for a Republican to win, and any victory by a Democrat is illegitimate.

These abuses of power fueled the record-breaking turnouts for voting in 2020 among those very groups that Republicans tried so hard to keep from the polls. They know their party is shrinking and, with non-whites expected to be a majority of the U.S. population within a generation, they have all but forfeited their chance to ever gain their trust.

Patterson believes that to work properly, a democracy “requires two parties that are ideologically distinct but equally civic-minded. One of those parties needs to be a responsible center-right party, the place on the political spectrum that the GOP once occupied. To say the current version of the Republican Party will have difficulty reoccupying that place is self-evident.”

“No Conservative party true to its ideological heritage would ever engage in undemocratic practices as freely as today’s Republican Party,” concludes Patterson. “Western conservative parties have historically accepted responsibility for guarding political norms and protecting political processes and institutions. The break from that tradition in today’s Republican Party testifies to what it has become. The GOP is now a Conservative party only in name. It’s a reactionary party.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #595 (Wednesday, January 13, 2021). This story appeared on page B1.

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