You can learn a lot about the people who make up a political party by identifying their heroes. So, who are the heroes of today’s Republicans? If your first thought was Ronald Reagan, you’re showing your age. Reagan was the answer of an earlier time, when we had a different, although not wholly dissimilar, Republican Party. Saint Ronnie, as he was sometimes called back then, was the patron saint of the GOP. Their answer to every question.
Republicans were very effective in pushing this sanctification, or perhaps whitewashing would be better term, of Reagan’s record in office — a process pushed along by the millions of dollars spent in the Ronald Reagan legacy project. Almost certainly the most overrated president in history, he is often listed as one of the top ten in published rankings.
This conservative adulation notwithstanding, Reagan has many sins to answer for. His presidency was marked by complete inaction during the critical first years of the AIDS epidemic, the Iran-Contra Affair, reversal of his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s support of renewable energy technologies, thereby throwing away the planet’s best chance to avoid the devastation of global warming, a doubling down on the GOP’s politics of racial division, including popularizing the racist myth of welfare queens.
But at least he wasn’t Donald Trump. He instigated no riots — never directly threatened our democracy. And as a lot of people have noted, there would be no room for him in today’s GOP.
Many Republicans today would, of course, name Donald Trump as their hero. And while there is evidence his hold on the GOP is weakening, it would be a mistake to underestimate the depth of his support among true believers.
For our purposes, however, Trump is old news. We knew exactly who and what he was years ago. To understand what is going on today in the GOP, we need to explore more recent inductees into the right-wing’s pantheon of giants. We will look at two examples, both troubling.
President Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian strongman, is a bona fide star in American conservative circles. In some ways, this isn’t surprising. On the culture war issues they care the most about, he’s a kindred spirit. He attacks so-called liberal elites, plays to conservative resentments, opposes immigration, attacks abortion and gay rights, and pushes “traditional Christian values.” In short, he’s their kind of autocrat.
There is still, of course, the inconvenient fact that Orbán tore down a previously functioning democracy, effectively becoming a dictator. But Republicans seem troublingly untroubled by this. Presumably this is at least partly a matter of priorities. What’s a little thing like destroying democracy as compared to having a powerful autocrat knocking liberals and spreading conspiracy theories about George Soros? For a lot of Republicans, especially those in the most extreme right, however, destroying American democracy isn’t simply a method of achieving a greater purpose. It is the goal.
And it’s far from comforting that the methods Orbán employed to consolidate power are strikingly similar to things Republicans are pushing right now. Following the 2010 Hungarian election, Orbán gained control of more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, giving him the power to rewrite the constitution and electoral laws in ways that made it virtually impossible for the opposition to win. It was done through extreme gerrymandering, rewriting campaign finance laws, packing the courts with cronies, seizing control of most media outlets, and changing the election process in ways that benefited him politically.
In the end, Hungary was left with only the shell of a democracy. They still hold elections, just not meaningful ones. Orbán christened the process with the appropriately Orwellian name of “illiberal democracy,” later changed to “Christian democracy.”
It’s difficult to view the similarity of current Republican tactics to Orbán’s rise without sensing a correlation, perhaps even a common goal.
Kyle Rittenhouse became a GOP hero for one reason only — he killed people they didn’t like. Taking it upon himself to travel across state lines, armed with a weapon of war, he inserted himself into a tense situation. He then used that weapon to kill two people and wound a third. The jury acquitted him of criminal responsibility. I can’t argue with the verdict, since I didn’t hear the testimony. There is, however, no question Rittenhouse is morally culpable in these shootings. He put himself into a highly volatile situation, heavily armed, when he had no legitimate reason to be involved. And two people died as a result.
This is not, however, how most Republicans seem to see it. They not only view Rittenhouse as a hero, they are happy to revel in this imagined heroism. Rittenhouse was the featured speaker at the far-right Turning Point USA’s Americafest, where he was met by a standing ovation. A journalist reported he was treated like a rock star. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, far-right members of Congress pretended to compete for the honor of hiring him as an intern. Donald Trump posed for a picture with him.
The GOP has grown increasingly comfortable with political violence. The best known example, of course, is the ongoing right-wing effort to whitewash the January 6th insurrection — redefining the murderous attack as legitimate protest. Trump continues to hint that if returned to the White House, he will pardon the rioters, the deaths of law enforcement officers notwithstanding.
And it isn’t just the violence itself. Almost as troubling, is the right wing’s increasingly casual attitude toward it. One particularly appalling example was when various right-wing political and media figures started cracking jokes over Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, being attacked. An 82-year-old man was beaten with a hammer badly enough to require skull surgery, and they not only saw humor in the situation. They felt comfortable showing it in public.
We are living among the echoes of earlier dying democracies. In Orbán’s Hungary, we see the unsettling possibility of a very different America. Watching videos of the brutality of the January 6 assault, it is frighteningly easy to bring up the image of Brownshirts on the march in pre-World War II Germany. Experts on authoritarian movements are screaming from every rooftop. The nightmare is already in motion — all the classic signs of a dying democracy and a growing authoritarian influence are present.
One out of the two major political parties is growing increasingly authoritarian. And given the cycles of American politics, we know someday almost certainly they will win. And they only need to win once. The time to save our democracy is running short.