United by Fear: When the GOP lost its legitimacy as a political party after capitulating to a radical fringe
“US News and World Report” published a story about how the fringe has become the mainstream in the Republican Party. The headline of their story said it all: “Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Rises From GOP Fringe to Front.” The backstory here is fascinating and grim.
The GOP is no longer a normal political party with a single governing philosophy: instead, it’s become a coalition of interest groups, each seeking its own ends. How did we get here, and where will this crisis of political governance lead America?
It all started with the billionaires. Of course, back then they were merely worth hundreds of millions, but in today’s dollars they were billionaires even in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote about them in a letter to his rightwing brother Edgar in 1954, the middle of his presidency.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
What Eisenhower never anticipated, however, was that 5 corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court would rule that billionaires buying off politicians was mere “free speech” rather than political corruption and bribery. Had he lived to see it happen (he died in 1969), he would have been shocked to his core.
Today those rightwing extremist billionaires have an outsized influence in the GOP. They’re pouring hundreds of millions into this fall’s elections, and every Republican politician must bow to them and their low-tax, no-regulation desires to gain or hold political office. Cross them and you’re toast in GOP politics.
But billionaires aren’t enough to make a political party and win elections so, when the GOP put itself up for sale in 1978 after Lewis Powell wrote the decision in the Bellotti Supreme Court case allowing that, the Republicans around Reagan pulled together a coalition of voters large enough to win elections. They are:
- 1. Southern white racists. This was, for the GOP, low-hanging fruit. A group identified in the 1960s by the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns, Kevin Phillips told The New York Times in 1970 how it would work:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
- 2. Homophobes and misogynists. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s this group was actively courted by rightwing hate radio hosts like Limbaugh with his “Hillary Clinton Testicle Lockbox” and “Feminazi” slurs. There are enough men insecure about their own sexuality that hating on women and queer folk became a popular sport, particularly as the women’s and gay rights movements gained steam during that era.
- 3. Lower-middle-class working white people. This was the result of genius branding largely promoted by Lee Atwater back in the day. Exploit the brands of NASCAR, the NFL, and Country Music, which were reliably Democratic until the 1980s, causing working-class white people to think the GOP was their home.
- 4. Upper middle class white people. Ironically, this is the group that’s been most badly screwed by Republican tax policies, but they vote reliably Republican in any case. While billionaires pay only around 3% income taxes these days because of loopholes they paid Republicans to drill into law, people like surgeons making a few hundred thousand a year often pay 50% or more in taxes. Which, of course, makes them all the more vulnerable to the GOP’s tax-cut mantra, even if this group typically only gets a small slice of the cuts.
- 5. Authoritarian followers. This group has blossomed since the Trump campaign of 2016. These are people openly skeptical of democracy, instead wanting a strong father figure to lead them and tell them how to think, act, and vote. They make up the majority of the January 6th traitors (although there’s a lot of overlap with the racists), and are ready to follow the next authoritarian leader who replaces Trump (a position for which DeSantis, Hawley, Scott, Cotton, and Cruz are competing).
Because the GOP has no unifying philosophy other than hate, fear, and kowtowing to billionaires and their giant corporations, the politicians who make up its governing class are similarly fractured.
Neoliberalism was their uniting philosophy in 1980 and Reagan cemented that system into place with his presidency: it still controls most of the American political and economic system and dictates most modern Supreme Court decisions as well.
But, while they do not generally recognize the word neoliberalism, that system which includes offshoring jobs, massive“trickle-down” tax cuts for the rich, privatization of government functions, and gutting the social safety net has fallen out of favor among most voters. (See: The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America)
This has left the GOP rudderless. Their persistent shout-outs to racists and homophobes — including efforts to ban books and the teaching of American History — have helped Republican politicians win primary elections, but have hurt Republicans electorally with their better-educated and higher income voters.
Similarly, their embrace of Catholic anti-abortion doctrine has pushed away many formerly Republican female voters while failing to further energize or increase the numbers of the fringe that holds this issue with fanatic zeal.
As a result, other than Senator Rick Scott’s proposals for ending Social Security and Medicare within 5 years and more calls for tax cuts, Republican politicians in state and federal office have been reduced to simply opposing everything Democrats do or want to do.
Republicans are now so devoted to reflexively opposing anything Democrats embrace that they literally led hundreds of thousands of their own followers to their deaths by ridiculing masks and vaccines during the worst pandemic in more than a century.
This lack of a clear ideological foundation across the GOP has opened the door to:
- Predatory grifters (Mehmet Oz, Matt Gaetz, Rick Scott)
- Wannabee stars and fame-seekers (Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Ted Cruz)
- Putin-style autocrats (Blake Masters, Doug Mastriano, Ron DeSantis)
Donald Trump, filling all three categories simultaneously, predictably became the “King of the Thieves” in the GOP: those who aspire to replace him are discovering it’s a damn hard act to follow, making Republican voters even more vulnerable to each of those three GOP factions.
With Trump in crisis and not on the ballot this year, the democracy-hating autocrats in the group are offering everybody else a simple formula for holding onto their wealth, fame, and power: rig elections.
While the idea would have been blasphemous just a few decades ago even in GOP circles (which accounts for the Lincoln Project-types of Republican defectors), it’s now embraced across what’s left of the Party.
When the Supreme Court legalized voter roll purges in 2018, every Republican-controlled state jumped on the bandwagon.
Estimates for the number of Democratic voters who’ll discover themselves purged from the rolls this fall range from a low of 3 million to a high of 15 million (10 million is probably a reasonable guess). Democratic voters in Texas, Georgia, Ohio, and Arizona will be hit particularly hard.
While Democrats have devoted themselves to registering people to vote for decades, Republicans have been persistently removing voters from the rolls with no consequence whatsoever. Having discarded democracy from your governing philosophy makes rationalizing such behavior not only easy but attractive.
So, where will this lead the GOP and America? Some argue that America today is much like Italy in 1929 or Germany in 1934, but both Mussolini and Hitler had clear governing philosophies. Both countries were united by their leaders around a genuine (if toxic) sort of nationalism.
But it is a highly imperfect analogy. Both autocrats expanded the social safety net in both countries (including free university and free healthcare), and began massive public works projects like Germany’s autobahn and Italy’s infamous on-time train system.
By 1938 Hitler was on the cover of TIME magazine for a second time and was arguably the most popular politician in the history of Germany. Mussolini engendered a similarly fanatical following.
Neither leader would have countenanced party members embracing foreign leaders the way Republican politicians like the 57 House and 11 Senate Republicans who openly rejected aid to Ukraine and instead embraced Vladimir Putin.
The simple reality is that today’s GOP, having abandoned Eisenhower’s “moderation” and depending on hate and fear to animate its base, is in a crisis.
Being this close to having the power to destroy American democracy may appear to belie that fact, but it is true. If Democrats beat Republicans in a blowout next month, will the GOP reform itself? Will it devolved into a rump party?
Or, like the Nazis in the early 1930s when they suffered electoral setbacks at the hands of the socialists and communists, will the bigots and authoritarian followers among the GOP base be double-energized, leading to a resurgent and even more fascist-leaning Republican Party?
At this moment it is impossible to know. But having a clear vision of where we are and how we got here will surely help us navigate this uncertain future.
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© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as A Political Party With an Armed Paramilitary Wing Is Not Consistent with Democracy
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