The Unique Challenges Facing a Movement With No Agenda

A historical perspective isn’t captured by the description of just one event. That is why so may people have suggested that the current status of the Republican Party is not some kind of anomaly, but one that has its roots in the past.

We can go all the wayback to the formation of the party in the nineteenth century to get a complete view. But when it comes to the modern era, the end of the George W. Bush presidency marked a real turning point. The failure of the wars in the Middle East, combined with Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, left the GOP’s agenda in tatters. That could have provided the party with an opportunity to think through their principles and regroup—just as Democrats did after major defeats in the 1980s.

Instead, GOP leaders decided to embrace a strategy of total obstruction to defeat anything President Obama and Democrats tried to accomplish. Without an agenda of their own, they fanned the flames of racism and fear among their supporters to sustain their strategy. That laid the groundwork for the election of Donald Trump and the specter of a Republican Party that has nothing to offer voters except fear-mongering about “others” and a demonization of their opponents.

Jonathan Chait captured this in his piece titled, “Brexit and Trumpism Have Failed Because Conservative Populism Is a Lie.”

Conservative populism has utterly failed to translate the political impulses behind them into a plausible governing agenda. It is a visceral reaction against multiculturalism and modernity that has not only failed to produce concrete solutions for its supporters, but doesn’t even know what to ask for.

As we all know, conservatives have a huge array of think tanks that need to raise millions of dollars to keep their doors open. Chait notes the problem that poses by writing, “There’s no need to raise millions of dollars for think tanks and endowed chairs if the party’s thought process begins and ends with Sean Hannity’s sock-puppet routine.” Then he provides a most entertaining example of how Peter Berkowitz, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, reinterpreted Trump’s declaration, “I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”

“Conservatives have tended to recognize the unruliness of the passions and the limits of reason. They believe that recondite reflection and abstract theory tend to obscure practical matters; as a guide to politics, conservatives strongly prefer experience and practical wisdom,” he argues. “Burke allied with the people against ‘the political men of letters’ — the progressive public intellectuals of his day.”

That’s when the fun really begins for Chait.

Apparently this innate distrust of elites is why conservatives should accept and even welcome a leader of the free world who has been described in the following terms by his own appointees: “Fucking moron” (Rex Tillerson), an “idiot” (John Kelly, John Dowd), a “dope” (H.R. McMaster), “dumb as shit” (Gary Cohn) with the comprehension level of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” (James Mattis), or “an 11-year-old-child” (Steve Bannon). A president with an attention span so minuscule his aides have to use large-type placards festooned with brief slogans and colorful graphics, it seems, is the worthy heir to Sir Edmund Burke himself.

What comes to mind is the old adage, “you can’t put lipstick on a pig.” Try as they might, conservative think tanks are going to have a hard time putting an intellectual face on a president who is a “f*cking moron” and a party that has no agenda. Perhaps that has something to do with why conservative leaders are so quick to label anyone with real ideas as “elitist.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.