How the GOP Became a Cult of Personality

It started years before Donald Trump’s emergence.

As the Republican Convention kicks off on Monday, the GOP announced that they would not create a 2020 party platform. Here are the relevant statements from that resolution:

Whereas, the RNC, had the platform committee been able to convene in 2020, would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his administration…

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,

Resolved, that the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.

What you have is a political party abdicating the traditional role of outlining a policy agenda in favor of simply endorsing the president. There are those who would refer to that as a cult of personality—and they’d have a point.

The problem is that, until Sunday, the president hasn’t bothered to articulate his “America-first agenda.” To fix that, the Trump campaign released a three-page document purporting to be the president’s “second term agenda.” To put that in some perspective, Andrew Feinberg points out that Joe Biden’s campaign website has “detailed plans and agendas for 46 separate issue areas.” To give you some idea of just how vacuous Trump’s “agenda” is, take a look at what it says about health care.

* Cut prescription drug prices,
* Put patients and doctors back in charge of our health care system,
* Lower health care insurance premiums,
* End surprise billing,
* Cover all pre-existing conditions,
* Protect Social Security and Medicare,
* Protect our veterans and provide world-class health care and services.

These are things Trump has been promising to do since the 2016 election. He’s had four years to develop a plan to accomplish them and we’ve seen nothing. That’s because they’re just slogans—not plans.

Simultaneous to these announcements comes a piece by Tim Alberta titled, “The Grand Old Meltdown: What happens when a party gives up on ideas?” He set out to interview Republican consultants and politicians to answer a question that had been posed to him by a group of politically engaged students: “What do Republicans believe? What does it mean to be a Republican?” Here is what he heard from the GOP messaging guru, Frank Luntz.

“You know I don’t have a history of dodging questions. But I don’t know how to answer that. There is no consistent philosophy,” Luntz responded. “You can’t say it’s about making America great again at a time of Covid and economic distress and social unrest. It’s just not credible.”

Luntz thought for a moment. “I think it’s about promoting—” he stopped suddenly. “But I can’t, I don’t—” he took a pause. “That’s the best I can do.”

Alberta recognizes that this is all they’ve got:

It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator Sanford alluded to. If it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.

“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”

The one problem with Alberta’s piece is that he allocates the blame for all of that to Donald Trump. But there are those of us who have been pointing out that the GOP became the post-policy party years ago. I first heard that description from Steve Benen, who has now written a whole book about it titled, The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics. Here’s an excerpt:

The current iteration of the GOP is indifferent to the substance of governing. It is disdainful of expertise and analysis. It is hostile toward evidence and arithmetic. It is tethered to few, if any, meaningful policy preferences. It does not know, and does not care, about how competing proposals should be crafted, scrutinized, or implemented.

The modern Republican Party has become a post-policy party.

The truth is that the GOP has been drifting towards a post-policy position for decades. As I’ve pointed out over and over again, that drift came to a head at the end of George W. Bush’s tenure. Both their domestic and foreign policy agenda had been decimated by things like the Great Recession, the debacle of the federal government’s response to Katrina, and two endless wars in the Middle East. Their choice at that point was not to rethink their agenda, but to engage in total obstruction of anything Democrats attempted to do. They eschewed the idea of having an agenda in favor of simply being against the one put forward by the opposition. In order to justify that approach, they dipped into the well of fear and racism—which is precisely what led to the presidency of Donald Trump and the GOP’s cult of personality.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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