Politico on Sunday led with a story on the Republican Party’s rapid descent into an organization with no real policies or ideas. It’s a trend that even many conservatives have been noting with alarm for years, one that predated Trump’s ascent to the 2016 nomination but accelerated as Trump’s cult of personality began to dominate the GOP. It is now reaching its zenith in the GOP’s punitive obsession with new voter suppression laws to fix a “voter fraud” problem that does not exist except in conservative conspiracy theories.
The proximate cause of the shift to this “policy wasteland” is supposed to be Trump’s sometimes heterodox, more often carelessly oblivious approach to governance, combined with a combative, oppositional approach to politics. The Republican Party didn’t even bother to craft a platform at its 2020 convention, functionally subjugating the organization’s intellectual cortex to Trump’s impulsive amygdala. The GOP base is still reeling from and often refuses to accept Trump’s defeat, leading to both the January 6th insurrection attempt at the Capitol as well as a rash of new Jim Crow voting laws.
But the Republican Party’s abdication of policy as its raison d’etre is not really about Trump. Trump is rather a symptom of the problem, not the disease. Two trends converged to bring the Republican Party to its current state.
First, the free market, anti-government domestic policy platform combined with the aggressively hawkish foreign policy agenda that had been the GOP’s ideological core since Reagan has been a disastrous failure going back decades, and has no answers for the crises that beset modern America. Laissez-faire, anti-union economic policy has decimated the middle class, widening the gulf between the few at the top and the many at the bottom. The wage stagnation crisis was papered over for a time by rising real estate and other asset prices, but those only served to benefit the generations that bought in on the ground floor.
Decades of free-market policy designed to boost assets while reducing wages has hollowed out the economy while creating an acute crisis for Americans under 40, who are so desperate and disenchanted with the miserable prospects conservative policy has left them that they strongly prefer socialism over capitalism. Modern conservative policy has no answers whatsoever for rising healthcare, education and housing costs. And climate change presents just as great a threat to Republican market orthodoxy as it does to the ecosystem itself: the market simply cannot organically react to climate change in time to avoid disastrous tipping points from emissions. Proactive regulation is a necessary condition for stopping climate change, which is why Republicans cannot create policy solutions around it. They must pretend it does not exist or does not matter.
Meanwhile, of course, Bush-era neoconservative military forays into the Middle East were such catastrophic disasters that Trump’s GOP now repudiates them. Nor are modern challenges like China, North Korea or Russia amenable either to paleoconservative isolationism or Cheney-style swashbuckling. The GOP simply has no answers for any of our current policy challenges, foreign or domestic. It would need an ideological overhaul to put relevant ideas on the table.
But second and more importantly, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of white Christian Identity. Much as conservatives love to rail against supposed “identity politics” on the left, it is the Republican Party that is (despite Trump’s minor gains among non-whites in 2020) almost uniformly devoted to white and evangelical Christian identity. It is also mostly male as well.
Being a party dedicated to white supremacy, Bible-thumping prejudice and misogyny doesn’t just make it a morally and socially hazardous toxic dump site for the worst impulses in American culture. It doesn’t just put the party on a collision course with demographic doom as America becomes invariably less white and less evangelical over time. It also makes for a barren policy cupboard.
U.S. policy, from its voting systems to its zoning laws, from its prison systems to its tax laws, is already set up to reify conditions of structural racism and misogyny. Many of the minor attempts to address those structural inequalities, from the Voting Rights Act to affirmative action to Great Society welfare policies, were repealed in the Reagan-Clinton era backlash. Any attempts to further benefit whites at the expense of non-whites, Christians at the expense on non-Christians, and cis men at the expense of other identities, would almost certainly be unconstitutional. They would also repulse the majority of voters.
Moreover, the same forces that free market conservatives unleashed on Americans with particularly harmful impacts on non-whites such as harsh prison sentences, woeful drug laws and slashing protections for blue-collar workers, are now having devastating impacts on white communities as well. The same progressive policies that the left has championed for years now are also the best tickets for helping the struggling white working class. It is becoming harder for the party of patriarchy to champion crude Social Darwinist meritocracy when women far outnumber men going to college. But decades of propaganda against those policies have left the GOP listless and unable to rework its policy agenda, beyond the occasional lurching action on drugs or prison reform.
This is why the only real policy innovations on the Right over the last decade have been on immigration–the one arena where conservatives could theoretically Make America White Again. Of all the employees at the White House, Stephen Miller was probably the closest to having a real policy agenda. But, of course, that agenda was particularly monstrous, cruel and unpopular–a betrayal of the open identity of America and an affront to common decency. Trump’s immigration agenda was such a horror show that it was practically sidelined for the entire 2020 election campaign.
So all conservatives have left is a spent, useless and discredited policy platform incapable of addressing modern problems, and a White Christian Identity base that cannot legitimately, morally or Constitutionally establish policy to perpetuate its power.
All they have left is opposition, voter suppression and judges. Don’t do anything about crises–but also don’t let anyone else do anything about them, either. Don’t say the racism too loud (though that’s changing fast), but also make sure no one else gets to vote or have any power. Don’t pass any laws, but just let some extremist Federalist Society judges stop anyone else from passing any laws, either.
This dynamic is not going to change anytime soon, regardless of how long Trump holds sway over the party.