What Motivates the Republican Party?

The GOP seems wildly hypocritical and unprincipled, until you understand its guiding idea.

In the fall of 2014, the Obama White House was busy trying to stop the spread of Ebola. The administration sent advisers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist the afflicted countries’ health ministries, and it sent troops to West Africa to build emergency hospitals. It began screening people arriving in the United States from at-risk nations. It isolated and treated several American medical personnel who contracted the virus abroad and brought it back home.

Toward the end of his new book, The Imposters, Steve Benen reminds us of what the Republican Party was doing while all of this was happening:

As Election Day neared . . . Kentucky Republican [Rand Paul’s] eagerness to exploit public anxieties started to spin out of control. Paul publicly questioned Ebola assessments from the actual experts, blamed “political correctness” for the Ebola threat, and traveled to battleground states questioning whether Obama administration officials had the “basic level of competence” necessary to maintain public safety.

He added soon after, describing a hypothetical flight, “If this was a plane full of people who were symptomatic, you’d be at grave risk of getting Ebola. If a plane takes twelve hours, how do you know if people will become symptomatic or not?”

Fast-forward five and a half years. In March 2020, Paul was infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and did not self-quarantine. Instead, he spent time in the Capitol Hill swimming pool while waiting for his test results, potentially exposing his Senate colleagues. After he recovered, Donald Trump appointed him to a task force focused on quickly “reopening” the economy.

The Impostors:
How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics
by Steve Benen
William Morrow, 384 pp.

Benen, a blogger and producer for Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (and, as it happens, my predecessor as principal contributor to the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog), obviously could not have anticipated the pandemic when he wrote of Paul’s exploits. But the example does show his eerie ability to identify GOP hypocrisy. And in many ways, it’s representative of what the entire book is: a staggering chronicle of Republican duplicity. Benen shows that in order to score points and win elections, the Republican Party is willing to engage in completely contradictory behavior—even when it’s a matter of life and death.

The Imposters is a skillful illustration of how rank cynicism allowed Donald Trump to easily take control of the Republican Party. Republicans, Benen shows, already had subordinated their traditions and alleged values to unprincipled hypocrisy, indifference to facts and empirical data, and self-serving partisanship long before Trump arrived. The GOP created a vacuum in its own soul that the 45th president was easily able to fill with his inflated self-regard and his uninhibited politics of lies and polarization.

To prove this, Benen focuses much of his attention on the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when Republican politicians made everything the 44th president did or tried to do the object of unremitting hostility. The book is most effective in analyzing the destructive austerity policies Republicans insisted on during and immediately after the Great Recession. The party, he notes, now cheers for budget deficits and debt (as it did under George W. Bush), but it posed as fiscal disciplinarians as long as Obama was in office. Benen writes,

The economic conditions that Barack Obama inherited couldn’t have been more dire. And yet, upon taking office, the Democrat from Illinois faced immediate demands to balance the budget from the same Republicans who’d uprooted the nation’s fiscal foundations. The GOP’s overwhelming hypocrisy and cynicism were obvious, but what was less appreciated was the degree to which the party was generally incoherent on the subject.

In the first year of the Obama era, for example, many Republican leaders with indefensible fiscal records struggled to explain their metamorphoses. Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, told the Associated Press that “it was standard practice not to pay for things” during the Bush-Cheney era.

When Trump came along, it became standard practice again:

Eight years of rhetoric about a “debt crisis” came to an abrupt halt on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017—not because the fiscal picture changed, but because the need to maintain the scam ended. To believe that the GOP changed its mind between the Obama and Trump presidencies is to believe that Republicans were occasionally sincere about their fiscal philosophy. 

Benen is rightfully concerned with the consequences this flip-flopping has for America. And in a long chapter on Republican brinkmanship, which was expressed in threats to shut down the federal government and the actual shutdowns the GOP engineered in and out of power, he displays the ultimate fruits of post-policy politics: a complete inability to govern: “In 2013 the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty described the dynamic as ‘governing by near-death experience,’ adding, ‘It is as though Washington has had backward evolution—
operating as a primitive, leaderless village where petulance passes for governance.’”

And that was before Trump took office. Since his election, the GOP has effectively proved that non-governing is its operating procedure. The party closed down the government for 35 days, from December 2018 to January 2019, the longest shutdown in U.S. history. For part of it, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. It ended with Trump, who proudly took ownership over the shutdown, accepting a deal he could have had from the get-go.

The Imposters is a valuable reference book on Republican irresponsibility. But I believe the hollowness and cluelessness on which Benen focuses is not purely the product of wanting to win, as he sometimes implies. Instead, it has roots in conservative ideology that go deeper than partisan expediency. And this ideology helps explain the party’s ruthlessness. 

Over the last several decades, the Republican Party has been conquered by the Christian right and the overwhelmingly white Tea Party movement. The former has a theocratic vision for America. The latter militantly opposes economic redistribution. These movements converged with a realization that demographic trends were unfriendly to their party’s older base, generating a white identity politics that found its natural expression in the intensely divisive and intermittently racist stylings of Trump.

Consider, for example, Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” It is effectively a pledge to return to the days when white men walked tall in America, Christianity was a quasi-official creed, and foreign influences were on the margins of national life—precisely the world that most Republicans yearn for. Trump’s steady appointment of conservative judges gives evangelicals, many of whom believe that abortion is literal murder, exactly what they want. His heavy (if erratic) investment in restrictionist immigration policies has always been central to his appeal, and the sudden lurch of the GOP in that direction after George W. Bush and John McCain championed a more diverse future was far from being just another area of Republican electoral opportunism. 

Indeed, some of what Benen sees as simple cynicism is arguably ideological as well. Consider, for example, the party’s embrace of devious voter suppression and gerrymandering. Benen treats these as a by-product of Republican opportunism. But for a party existentially committed to restoring (or preserving) white, Christian supremacy in the face of increasing diversity, they are a direct means of delivering that dominance. Similarly, the determination of Republicans to resist any hint of gun regulation, despite public opinion (which The Imposters documents thoroughly), isn’t just a matter of gun lobby campaign contributions. Instead, it comes from a genuine belief among grassroots conservatives that armed struggle against what Trump calls “radical Democrat elites” must remain an option if conventional politics fails.

Arguably the root problem with the GOP, then, isn’t extreme partisanship or a lazy dependence on lobbyists or a taste for fact-free demagoguery. It is the belief that a virtual civil war is necessary to impose Red America’s will on Blue America, now and forever. Donald Trump, with his contempt for democratic norms and his authoritarian narcissism, knows about as much as he needs to for the task of banana republic rule. He is a suitable vessel for this project.

But regardless of whether Benen is right about the GOP’s motivations, he knows what must occur to make them to stop their assault: 

Throughout American history, the most powerful force for partisan change has been the incentive to win elections. Major parties overhaul their tactics and perspectives not after victories but in the wake of multiple defeats. With this in mind, the Republican Party is likely to become a governing party again when American voters tell the GOP it has no other choice.

It needs to happen sooner rather than later.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.