Why the Republican Party Is Doomed
Unlike the “cultural populism” that costs them nothing, the GOP’s rich rulers can’t abide real share-the-wealth populism
I finished writing my book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History at the beginning of 2016, when the leaders of the Republican Party were still desperately trying to keep Donald Trump from winning their presidential nomination. At the end of 2016, when he was president-elect, I retitled my last chapter “As Fantasyland Goes, So Goes the Nation.”
“During the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century,” I’d written before he was elected, “the GOP turned into the Fantasy Party, with a beleaguered reality-based wing. A far-right counterculture empowered its millions of followers and took over the American right, as their extremist predecessors succeeded in doing to evangelicalism and the gun lobby three decades earlier….Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis. If he hadn’t run for president, I might not have mentioned him at all. But here he is, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize this book.”
So that aged pretty well. By the summer of 2020, we were so inured to the insane personality cult the GOP had become that their decision to forego a party platform was buried on page 20 of The New York Times’ print edition. Their official resolution could have been satire: “WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump” and “WHEREAS…had the Platform Committee been able to convene…[it] would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump,” then “RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
That moment — Platform? We don’t need no stinkin’ platform! — was a key late-stage milestone in the GOP’s accelerating decay. By admitting that Whatever Trump Says is their only inviolate commitment, the party was being breathtakingly candid — in a specifically Trumpian way. It is the pathological liar’s blithe, unhinged honesty (about his bigotries, brutishness, selfishness, conspiracy theories, gangsterism) that most excites his most adoring supporters.
For a half century through 2016, the political balancing act of Republican leaders, reality-based evil geniuses like Mitch McConnell, worked well for them: stoke the rabble’s contempt for certain kinds of people (non-white, highly educated, gay, urban, irreligious, take your pick) in order to keep the rabble voting for Republicans, who then focus on pursuing what really matters, the evil geniuses’ economic agenda.
Trumpism consists of making the contempt more front-and-center than ever before, the unique selling proposition of the Republican brand — now along with contempt for democracy and (as per Fantasyland) facts and reason as well. During the past decade, this new brazenness has made more and more college-educated people vote Democratic.
Trump’s performance at an official GOP gathering of donors at Mar-a-Lago this past weekend won’t help on that front, keeping or attracting voters and donors who aren’t already cult members. He propagated new fantasies about the election he lost — now involving Marc Zuckerberg and a $500 million “lockbox” of fake votes for Biden — and savaged McConnell, the party’s most powerful and effective national leader, as a “dumb son of a bitch” and “stone cold loser.”
But Trump and Trumpism are just the obvious half the GOP’s existential problem as a party. The other half concerns policy, and connects to that bizarre lack of a 2020 platform. Republicans have no new ideas is the standard summary, but that doesn’t get at the more fundamental and insoluble conundrum that preceded Trump. The Republican evil geniuses offer no new ideas because they’ve long since succeeded at achieving their three big structural goals — minimizing taxes on the rich and business, minimizing the regulation of business, and minimizing the power of workers.
On all of those, they’ve gone about as far as they can go. Only 6% of employees of private companies now belong to unions. The top tax rates on business and rich individuals are much lower than they were for most of the 20th century. When the Republicans try pushing further in big structural ways, like privatizing Social Security or repealing the Affordable Care Act, they fail — and in fact, if they’d succeeded at either of those I think it would’ve been politically disastrous for them, as I think it will be now if the Supreme Court eliminates the constitutional right to an abortion. Are voters about to reward the congressional GOP for unanimously trying to cancel the $1,400 checks that 127 million of them just got? Or angrily rise up to oppose rebuilding bridges and extending broadband and expanding eldercare by means of modestly higher taxes on big corporations and the wealthiest 1% ?
I think not. In fact, given what the Biden Administration and Congress are doing, Democratic candidates in 2022 and 2024 will, for the first time in decades, be able to convincingly say, for instance, that “the Establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” and the other party is desperate to maintain a “power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations.” Too angry, too…socialist?
That’s funny, because those are lines from Donald Trump himself, the voice-over in his big closing ad of the 2016 campaign. So the GOP’s one electorally successful “new idea” of the 21st century is a bitter critique of American capitalism as a rigged and viciously unfair? And even when it comes to fighting the latest culture-war battle, their demonized chief adversaries are Fortune 100 corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta? Good luck with that, Republicans.