This is first of two essays in which I discuss the way forward for both Republican and Democratic Parties.
Recently one of my readers suggested that I discuss what I think both major parties should do to address racism and other problems facing the US. I’m not sure that is quite the right question. I can only say that overall, with a few sad exceptions of course, Democrats, as a party, have been going in the right direction. They should move faster and more surely in the direction advanced by their black and progressive constituents. As to the Republicans, they are on the wrong side of every debate about every issue we need to address. I see no real future for them.
For that reason, I want to leave aside the future of the Democratic party for now and focus on two questions about the GOP: Why did the GOP fall under the sway of Donald Trump so quickly and so completely? Does the new “Party of Trump” offer any real way forward for our country?
First, the obvious reason the GOP threw the ideas of their old “intellectual elite” overboard so quickly for Trump was because they simply didn’t work. A famous political scientist once said that a nation was finished when its ruling elite abandoned the ideas around which a ruling consensus had once revolved. I think this is true of a party as well.
It is really fascinating to listen to the old guard of GOP conservatism today. There is a whole slough of conservative “thinkers” who have completely rejected Trump. Just to name a few starting from the Reagan years— Peggy Noonan, George Will, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens, Rick Tyler, Nicole Wallace, David Gergen, Jennifer Rubin, etc. etc. etc. Then you can add to that the GOP’s elected elites. Starting with former presidential candidates we see that George W. Bush won’t be seen with Trump, John McCain despised Trump, Mitt Romney voted to impeach Trump. Down the line, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, John Kasich, and a whole raft of other elected officials have denounced Trump and even endorsed Biden. Then there are literally thousands of former GOP administration officials, Generals, and foreign service and intel officials who have come out against Trump. We could start with Colin Powell, General Mattis, and John Bolton— they disagree about a lot, but not about Trump’s unfitness for office. The depth of the revulsion is truly staggering. Clearly, Trump and what used to be the GOP have totally parted ways.
Yet the other truly staggering thing is that the GOP’s erstwhile supporters have apparently chosen to trust Trump’s leadership over their old GOP establishment. What can possibly explain this strange phenomenon? I think the answer is simple: First, the rank and file sensed the deep-rooted failure of their own old policies (which could have been a good thing and a turning point) and next, they rejected the old ideas in favor of something else even worse—a chaotic mish-mash of conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism.
In order to fully unravel this, we need to look closely at the old conservative ideas and how they failed— and will continue to fail— to address our current problems. We can start with racism.
Republicans embraced racism back when they enacted Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Their tendency to use racism to court white voters has only gotten worse since then. It has culminated in the fantastic and quite open racism of Donald Trump. Republicans have turned into a blind alley— not just on racism but on many other issues as well. As I see it, there is no longer any realistic way forward for them—nor any solution they can offer on the real problems confronting our nation.
In addition to systemic racism, there are five other basic and enormous challenges facing the US today. They are: 1. the global coronavirus pandemic, 2. our approach to healthcare, 3. climate change, 4. a failure to realistically respond to foreign policy challenges, 5. a failure to address all the issues raised by vast disparities in the distribution of wealth.
All six issues share two things in common—effective solutions all revolve around serious restructuring of our economy. The other thing they have in common is that the GOP offers no way forward on any of them. Even their old ideas represented a staggering failure to re-imagine the economy in a way that addresses these core challenges. Trump’s approach fails even more badly.
For years, the GOP preached an agenda of “states rights,” “small government,” “strict adherence to the constitution,” “individual rights,” “fiscal responsibility,” and “deregulation.” Tragically, these somewhat appealing ideals were usually invoked in totally self-serving partisan ways. Ironically, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush threw most of these principles overboard—because they were not really up to facing a national emergency. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier piece in this blog (“The Myth of the Unprecedented Trump”) the Bush administration pioneered a set of policies that foreshadowed the advent of Trumpism. It is no coincidence that the Bush years ended in a major financial meltdown, the birth of the Tea Party and a period of increasing divisiveness in government.
Let me give just two quick examples to show how ill-suited GOP ideology is to be addressing the challenges of the future—the related concepts of “small government” and “deregulation.”
We live in a world that is growing increasingly complex. There is increasing globalization and expanded interaction with other nations and other markets. There is a virtual explosion of new drugs, chemicals, and other technologies. Our population grows by leaps and bounds. Our food chains are increasingly compromised by pollution. Global climate change and all the complications it brings with it in terms of security threats, climate refugees etc., worsen the equation. Our need for good, scientific data on all these fronts must be met if we are to remain competitive as a nation within this virtual storm. In this context, the idea that we need “smaller government” is truly laughable.
Clearly, government needs to grow in size if we are to manage all these challenges and remain competitive in the modern world. Every one of the challenges I just listed calls for more government oversight and regulation. So, we come to deregulation.
For decades Republicans have preached that deregulation is the key to solving our problems. Instead, they have preached the idea that corporations would responsibly “self-regulate.” That is like preaching abstinence to a teenager as a form of birth control. It doesn’t work. “Just say no” to drugs hasn’t warded off the opioid epidemic either. And finally, if any institution should be expected to “self-regulate” you would expect that the police would be the best at that—but they have failed miserably to control the abuses and brutality in their own ranks. Hence the plague of police brutality against minorities.
The truth is, almost every bout of deregulation has led to meltdowns and government bailouts (the Saving and Loan debacle in the 1980s, the investment bank bailouts of the 1990s, the mortgage disaster of 2008). I guess we should add the pandemic induced collapse of the economy we live in today because Trump removed the pandemic advisors in the NSA and disaster followed—a vital form of regulation…
Republicans always talk tough about national security. Over a decade ago, the Pentagon assessed that the greatest threat to our long-term national security lay in the population displacements brought on by global climate change. Just as many in the GOP fail to even acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, the GOP continues to deny that climate change is real. How then, can they possibly reposition the nations to meet these threats? Quite simply, they can’t.
At the root of all this is the GOP’s refusal to admit a simple fact—unregulated capitalism can never meet the needs of a national state. There are sectors where private enterprise simply doesn’t allocate resources in ways that serve the national interest (public utilities, education, healthcare, the postal system, law enforcement and prison systems, the military, addressing systemic racism, etc.). Yet, if there is anything the GOP is adverse to, it is any action to address the problem of wealth inequality in America.
A really crucial example of the flaw in the “private enterprise model” is Trump’s egregious attack on the postal service. The importance of the Postal Service is suggested by the fact that a leading founding father (Ben Franklin) was appointed as our first Postmaster General. It was never intended to be a business— only to be somewhat self supporting. In return it was a vital piece of national infrastructure that facilitated commercial, legal, and private transactions across the country. It was the internet— linking our vast nation together. It was and remains as vital as highways and trains and air-service. It has only recently become a vital part of our election infrastructure as well. Indeed, it is perhaps more important now than the election day polls. So it surpasses coincidence that Trump would try to strangle it with a crucial election approaching—except as a way to suppress votes.
The fact is, the old guard of the GOP advanced an agenda that, while it allowed some people and companies to become obscenely rich, simply doesn’t solve CURRENT national problems. It is because the facts increasingly show this, that the “new” GOP under Trump is trying to undermine our basic faith in facts, data, and science and instead tries to govern on the basic of “alternative” facts and Trump’s own fantasies. If we need anything now, it is good scientific data, transparency, and oversight. Trump has tried to undermine all that in every way possible. His minions have even undermined the information coming form the CDC, information which is central to fighting the current pandemic.
I hear a lot of talk from old GOP believers who reject Trump about how to “reinvent” their party. My first question to them would be: “Why bother?” If the old ideas didn’t work, and the new ones are just the old ones taken to unacceptable extremes, what is worth left saving? The old GOP was no stranger to race-baiting, misogyny, fear mongering, voter-suppression, xenophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric, antagonism towards international institutions and hawkish military posturing. These were largely tactics to win votes so they could impose their domestic agenda. Now, there is no real, workable agenda— Trump merely amplifies the old tactics to suit his whims. The 2020 RNC didn’t even offer a platform. It would make sense to have a party if they had a clear agenda. Since they don’t, why don’t they just join the Democrats. What the country needs at this point is to re-establish some kind of shared consensus on how to govern. There will always be factions in a large-tent party— but that needn’t entail the partisan venom that has paralyzed the country for some years.
To my mind the GOP, both old and new, have nothing left to offer in terms of true national leadership. As the great poet Lou Reed once said, “Stick a fork in their a$$ and turn them over. They are done.”