The media has focused a lot of attention on those few Republicans—Liz Cheney, for example—who have spoken out publicly as the GOP transformed itself before our eyes into an authoritarian Trump cult, committed to overturning fair elections while disenfranchising as many Americans as possible in the process. You can appreciate this effort in the coverage on MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times and others surrounding the supposedly noble attempts by these dissident Republicans to save their party. And the attention is understandable; just seeing Republicans grant interviews to any media outlet other than Fox News has been quite a novelty in itself.
But if the traditional media is hoping such isolated voices as Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and a few others will somehow shift the course of the rest of the GOP—the vast majority of Republicans who have, for purposes of convenience, continued political viability or whether they actually believe in it, embraced this new ethic of sedition, voter disenfranchisement, and outright violence—they’re going to be disappointed. While the outsized coverage afforded to these outlier voices make for compelling political drama, the reality is that they do not represent the now-overwhelming consensus (at least publicly) of the GOP at both the state and national levels: namely, that the party’s future course is now inextricably tied to its obeisance to Donald Trump, and specifically Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was somehow nefariously snatched from his grasp. While most in the media will acknowledge this transformation and the danger it represents, only a few appear to be willing to explore the reasons why that transformation has occurred.
Elie Mystal, writing for the Nation, points out that what we are seeing in the GOP’s stunningly rapid descent into something indistinguishable from nascent fascism is an inevitable byproduct of where that party has been headed since at least the 1950s. He uses former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, the most recent example of Republicans now expressing their indignation at their party’s current trajectory, as an example.
Given that the Republican Party has now mainstreamed infection and insurrection, I get why mainstream media makers might think it’s newsworthy when any erstwhile Republican leader is willing to speak out against the party orthodoxy of lies and deceit. But let’s not make any mistakes about who Ryan still is and what his “principles” are. Before he debased himself into retirement, Ryan was an Ayn Rand sock puppet on a personal crusade to starve the government of resources so it could not deliver services. And the glory days he’s hoping to resurrect are nothing more than that: a return to the days where Republicans expressed their cruelty through charts and graphs instead of tweets and slurs. Ryan just wants the cult of tax cuts to reassert its dominance over the cult of Trump.
Mystal’s central point is that neither Cheney nor Ryan are speaking any language that actual Republican voters understand anymore. That what Trump successfully tapped into: the bigotry, resentment, and grievance—now looming so brightly in everything we see spewed from the pie-holes of new GOP luminaries like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene—is the only thing that Republican voters have ever cared about in the first place. People like Ryan and Cheney, who tout the supposed virtues of conservative free-market ideology and tax policy, are pretending to ignore the fact that these things never, ever attracted many people to the GOP. As Mystal puts it, “The natural constituency for ‘tax cuts for the rich, crumbling roads and bridges for everybody else’ is so small you can fit them all into a moderately sized marina.” Those may be the end goals of Republicans like Cheney and Ryan, but no one should separate those goals from the means used to achieve them.
In fact from the 1930s onward there was never a reliable majority of Americans who bought in to Republican warped and self-serving theories of social engineering. That is why the GOP had to resort from the very start to scaring Americans into voting for them through a drumbeat of fearmongering, first in the 1950s about Communists and then, in the 1960s, about Blacks.
Mystal notes that as the bogeyman of Communism fell by the wayside and the Civil Rights era passed into history, the GOP suddenly discovered themselves without anything compelling enough to sell their politics of resentment. So through Ronald Reagan they created the specter of the “welfare queen” and all the other myths of lazy, undeserving minorities allegedly poaching from the entitled white Americans’ trough. Seizing the electoral opportunity afforded to them by the all-consuming distraction of the Iranian hostage crisis to the Carter administration, in the 1980s they again turned on the spigot of white resentment, the appeal to bigotry (as Mystal aptly points out) that Reagan deliberately channeled when he symbolically opened up his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three Freedom Riders were murdered for trying to help register Black Americans to vote.
Bigotry and fearmongering alone, not any conservative philosophical principles, provided the glue that kept the Republican coalition viable for nearly a century. It is the same glue that binds Republican voters and their party together today.
As Mystal summarizes it:
Republican policies are broadly unpopular and empirically ineffectual, so the people peddling them realized long ago that they must be tethered to some hysterical lie or cultural threat to keep just enough white people voting against their own economic interests. […]
So when Paul Ryan tells his fellow Republicans to abandon the “cultural battles,” he’s telling them to abandon the only parts of their platform that their voters actually like. If Ryan were right about the appeal of “conservative principles,” he’d still have a job. Instead, Majorie Taylor Greene does.
Thus, we see the likes of Cheney, Ryan, and others claiming that what really concerns them is the cult-like influence Donald Trump has imposed on their voters, as if Trump’s appeal to racist grievance were something they hadn’t already signed onto decades ago when they attended their first homespun Republican gatherings. As Mystal observes, that implicit bargain with their voting base is common to all Republicans who pledge their allegiance to the party’s so-called principles: “Every one has, at some point, decided to throw their hat in with the MAGA forces before those forces were unified under Trump’s banner, and either explicitly or tacitly given aid and comfort to hate and grievance politics to achieve their otherwise unpopular agenda.”
The traditional media is loathe to acknowledge this basic truth about Republicans, in part because it tends to nullify literally decades of time they spent tortuously skating around that fact, as they continued to credit the GOP with an actual agenda that could be expressed in more genteel economic terms than simple greed fueled by equally simple bigotry.
But probably their worst dereliction was their failure to admit the true nature of the people who put these Republicans into power in the first place. That’s what’s coming to the fore now: the sheer ignorance, fearfulness, and littleness of a vast number of ordinary Americans. It’s the key piece of the puzzle they’ve never wanted to acknowledge, but it’s been right there in plain sight, from every tea party protest to what we saw unfold Jan. 6 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
As Mystal writes, the existence and motivation of a huge segment of Americans has been clear for decades. But few in the media have ever mustered the courage to admit it.
Now that Trump has said the quiet part out loud, there’s no stuffing the message back into a box. This is the Republican Party now. It’s the same one it’s always been, just with their bigoted voters empowered to say what they’ve always believed.
The focus on erstwhile GOP heretics like Cheney and Ryan only obscures the fact that the rest of the GOP, including roughly half of the entire House and Senate, are perfectly content and supportive of throwing out the entire American experiment if it means they can hold onto power. Part of the reason they feel safe in doing so is that they are all, for the most part securely ensconced behind a powerful right-wing media apparatus designed to nurture them, keeping their true aims and motivation under wraps, seldom seen or heard. The other part is that they’ve learned that there are more than enough voters susceptible to their message of resentment and grievance to keep them in power under this country’s existing institutions, as long as a complacent media continues to find reasons to avoid calling them—and their supporters—out for what they are.
Confronting the truth about the Republican Party has always meant confronting the truth about those who support them, and specifically the reasons for that support. The media have been content to avoid that uncomfortable discussion, quite literally for as long as humanly possible. In its place, after Trump’s election we got slews of vignettes about the “economic insecurities” of voters in the so-called heartland, most of which carefully tiptoed around the big elephant in the room—the constant stoking of racism—that has sustained the Republican Party from the very start.
The idea of writing off a huge segment of the American population as irredeemably racist has always been a bridge too far for many in the media. And, for the most part, that’s the reason we find ourselves where we are today.
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