The tragedy of today’s Republican Party lies partly in how far it has tumbled from its heights.
This is the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. It is the party that built interstate highways, championed family planning, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, opened relations with China, confronted the Soviet Union and managed the collapse of Communism.
It is the party that under Ronald Reagan welcomed refugees. It is the party of men who exemplified decency like George H.W. Bush and adherence to a moral compass like John McCain.
At a rally in 2008, McCain corrected a questioner who called Barack Obama untrustworthy and an ‘Arab’. “No, ma’am,” McCain told the crowd. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Today, that Grand Old Party has devolved into a personality cult surrounding a racist demagogue who incites a mob to chant about a Somali-American member of Congress: “Send her back!”
This year, the administration expects the budget deficit to surge to $1 trillion (which means we are terribly positioned for a recession), but those fiscal hawks are silent. They proved themselves unprincipled opportunists.
Elected Republican officials — with a very few brave exceptions, like Rep. Will Hurd of Texas — protest the label “racist”, but not the racism. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even says that President Donald Trump is “on to something”.
Yes, Trump is on to something: He has seized on the ugly nativist streak that runs through the anti-Catholic riots of 1844, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. Most men grow after becoming president; Trump has not only shrunk but has also miniaturised party elders with him.
The collapse of the Republican Party is not just about this month’s fecklessness, however, and as The Economist noted in a recent cover article, this is a “global crisis in conservatism”: From Australia to Britain, Italy to Brazil, “the new right is not an evolution of conservatism, but a repudiation of it”.
Conservatism historically embraced institutions, honoured personal morality and disdained personality cults; now it has latched on to charismatic, dissolute nuts who overthrow institutions, like Boris Johnson of Britain, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and America’s Donald Trump.
A recent analysis in The Times by Sahil Chinoy found that the Republican Party is far to the right of mainstream conservative parties in Britain, Canada and Germany, and to the right even of groups like the National Rally (formerly the National Front) of France. On the international spectrum, the GOP is not a centre-right party but an extremist force.
Think of how the Republican Party used to define itself: pro-family, tough on fiscal policy and strong on national security.
Republicans tore children from immigrant parents at the border and are now trying to rip apart health insurance for 21 million Americans. If the Republicans’ lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act wins, 133 million Americans will also lose protection for pre-existing conditions.
The Republicans sued to end the health insurance law because of a revulsion for Obama, and they are incoherent about the consequences. When a judge asked the Justice Department lawyer, August E. Flentje, if a stay should be lifted so that Obamacare would be dismantled immediately, he sounded horrified, saying, “We think it’s great the stay is in place.”
Republicans disgraced themselves in 2009 during the Great Recession when not a single GOP member of the House of Representatives backed a desperately needed fiscal stimulus. To spite Obama, Republicans were willing to let Americans lose jobs, homes and savings, supposedly because of their concerns about deficits.
Then under Trump, those same Republicans approved a tax break that was far costlier, with the benefits disproportionately going to corporations and zillionaires. This year, the administration expects the budget deficit to surge to $1 trillion (which means we are terribly positioned for a recession), but those fiscal hawks are silent. They proved themselves unprincipled opportunists.
Republican firmness towards Russia disintegrated the moment it was needed, when Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. The Obama administration shared intelligence about Russian interference with 12 congressional leaders in September 2016, seeking a bipartisan warning (including those running elections around the country) about Russia’s actions. Republicans led by McConnell blocked any serious response, thus enabling Russia’s assault on American democracy.
Meanwhile, the United States has a president who vigorously defends Russian President Vladimir Putin and jokes with him about getting “rid” of journalists. In polls, Republicans are more than twice as likely to approve of Putin (25 per cent) as of Nancy Pelosi (9 per cent).
Folks, we need a centre-right political party in this country. Yet, today’s Republican Party isn’t the steadying force of the past, but is rather a blood-and-soil movement that stands for nothing larger than one bombastic hothead.
That’s why the 2020 election will matter so much. One of America’s great political parties has lost its compass and its concern for the issues that once defined it. Only if it is walloped at the ballot box will it, perhaps, wake up and rebuild itself to become again the principled conservative party that America needs.
Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist, author and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.