The gig is up

Published October 13, 2022

By Thomas Mills

Last week, Kevin Williamson, an anti-Trump conservative, blasted the GOP for only running against Democrats. As he said, “I have not heard a case for Republicans worth repeating in years—only a case against Democrats.” Then he added, “Democrats, for their part, are in essentially the same rhetorical position.” He concludes his piece on a positive note, saying, “At some point, that gambit will play itself out—if only because, in spite of the best efforts of our politicians, the sky is not falling, and the inconsiderate world keeps refusing to end.”

Williamson’s piece reflects the views of a lot of Never-Trump Republicans. He both-sides the political situation in the country, arguing that neither party has much of an agenda and that all of this mess is temporary, at least as far as Republicans are concerned. Eventually, the GOP will return to its ideological roots based in the ideals of the Reagan Revolution, embracing the free-market, small-government, social conservatism, and individual liberty.    

Last year, Erick Erickson came to essentially the same conclusion. He called Trumpism a “fad” and said that the GOP establishment would win out. “There is a center of mass growing between the establishment and the crazy that still cares passionately about small government, social conservatism, etc… So I think we’ll all be mostly fine.”

I think Williamson and Erickson are wrong on a lot of points. They are wrong on where the GOP is heading, and they are wrong on who the GOP has been. The so-called movement conservatives like Erickson and Williamson like to believe their intellectual musings and ideological conformity defined the Republican Party. In fact, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia have always been the animating factors. 

This past weekend, Senator Tommy Tuberville said African Americans are responsible for crime in the United States. A few weeks ago in Wilmington, Donald Trump goaded his audience into shouting the N-word. While a few Republicans might quietly say they disagree, neither Tuberville nor Trump will get much of a rebuke from the Republican Party because everyone, whether they like it or not, knows that race will drive White voters to the polls in November. 

While the GOP has been using dog-whistles for decades, they are now using podiums to spread bigotry for political gain. Williamson and Erickson downplay the influence of race in reshaping the GOP. The people who were once part of the Silent Majority are now dominant players in the party. The GOP today looks more like the movement led by George Wallace than the one led by Ronald Reagan. 

Williamson and company are also mistaken in believing all this behavior is just performative. As the AP wrote yesterday, Q-anon conspiracist Marjorie Taylor Greene is becoming a power player in the Republican Caucus. Liz Cheney lost her primary. At CPAC, participants openly supported Putin and Russia. The party has an armed wing made up of militias and violent right-wing organizations. The leadership of the GOP is quickly becoming reactionary and authoritarian, not conservative. 

What we’re seeing is not a fad or a blip. We’re in the midst of major political realignment. The movement conservatives and GOP establishment may have controlled the levers of power from Reagan through the Bush era, but the reactionary populists are grabbing control of the Republican Party today. The educated, upper middle class voters that once made up a substantial portion of the GOP base, driven by lower taxes and less government, have left for the Democratic Party. The blue collar White workers that voted for Democrats based on the party’s alignment with labor have exited the party as manufacturing jobs disappeared and the influence of unions diminished. Many of those voters are attracted to the GOP’s anti-immigration messages. Opportunists like Kevin McCarthy, Rand Paul, and Rick Scott are poised to be the next generation of Republican Congressional leaders and they’ll pander to the basest instincts of uneducated voters who believe their way of life is threatened, strengthening the reactionary sentiment in the party. 

Williamson and conservatives who try to equate the parties’ positions are just wrong. While the GOP may be making politics about victimization and demonization, Democrats have been running on substantive issues and passing substantive legislation. Since they gained control of the Congress, they’ve passed the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the first gun control legislation in more than 30 years, the CHIPS Act to jump-start manufacturing of computer chips, and the Inflation Reduction Act, the first bill to significantly address climate change. Williamson and others might not like many of those accomplishments, but they addressed Democratic priorities that the party has been promoting for at least 20 years. Elections be damned; that record will stand the test of time. 

Conservatives waiting for the GOP to return to normal are whistling past the graveyard of the Reagan Revolution. The new Republican Party is the one of Tommy Tuberville, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Mark Robinson, and others who fashion themselves in the image of Donald Trump. As the party takes on an increasingly reactionary flavor, once proud Reagan Republicans will contort themselves into supporters, somehow rationalizing ideological consistency or deluding themselves into believing Democrats are worse. The conservatives who elected Reagan and two Bushes have lost control of their party for good, replaced by the reactionaries they appealed to at election time but ignored then they were governing. In other words, the gig is up.