The Republican Party used to be the party of conservatism. I once thought Republicans were the party of fiscal responsibility, defenders of democracy and morality, anti-crime champions, and advocates for the small businessman and middle class. That is certainly not the party I see today represented by the likes of Trump, DeSantis, McConnell, McCarthy, Pence, etc.
Today’s Republican Party seems to care most about optimizing its power and little about the welfare of the nation, having no plan and no ideas. Any interest in actually participating in a democratic government working efficiently for the benefit of the people has seemingly faded away along with their understanding of the word compromise. In December 2021, New York Magazine reported that McConnell told Republican donors that the only Republican agenda was to obstruct anything the Democrats tried to do.1 When we also consider the blatant attempts under Trump to undermine confidence in our electoral system despite having no credible evidence of any problems, it is clear Republicans today care little about defending democracy. They may give it some lip service, but their actions speak louder.
No longer do the Republicans worry about fiscal responsibility, either. Anyone who clings to the long disproven theory of trickle-down economics cannot claim to be financially responsible. The only goal of such policy and Republican tax cuts for the mega-rich is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer while depriving the government of income for needed services and causing government debt to increase. Other than enriching themselves and their friends, budgetary policy has simply become another tool of obstructionism. It certainly isn’t about helping the middle class, much less those who are truly in need.
Neither can Republicans any longer claim to be anti-crime or defenders of morality. In turning to Trump as their leader, and it is clear he still holds a strong grip on much of the party, they have given up the so-called high road. When your leader is a well-documented liar2 who has been recorded on tape denigrating women3 and mocking the disabled,4 to name just a few of his faults, you cannot claim to be the party of morals. And when Trump was indicted last week on criminal charges, Republican leaders rushed to defend him without even knowing what the charges were.5 So much for being anti-crime.
When the Republicans do talk about crime? It’s about scapegoating. Any mention of crime is always tied to a group of people. Immigrants, liberals, “woke” people, gays, transgender people, etc. Today’s Republican party’s needs enemies. It’s part of their strategy to optimize power. Enemies must also be internal enemies. Enemies that walk the streets of our own towns. Foreign enemies would do no good as that might unite the nation and the goal is to divide.
Trump discovered he could tap into a very strong American myth to gain supporters. I think of it as the myth of the lone cowboy, the hero who can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Independent. Free. They don’t need anyone else’s help. Once we take this myth to heart, we adopt a fuck you attitude toward everyone else. When we become the lone cowboy, we feel important. Someone wants us to wear a mask? Fuck you. Masks are inconvenient. Someone wants us to pay more taxes for buses? Fuck you. I have a car. And then, once we start believing we’re the hero who knows best, we start believing we know what’s best for you too. What you can wear. What you can read. Who you can sleep with.
It was really quite a simple formula to get people to buy into this myth because the myth has been lying there in our nation’s psychological shadow all along, just waiting to be brought (back) to life.
- First, give the people something to rally around. A red hat, a flag, and a nifty slogan. It is no coincidence that there has been a rise in nationalism (white nationalism6 and Christian nationalism7) as Trump came to power. He encouraged it.
- Second, give them someone to rally against. You need people to scapegoat so you know exactly who you are better than. Make those groups into criminals to increase fear, engage in wholesale gaslighting with the help of organizations like Fox News,8 and your supporters will be distracted enough that you can do whatever you want.
- Third, give them permission to say the “fuck you” out loud and act on it. This, I think, is what was so appealing about Trump. His behavior was reprehensible but it gave his followers permission to act in the same horrible ways. And the myth comes to life.
Even evangelical Christians fell for it, rallying around the flag and the issue of abortion while scapegoating gays and transgender people, among others. Of course, they also had to blind themselves to Trump’s own obvious moral shortcomings, but that bit of hypocrisy is a small price to pay if it makes you the lone cowboy-hero.
Although Trump is no longer President, Republicans still utilize this formula. Look, for example, at what DeSantis is doing in Florida with his so-called culture war. He continues to create enemies of marginalized groups. He has attacked critical race theory (i.e. telling the truth about the effects of racism on our nation’s history), transgender rights, immigrants, and Disney. He supported a “don’t say gay law” and advertises Florida as the place where “woke goes to die,” which all nicely serves to distract from how Florida ranks poorly in quality of health care, elder care, school funding, etc.9
The rally cry against the term “woke” has been taken up by many Republicans. The words woke and liberal have become curse words and labels of derision. Vivek Ramaswamy is a declared Republican presidential candidate for 2024 that actually wrote a book attacking the concept of being woke, criticizing social activism and protecting the environment as unimportant when compared to profit.10 In Idaho, Republicans refused to approve free menstrual products in schools because it was too woke.11 It wasn’t that it was too expensive, but the idea of helping low income children was offensive to them. And that perfectly reflects what the Republican party has become today.
What woke actually means is to be compassionate and empathetic. It means being understanding and caring. It means giving a damn. If one is woke, it means they’ve actually made an effort to try to understand what people other than themselves are going through in their lives. It means they’ve made an honest attempt to understand racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. from the perspective of those who are actually affected by them on a daily basis. So when someone criticizes being woke, what that says to me is that they don’t give a damn. They don’t care about anyone but themselves and don’t think you should either. They want to be the lone cowboy-hero and their message to everyone else is: Fuck you.
That is today’s Republican Party. We can’t call it the party of conservatives any longer. How I think we can describe it is something similar to this: a political philosophy or movement that exalts nation (i.e. nationalism) and often race (i.e. white nationalism) above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader (e.g. priority is its own power, undermining democracy), severe economic (e.g. rigging economics in favor of mega-rich) and social regimentation (e.g. book bans,12 “don’t say gay”), and forcible suppression of opposition (e.g. criminalizing drag queens,13 criminalizing protests14). This is, by the way, the Merriam-Webster definition of fascism.15
The question for our nation is whether or not we will continue to fall prey to this myth of the lone cowboy and be distracted from what is happening by power-hungry politicians. Can we shake ourselves loose from the Great Gaslighting? Many claim a Christian ethic for our country, but what Christ actually teaches is to help those in need, to feed the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless, and to welcome the foreigner. To follow Christ would actually mean giving a damn.
7https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/why-republicans-christian-nationalism-so-dangerous-n1297527 – Christian Nationalism is an oxymoron, by the way. Those two things do not go together. If you are a Christian Nationalist, then you aren’t actually following Christ.