The writing is on the wall for the Republican Party, and it spells the end not only of the GOP as we have known it but of the two-party system on which the American plutocracy has for so long depended.
The candidacy of Donald Trump is only the immediate cause of the demise of “the party of Lincoln.” The fault lines that have heaved up the demagogic Trump have been visible for twenty years at least. In fact, the problem for the Republicans has for a century been the tension between its function as capital’s official political organization and its public relations obligation to win the votes of large numbers of Americans who are crushed by capitalism. It was a tension that was bound to snap the sinews of the party. But why is this the moment of what some are calling the GOP’s implosion? And what will become of Republicans after the Democratic deluge of the 2016 election?
Throughout the twentieth century, Republicanism identified itself with the conservative trait of “fiscal responsibility,” which was the starchy euphemism for more limited public spending on social programs than was proposed by the Democrats. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Republicans were able to elide Democratic social spending, as well as the labor movement, with charges of socialism and communism. Such red-scare tactics resonated best, of course, when large numbers of voters were not themselves on the dole, and so FDR was able to win three consecutive elections during the Depression and leave behind enough momentum to push Harry Truman into the oval office. The Cold War, though, was made for—and made by—the Republicans. American imperialism reached lustily around the globe in the post-war era, and at home it began its assault on labor in earnest with the Taft-Hartley Act, all the while frightening the public with tales of Russian treachery and aggression. Fiscal responsibility, which now meant a dearth of spending on new social programs combined with dumping the treasury into the Pentagon, reigned supreme. The fiscally responsible voter and the anti-communist middle class voter saw eye to eye.
It took ten years of the Civil Rights movement, culminating with televised images of civilians battered by batons and water cannons, to warm the middle class once again to social spending in the early 1960’s. In 1964, the right-wing certitude of Goldwater Republicanism appealed to some in the middle class, among them a college girl named Hillary Rodham, but more appealing still was the optimism held out by Democrat Lyndon Johnson for the potential of government spending to heal society. The 1964 election is particularly instructive for us today in that it saw an overwhelming landslide victory for a candidate, Johnson, who portrayed himself as wise and measured versus a candidate, Goldwater, who all but guaranteed war with Russia. What road have we traveled, that we should find ourselves forty-two years later anticipating the election of a Goldwater Girl, heading up the Democratic ticket, who all but promises war with Russia?
The answer is that we have traveled the road of the Republican Party. The Party of Lincoln became in the 1980’s the Party of Reagan, a badly sewn Frankenstein’s monster of a party that grafted the limbs of Southern racism and a virulent anti-communism onto the torso of fiscal responsibility, all under a new head—the emergent Christian right. The “Southern strategy” that placed Reagan’s first campaign stop in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where sixteen years earlier three civil rights workers had been murdered, was a logical evolution for Republicanism. The Democrats having opted for The Great Society social programs in the 1960’s, the so-called Dixiecrats became low hanging fruit for Republican strategists. A coded racism blended well with the GOP’s cold-blooded fiscal responsibility, and reviving the red scare with his talk of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, Reagan, and his handlers, cobbled together a winning combination of paranoia and self-righteousness that drew in hordes of working and middle class voters to the party of Wall Street. Doing the work of the banks and corporations, pillaging the poor and working class, the Republicans pulled out the propaganda of conservative social issues when elections rolled around. “Gays, guns and God,” as some pundits put it. Flag burning and the Pledge of Allegiance.
This two-step worked wonders for the Republicans through the 1980’s, and again in the 2000’s under the George W. Bush administration, Islamic terrorism having replaced the Soviet Union as the existential external threat. But during the 1990’s two large developments changed the political world in which the Republicans operated. One was that, after playing with matches for a decade, the GOP found it had started a fire. The cozy relationship with right-wing zealots that had proved so fruitful at election time began to exact a cost. Immigration was the principle issue that opened a fissure between the Wall Street suits and their reliable rabble constituency. Racism demanded oppression, deportations, maybe even a wall! Business depended on the cheap labor. This rift has never healed. The other large development was the conquest of the Democratic Party by the Democratic Leadership Council. That is, the Clintons. This was a right-wing coup within the Democratic Party, a wholehearted collusion with Wall Street that mirrored the Republicans’. With the passage of NAFTA and his administration’s “reform” of welfare, Clinton demonstrated his allegiance to the country’s plutocrats and to the god of fiscal responsibility. But Clinton was able to operate, as Obama has been able to operate, without the baggage of overt social conservatism. In short, in 2016, the Democrats have come to present Wall Street, and the military-security state, with a political organization whose house is not presently on fire.
I hope to have shown with this thumbnail sketch of recent American political history only that, though he may be fiddling, Donald Trump did not start the conflagration that has consumed the Grand Old Party. The radical right elements that respond to Trump’s demagogic authoritarianism were nurtured in the bosom of the Republican Party during the Reagan administration. This authoritarian bent is not merely the preferred strategy of candidate Trump. It is rather an acceleration of converging forces, including a failing economy and the contempt shown for the working class by the Democrats, that has pulled from the Republican Party the infant of American fascism. Trump is no less inclined to cater to corporate and banking interests than is Hillary Clinton, but his willingness to engage in the rhetoric of authoritarianism leaves the party apparatus floundering so that, while Republican senators and representatives remain, the party itself—its identity and function—is vanishing.
The Democrats have become the Republicans, with the shell game of identity politics replacing the con of xenophobia to win the votes come election time. The Republicans have been rent apart , and what we face in the future, whether its mouthpiece is Trump or some more articulate successor, is an American Nazi Party that polls competitively with the Democrats. It may even continue to use the name Republican, but be clear about just what it is that slouches toward November waiting to be born.
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