The GOP's Separatist Movement Exposed

The rich get richer. The rest get whatever’s coming to them.

Donald Trump's Syria troop withdrawal is an election strategy and ...

I said during Donald Trump’s impeachment trial that the Republicans were acting less like a party and more like a separatist movement. A Republican president who breaks the law, as Trump did when he blocked congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, is not only above it; he is it. A law-breaking Democratic president, on the other hand, “deserves the full-force of Congressional investigation, prosecution and removal.”

The common view is that the Republicans are so partisan they are willing to follow Trump to hell. But that explanation is unsatisfying. Partisanship is one thing. Surrendering to the enemy is another. That, to me, explains why Ted Cruz said, “If we call John Bolton, I promise you, we are calling Hunter Biden.” Cruz isn’t voicing ordinary partisanship so much as the political desperation of a suicide bomber.

I said yesterday the Republican Party is best understood as an insurrection. Perhaps “separatist movement” is a better phrase. That would communicate the binary thinking of the Republican value system. There are two, separate but not equal.

I think that theory holds up now that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Many Republicans still behave as if the virus that has now killed 5,000 Americans is part of a secret conspiracy to bring down Trump. Some GOP governors behave as if doing the right thing (shutting down state economies) is a sign of disloyalty. The president himself still behaves as if now’s a good time to reward friends and punish enemies.

Sam Tanenhaus, in 2009: “Modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.”

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One thousand Americans died Wednesday. One thousand more could die today. Six and a half million filed for unemployment insurance benefits in one week, on top of 3.3 million last week. Yet leading Republicans, like Senator Ron Johnson, are urging people to go back to work. Yet leading Republicans, like Senator Tom Cotton, are calling for revenge on China. All the while, Trump appears poised to divvy up the spoils of last week’s passage of the $2 trillion economic stimulus so friendly states like Florida get all the help they need while unfriendly states like New York get jack.

The legislation, called the CARES Act, sets aside half a trillion dollars in corporate loans. (That’s on top of $4 trillion in unlimited “quantitative easing” and direct borrowing by and from the Fed.) A provision requires the president to designate an inspector general to oversee accountability of the fund. But in a signing statement, the president said he will do no such thing. After all, acquittal means a president is no longer constitutionally bound to take care that the law is faithfully executed. Well, a GOP president, anyway. Separate but not equal means Democrats go to the wall.

The GOP is acting like a separatist movement.

The rich get richer. The rest get whatever’s coming to them.

Too much? I don’t see why. This state of affairs has been crescendoing for some time. I had occasion recently to reread Sam Tanenhaus’s canonical piece in The New Republic. Published more than a decade ago, parts of “Conservatism Is Dead” read like they were written last month. Here’s how the former New York Times Book Review editor characterized the debate among conservatives in the years after World War II:

On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare (my stress).

What has been the target of such a strategy? Well, everything these “revanchist counterrevolutionaries” were against, Tanenhaus said in plain English: “Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy—‘statist’ social programs; ‘socialized medicine’; ‘big labor’; ‘activist’ Supreme Court justices, the ‘media elite’; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government (again, my stress).

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What did they stand for? Tanenhaus said “movement conservatives” always struggled with that question. But if Trump’s election is any indication—if Trump’s acquittal is any indication—conservatives, such as they are, no longer struggle. Why bother? To be against “the enemy” is enough, even if the enemy is American civil society itself.

To be sure, as Michael Harriot reminds us, that enemy has been Americans on the margins of civil society, specifically Americans of color. The margins are growing, though. Unemployment numbers are worse than they were in the Great Depression. Americans might die from the novel coronavirus in greater numbers than all the men who died fighting in World War II. In normal times, white Americans might not have noticed the Republican Party’s separatist movement. Normal times are history now.

John Stoehr