Commentary: Lost in America

The GOP’s pursuit of a non-governing non-agenda

May 10, 2021 4:00 am

Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22 – Supporters of President Trump displayed a wide variety of fanciful clothing and flags. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Like many political junkies cooling their heels while awaiting herd immunity, I’ve spent a lot of time this spring puzzling over the present state and future trajectory of the post-Trump Republican Party. Will it transition from something that looks like a cult back into something that looks like a party? And maybe take up governing as a refreshing alternative to hero worship?

Writing here in January as the Trump administration was sunsetting, I summed up the GOP as standing resolutely for five things: corruption, ignorance, racism, deception, and disenfranchisement. That synopsis was rooted in the obvious: Trump and his acolytes operated openly on these principles (if that’s what they are) and most of the party fell in line behind him. The operative question at the time was whether individual Republican humans were prepared to own that grim reality, and inclined to move past it once their orange overlord landed in exile.

At the numerically enticing (but otherwise pointless) 100-day mark after a few hundred groupies and a recording of Frank Sinatra saw the man off at Joint Base Andrews, let’s have another look at those five defining qualities of the party. 

It’s fair to say that two of them – corruption and deception – have eased a bit. Many Republicans (polling puts it at 70%) continue to debase themselves with delusions about the election outcome, and the Congressional GOP traffics daily in wholesale fabrications about Biden initiatives. But it just isn’t humanly possible to sustain a Trumpian scale of dishonesty and grift, so it is plausible to believe that Republicanworld is actually a somewhat less mendacious place than it was six months ago.

Ignorance, racism, and disenfranchisement are not only alive and well in the post-Trump Republican party, they are, if anything, growth industries.

The news is less cheerful on the other three: ignorance, racism, and disenfranchisement are not only alive and well in the post-Trump party, they are, if anything, growth industries. The three come together harmoniously in the much-scrutinized domain of voting reform, where hundreds of bills with restrictive electoral provisions have been introduced in 47 state houses, with at least 55 in two dozen states moving toward passage. There’s nothing elusive about motive: make it harder for the other side to achieve the turnout that beat you last time. In a state like Tennessee, of course, the other side didn’t beat you last time, but what the hell, let’s make it harder anyway.

Messing with voting access may qualify as legislating, since technically speaking legislation is involved, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as governing. That is to say, it does nothing to advance public interest or the common good on issues that actually matter, like jobs, health care, education, infrastructure, climate, crime, or poverty, to name a few. Indeed, the GOP’s obsession with regulating the ballot fits perfectly with its overall governing agenda, which is simply to hold power but not govern. 

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05: Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) holds a mask to her face as she arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation" on Capitol Hill on August 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Crossfire Hurricane was an FBI counterintelligence investigation relating to contacts between Russian officials and associates of Donald Trump. (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 05: Sen. Marsha Blackburn holds the view that readily available child care is bad because they had it in the Soviet Union.(R-TN) (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

It is this twisted philosophy of not bothering (or should we say not caring) to govern that hatches the vast protofascist legislative stew that has spewed this spring from the halls of red state capitols. Tennessee’s distinguished GOP lawmakers have spent these last few months working on such signature priorities as loosening gun laws, keeping jobless benefits paltry, protecting dark money in state politics, criminalizing peaceful protest, preventing teachers from telling students that gay people and racism exist, and creating a costly and pointless new state court because they don’t like the outcomes they get from the courts we already have. 

At the federal level, Republicans are predictably scornful of Biden’s supposedly (though really just moderately) progressive agenda, but this is resistance in the service of intransigence, not compromise. For evidence look no further than the latest witless musings of our own Sen. Bill Hagerty, whose notion of projects having “real benefit and payback for taxpayers” apparently excludes such trivialities as housing, education, and health care. He claims he wants only “hard” infrastructure paired with more corporate tax cuts to go with the Trump tax cuts that drove up the debt that Hagerty and his GOP brethren now abhor. This is unserious and nonsensical preening for a Newsmax audience, not doing the people’s business. Unserious and nonsensical doesn’t begin to describe Marsha Blackburn’s imbecilic view that readily available child care is bad because they had it in the Soviet Union. 

Republican voters aren’t for a less government-centric path to solving problems; they’ve been persuaded by their leaders that problems don’t actually exist

What’s behind the Republican party’s lack of interest in governing? The easy answer is the glib story arc of modern conservatism since Reagan: government bad, not-government good, with our collective problems better addressed through private action than public policy. But some recent Pew polling tells a startlingly different story. 

Republican voters aren’t for a less government-centric path to solving problems; they’ve been persuaded by their leaders that problems don’t actually exist. Asking adults if a given issue is “a very big problem,” Pew finds 73% of Democrats saying yes on gun violence to 18% of Republicans. That same Dem/Rep split is 67/19 on racism, 61/14 on climate, 60/21 on inequality, 69/40 on health care affordability. 

Even liberals are not fans of solutions in search of problems, but for Republicans there conveniently are no big problems (other than immigrants and the deficit, according to the Pew data). And who needs solutions when there are kids who might learn something from a teacher about racism. Can’t have that.


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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.