How did the Republican Party arrive at such a confused and divided state that Senator John Thune (R-SD) had to ask whether it wanted “to be the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, free markets, peace through strength and pro-life” or “the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon”? The question seems to suggest that the party has a binary choice, that they could be one or the other. In reality, the party is both, and it has been so for some time. The Republican Party we see today has been forty years in the making. We can track its development through three successive periods of change, from President Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 to the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 to the Capitol insurrection on 6 January. Understanding this history will not help the party answer Senator Thune’s question. Indeed, it shows just how difficult it will be for Republicans to avoid further division or collapse altogether.
President Ronald Reagan’s election solidified the New Right. This coalition was held together by a shared antipathy toward the federal government, whether anger over forced desegregation, workplace safety regulation, environmental regulation, limits on prayer in school, or the legalization of abortion. The coalition was strengthened by a vast new infrastructure of conservative think tanks, foundations, political action committees, and advocacy groups that multiplied in the late 1970s and early 1980s in reaction to the civil rights revolution and cultural changes that began two decades earlier. In his first inaugural address, President Reagan told the nation, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He promised to get government out of the way so that Christians, the white majority, business owners, state governments, and others could retake their privileged place in American life. But without a supportive Congress, President Reagan could not deliver lasting change. This left many on the right even more disillusioned with national politics.
Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and others led the “Republican Revolution” in 1994, promising to succeed legislatively where President Reagan failed administratively. Their 10-point “Contract with America” aimed at nothing less than repristinating American government by pruning it back to its 19th Century capacity. Their more militant rhetoric included the new, decidedly insurrectionist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, namely that the founders had written the amendment precisely so that individual citizens would have guns to use against government tyrants. And while Gingrich, Dick Armey (R-TX), and other leaders did claim that the time for insurrection had come, they expanded the Republican coalition to include militias, whose members were literally preparing for war with the federal government. The militias remained at the party’s margins only because mainstream Republicans did not yet share their dark conspiracy theories, including the belief that communists had taken control of the federal government or that the military was preparing internment camps for American citizens. (Congressional testimony by militia leaders in 1995 is particularly riveting.)
“Many on the right were horrified by the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of federal powers. … Disillusionment on the right intensified.”
But the Republican Revolution also failed to produce lasting change. The federal government did not shrink or roll back the left’s so-called “progressive rights,” and many on the right were horrified by the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of federal powers. A Republican president had failed to dismantle the administrative state. A Republican Congress had failed to restore the nation to its God-ordained place and condition. Disillusionment on the right intensified.
The most recent Republican revolution exploded into view in 2009 as the Tea Party and its armed wing, the Patriot Movement, rose to challenge government power. This time, it wasn’t led by the President or Congress but by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, and others who had no real interest in the hard work of governing. They simply recognized and harnessed the power of populist anger against government. Social media and an ever-expanding range of internet sources helped unify that anger.
The Tea Party and Patriot Movement held to most of the same principles that President Reagan and Speaker Gingrich had advanced, yet they reflected a far more militant turn in the party’s culture. Why? The primary change in the party, between 1994 and 2009, is that a critical mass of conservatives were embracing the very conspiracy theories that had marginalized militias in the 1990s. A critical mass came to believe that the opposition party wasn’t just wrong in its goals. It was an apocalyptic threat to the nation. And since 2009, militias have proliferated around the country; hundreds of so called “constitutional sheriffs” have pledge to defy any federal or state laws that they personally believe are unconstitutional.
“Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 precisely because he understood the power and depth of anger and fear on the right, and he spent the next four years nurturing and provoking it rather than easing it.”
Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 precisely because he understood the power and depth of anger and fear on the right, and he spent the next four years nurturing and provoking it rather than easing it. He and a new cadre of congressional Republicans welcomed white nationalists and militias not just to the outer wings of the party, but to the very center. They helped legitimize QAnon, Alex Jones, and other sources that would have made Republicans in the 1990s cringe. By the end of the Trump administration, a remarkable number of Republicans assumed that Democrats were not just advancing misguided policies; they were pedophiles and Satanists, hellbent on destroying the nation and its Judeo-Christian heritage.
Senator Thune is right in thinking that this is a perilous moment for the Republican Party. The party’s problem is that conspiracy-driven fear and anger have increasingly powered its electoral success. And over the last four years the party has almost unanimously endorsed this strategy, even if many of its leaders grumbled behind closed doors. The party cannot afford to turn its back on QAnon now, because it hasn’t built an alternative power source for its political engine. Indeed, Republicans who do try to run for national office on a cogent and principled platform are likely to be crushed in the primaries. (John Kasich (R-OH), we should remember, was part of the 1994 Republican Revolution. But when he ran for president in 2016 as a principled conservative, focused on governing, his campaign stood little chance.) Republican Party leaders are currently hoping that they can continue to harness the destructive, antigovernmental energy that defines a meaningful segment of their constituents, while distancing themselves from the Capitol insurrection on 6 January and avoiding violence in the future. That why House Republicans refused to censure Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) for supporting violent rhetoric but also refused to remove Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), a more traditional, principled conservative, from her leadership position. Desperate congressional Republicans have chosen, for the moment, to promote both dangerous lies and conservative principles. This is a self-contradiction that cannot hold.
Featured image: Ronald Reagan from the National Archives (public domain)