Where, Exactly, Are the Republicans Headed?

16 May 2021 · 6 min read

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Antique illustration of Norwegian lemmings

Let's first establish a little context.

  • In our 2016 presidential election, almost 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, due to peculiarities associated with our Electoral College, Trump was elected as our president, fair and square.
  • In our 2020 presidential election, roughly 7 million more people voted for Biden than for Trump, and Biden received 306 Electoral College votes compared to Trump's 232. What's more, the Democrats achieved a federal trifecta, with majorities in the House and Senate, in addition to the presidency.
  • So far Biden's approval rating is running somewhere between 53 and 60%, whereas Trump's rating never cracked 45.5% during the comparable period of his presidency, and his popularity never topped 50% during his entire four-year term.
  • Trump's public image has been very consistently and strongly built around an ethos of winning.
  • By any objective evaluation, Trump's presidency was mostly a failure (see this summary from Business Insider as one example). As a populist candidate, he promised to help out ordinary Americans. But his signature tax cuts mostly benefitted the rich, without spurring any notable new investments. He promised to replace Obamacare with something better, but instead simply did all he could to gut Obamacare. He promised to bring high-paying manufacturing jobs back to America, but accomplished little or nothing on this front. His tax cuts increased our national debt, flouting long-held conservative principles.

Now if Kenny Rogers were still alive, all of this would probably be a cue for the popular singer to deliver his signature wisdom to the Republican Party:

You've got to
know when to hold 'em,
Know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run.

So given that their aging, purported winner has turned out (unsurprisingly, some might say) to be a loser, one might reasonably expect Republicans to fold their hand and at least walk away from Trump at a determined pace, if not actually break out into a mad dash.

Now I can sort of understand Trump's position on this whole thing. He maintains that the election was somehow stolen, despite the lack of anything resembling evidence. Well, what else is he going to do? Admit that he lost? He's not going to get dealt a fresh hand at this point. And his entire career has been built on the basis of bluff and bravado. So would we really expect anything different from him? Not a chance. So we can't pretend to be surprised by his take on the situation.

But then there's the rest of the Republican Party: you know, the ones who recently voted to replace Liz Cheney with Elise Stefanik as the third-ranking member of their leadership, all because Cheney dared to state that their presidential candidate had actually lost the election. Fair and square.

So where do these Republicans think that all of this denial is leading them? Do they really have some sort of long-term strategy?

It sure doesn't seem like it.

Instead they seem to be acting like some species of laboratory rodent that has been conditioned to expect a treat every time they press the big red “MAGA” button, and they are just not ready to believe that the experiment is over, and the treats are running out.

Of course, recent numbers indicate that those supporting the Big Lie are still receiving a fair number of treats in terms of campaign donations from outraged Trump supporters, so in that sense, I suppose, they are continuing to milk it for all it's worth.

But if we look a little farther down the road, where are they headed?

The modern Republican con game certainly didn't start with Trump, but it seems likely to end with him. Back in the Reagan days, the con was pretty sophisticated, and pretty convincing: cut taxes for the rich, and the benefits will trickle down to the rest of us; shrink the size of the federal government, and we will all feel our burdens lifted; unshackle the hands of capitalists, and they will continue the American tradition of innovation, delivering untold riches to our doorsteps; loose the engines of free enterprise, and the rest of the world will surely follow the path to prosperity that we have blazed for them; get rid of the bad guys, and create safety and freedom for the rest of us; throw some carrots to blacks and minorities every once in a while, but leave the white guys to rule the roost; place our trust in paternalistic father figures, and be guided by their wisdom.

But by the time Trump came along, this long con had pretty much been played out: it seemed a bit threadbare, and no longer very convincing.

But then Trump breathed new life into it by taking it farther than anyone had thought possible. He simplified it, and removed any constraints to mere facts, or even any pretense to sanity and reason. And buttressed by the extraordinary success of Fox News, and other right-wing media outlets, and social media giants hungry for any sort of sticky engagement, Trump was able to stretch the con out for four more years, to everyone's surprise (including his own).

But by the time 2020 rolled along, even Trump couldn't keep a majority of the marks fooled any longer. By this point too many Americans realized that:

  • Tax cuts for the wealthy just make the rich even richer, without materially improving the lots of the rest of us;
  • Our federal government actually has an important role to play, especially when faced with challenges as large as a global pandemic, and global warming, and species extinction;
  • Capitalism and capitalists can truly deliver amazing innovations that improve society, but this is no reason to let them run amok, without any guard rails to protect workers, consumers and communities;
  • In a world of growing populations, and increasingly scarce and valuable pools of resources, authoritarian regimes and oligarchies can easily spring up, and be hard to dislodge;
  • If our society provides too few opportunities for citizens to reach the middle class, restricting upward mobility, especially for minorities and the disadvantaged, then we will soon find that imprisoning the “bad guys” has become a growth industry that benefits no one except the owners of private prisons;
  • Our country's largest and most successful corporations are increasingly built on knowledge work, and these sorts of businesses have to embrace diversity and inclusion in order to attract and retain both employees and customers;
  • Not all aging white American males have our best interests at heart, let alone the knowledge and intelligence needed to run a country.

So how are the Republicans dealing with all of this growing awareness?

I'm reminded of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's book Mother Night:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

It seems that many Republican politicians started out by only pretending to be witless but enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump but then, as Vonnegut foretold, they were transformed into the very things they were only pretending to be.

So now they seem doomed to act like some strange variety of lemmings, unable to turn back from the cliff after their leader has jumped, but unable to turn away. And so they spend every day of their lives dancing along the edge, trying to convince the rest of us how good life will be at the bottom.

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the rest of them to take the plunge, and make way for whatever needs to come next.

I think this party's over.