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Words matter. One of the beefs I have with the media’s endless portrayal of all political debate as being between a liberal and a conservative side is that today’s Republican party can no longer truthfully be called conservative. To understand the monster the GOP has become under Trump’s ugly influence, it’s important to replace outdated terminology with language that portrays the reality we’re up against.
An observer of the French Revolution once commented: “Like Saturn, revolutions devour their children.” To me, this means a movement not just chewing up and spitting out the people who once served it, as it radicalizes, but also ravaging the principles with which it began. And so a Republican Party that once stood for recognizable and sometimes even acceptable concepts has now become a nihilist cult willing to blow up everyone and everything that gets in its way – even its own most sacred institutions, from business to the military.
Rather than granting it the fig leaf of conservatism, let’s subject the MAGA GOP to the harsh light of scrutiny, under which it fails even when judged by its own proclaimed values.
To define conservatism on its own terms, I drew on a Heritage Foundation webpage entitled “What is Conservatism?” that briefly summarizes traditional core principles of the right – for example, William F. Buckley, who in his book “Up from Liberalism” wrote that being conservative is about “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life.”
So can anyone claim with a straight face that Trump and his cronies abide by ANY of these principles? Let’s take the best-known tenets of conservatism one by one:
“Free market” capitalism
The right wing’s recent efforts to force businesses to conform to MAGA ideological strictures has been remarkable to watch, considering the GOP’s long pro-business history. Governor Ron DeSantis has been the worst offender recently, most famously in using the coercive power of Florida state government to punish the Disney Corporation for speaking out against his “Don’t Say Gay” law.
But DeSantis is no exception. The national Republican effort to divest from investment firms with ESG (environmental, social and governance) policies is a much broader and more insidious effort to cancel businesses that show leadership on such issues as climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion. As David Roberts discusses in a very informative Volts podcast, this whole assault makes no sense, as ESG is fundamentally a protocol to protect companies from real-life risks to their profits and investments.
But hey, who needs a “free market” when you can instead have one in which your strongman leader forces every business to do and say whatever he wants? Just be clear that’s not conservatism, it’s another -ism which happens to be an “f” word.
“Traditional family values”
Speaking of “f” words, if I were to conduct a national search for the nation’s top role models for family values, Donald Trump would not be among my first 200 million choices. Ask the over two dozen women who have independently accused him of sexual assault, the teenage beauty queens whose dressing rooms he invaded, the wives he cheated on – including with porn stars and Playboy models that he subsequently paid off. It’s a sordid history that speaks to an utter lack of respect for women, children or families.
Nor is Trump alone among MAGA leaders in this regard. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene filed for divorce last year, after allegedly engaging in multiple affairs. Rep. Lauren Boebert also recently filed for divorce after a messy marriage that included her husband exposing himself to two young women at a bowling alley. And then there is Rep. Matt Gaetz, who remains under Congressional Ethics Committee investigation for charges including alleged illegal trafficking of and sex with an underage woman.
Not exactly a collection of pious saints. But are they, despite their personal failings, making life any easier for everyday American families?
That’d be a no. The GOP agenda for children includes loosening child labor laws, slashing school lunch programs and opposing helpful policies like paid family leave. It’s as family-unfriendly as you can get.
“Law and order”
Well, this is becoming an increasingly easy one to mock, as Trump’s collection of indictments grows and grows and most Republicans just shrug and continue to support him as if, well, law and order doesn’t matter that much when it’s your guy committing the crimes. As a matter of fact, the brilliant MAGA response to the investigations of Trump has been to try to defund the FBI.
I mean, c’mon, there are few institutions in America as genuinely conservative or as hard core committed to enforcing the rule of law as the FBI. How can anyone take seriously a “conservative” political party that wants to shut down the nation’s premier law enforcement agency simply because it is trying to hold their beloved leader accountable?
Many Republicans like to call themselves libertarians, who simply want to get government off our backs, away from our business and out of our bedrooms. In Ronald Reagan’s words, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”
So it’s a little hard for me to understand how such self-proclaimed libertarians can support a party that refuses to let women control their bodies, to allow individuals to engage in elective surgery or ti permit adults to choose forms of entertainment it doesn’t like. The MAGA movement clearly does not support a philosophy of “live and let live.” For example, regardless of one’s own preferences for or against drag shows, is it truly the conservative position for the Nanny State to shut such shows down or strictly regulate who can attend them?
And yes, we’ve all heard the pro-fetus rhetoric, but does it really justify disregarding the fundamental rights of the women in whose bodies these fetuses reside? For all the resounding Republican encomiums to personal liberty, their actual positions mostly reveal a desire to expand rather than restrict the power of government to regulate people’s personal lives.
I have this fantasy of waking Reagan from the dead and informing him of how devoted key figures in his party have become to an imperialist Russian dictator. Y’know, the Evil Empire?
The MAGA slogan “America first” is belied by the eagerness with which Trump has been willing to put the US second to Russia, most memorably in his infamous kowtow to Putin in Helsinki in 2018, at which he publicly absolved his Russian sponsor of responsibility for his cyber-attacks on the 2016 election.
While I’m waking up Reagan, I might as well rouse Eisenhower and the many other Republicans who fervently believed in the importance of a strong NATO to protect Europe – and show them how Trump literally tried to destroy the alliance.
Fast forward to today when Sen. Tommy Tuberville has created serious leadership gaps in the U.S. military as payback for President Biden’s policy of having the military reimburse service members for travel to another state as necessary for abortion services. As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy put it, “he is prepared to burn the military down.”
What do you call a Republican party that doesn’t care if it destroys the U.S. military? Not conservative by any definition that I’ve heard of.
“Society Must Change, But Slowly”
This line comes from Heritage Foundation’s summary of conservative thinker Russell Kirk key maxims, invoking a principle that fits with the small “c” dictionary definition of “conservative”, which includes such meanings as “cautious” and “moderate.” Indeed, the arguments that led to the birth of modern conservate thought came from Edmund Burke’s reactions to the French Revolution – in which he explicitly opposed the very idea of being a calm, rational conservative to that of being a crazed, excitable revolutionary.
Being a conservative meant not trying to tear down present society and government so as to start anew but rather making incremental changes that maintain order while expanding rights and opportunities.
But that was your grandfather’s GOP. Since then, the party has been refashioned by such radical architects as Steve Bannon, who once said:
“I’m a Leninist…Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
It’s hard to find a more concise summary of what the MAGA movement stands for. It explains a right-wing Supreme Court willing to disregard such long-standing precedents as the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision. It explains the GOP’s determination to keep restricting the rights of voters to choose their representatives in state after state. It explains their undying enthusiasm for a politician like Trump, who stands for nothing and against everything and everyone other than himself. It is not conservative, but rather the blind fanaticism of a cult seeking to follow its guru wherever he might lead them, regardless of costs or consequences.
Questions to ask Republicans
So here are a few questions to ask the Republicans you may know or encounter:
- If you call yourself a libertarian, why do you belong to a party fighting to take away the right of women to control their bodies and the right of adults to view the type of entertainment they choose – a party that is busy banning books from libraries and classrooms across the country, even Shakespeare?
- If you call yourself a religious or moral conservative, why do you support a party that is hopelessly committed to a man accused by over two dozen women of sexual abuse – including one who recently won a case in court against him on those grounds?
- If you’re an “America First” Republican, why does a majority of your party want to return Trump to the White House after all his kowtowing to Putin, and why is your party just looking the other way as Sen. Tuberville blocks the confirmation of over 300 military leaders?
- If you’re a free market conservative, do you support the efforts by DeSantis and other Republicans to block companies from exercising their free speech on issues from diversity to climate change?
- If you believe in “law and order”, how could you favor a party seeking to return the multiply-criminally indicted Trump to office, considering all the obvious evidence of his misdeeds?
- Finally, what has Fox and other sources constantly pushing your buttons and playing on your emotions actually accomplished for you or the country? Or has it all been a game of distraction pulling you away from your principles rather than one in which you’re achieving tangible goals?
Yes, I know the odds are low of getting any of today’s Republicans to change their minds about anything. But perhaps getting the wheels in some of their head to start turning will have a positive impact somewhere with someone. In the meantime, we need to make sure that we and the press properly expose what the MAGA crowd actually stands for – which isn’t much.