A Party Tearing Itself Apart: The GOP and the Growing Ideological Schism on the Right
The Republican Party stands at an evolutionary crossroads. Mitch McConnell and his contemporaries are on their way to being replaced by an authoritarian movement they cannot hope to stop
On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell broke from ranks and criticized the Republican National Committee’s censuring of his colleagues Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, as well as the describing of the violence of January 6th as “legitimate discourse.” Obviously frustrated with the GOP’s direction, McConnell defended his colleagues and then called attempted coup as a “violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election.”
For some, this might be a surprise. McConnell is, after all, a party man through and through and his tenure in leadership has been marked largely by enforced orthodoxy and discpline that has kept the party marching in lockstep. But this dissension, what it means, where it originates from, and where it leads, is remarkable in that it encapsulates a growing and troubling trend within the party.
Already, his condemnation has been challenged by Senator Josh Hawley, part of the growing caucus that threatens to take the already-problematic GOP in new and worsening directions. This kind of pushback against McConnell is almost unheard of and reveals more about the growing fissures, the key actors, and where this is all heading.
Coverage so far is largely focusing on the back-and-forth, but is missing the larger component: that this is a battle between the Old Republican Party and the New Republican Party, iterations of a project that have been on a collision course for years and stand on the precipice of all-out war. McConnell’s unprecedented statement is an indication of just how far gone this situation truly is, and likely the harbinger of a sea change that is a long time in the making.
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The Trump Years are some of the most misunderstood in American history. Though so much attention focused on Donald Trump as a cartoonish and controversial public figure, the real story was a coalescing of powers and interests behind the scenes that focused on dismantling liberal democracy while furthering their own political and economic ends.
Trump’s role in that operation was both marginal and outsized. Far from an ideologue, Trump took his cues from actors like Steve Bannon and organizations like the Heritage Foundation. Bannon directed Trump to stoke populist anger against elites in order to further his own project of challenging modernity. The Heritage Foundation and other institutional think-tanks and programs used him to further their own pro-market, libertarian policies. While carrying out those tasks, Trump’s own bullying tendencies continually kept Republicans in line and in fear, terrified that at any moment Trump might destroy them politically.
Mitch McConnell and other traditional Republicans faced an increasingly difficult task. Trump’s popularity allowed them to pass tax cuts and stock the judiciary with conservative, pro-business judges, but the populist anger at the heart of the movement was combustible and antithetical to their pursuits. As the GOP had for decades, these politicians followed a “fusion” method of coalition building that brought the powerful, wealthy, evangelical, and white populations together under one roof, all of it to further the ends of a small minority of wealthy donors.
The pinnacle of this fusion project came in the 1980’s with the Reagan Administration, which broke the New Deal consensus of the post-war era and replaced it with austerity-based neoliberlism. In this system, states were kept from investing in public projects or the fates of their citizens and relegated to supporting the free market and ensuring the protection of public property. Both the Republican and Democratic Party came to this position in the years that followed, creating a neoliberal state in America and eventually, through globalization, around the world.
McConnell is, through and through, a neoliberal. His main function has been to keep the federal government from passing any major legislation that might trouble this consensus while continually protecting it from any possible threats. Culturally and politically, the GOP and Democrats are at war, but on this point they are largely in lock-step. Considering this consensus, it was only a matter of time before an alternative emerged and troubled the status quo.
What Trump did was give momentum to a new challenger. His appeals to the white working class of middle America opened the door for a new type of Republican that rejected neoliberalism, at least rhetorically, and instead focused anger and fear as a weapon in order to reshape the political and economic world. This development has been fundamentally antidemocratic, authoritarian, and neofascistic. Ideologically, this represents a major test to the order and project McConnell has represented and will, most likely, be the force that unseats him and the current GOP.
Calling itself National Conservatism, this new movement is primed to take control of the Republican Party. It is a strange amalgamation of ideas, sometimes contradictory and sometimes nonsensical. They reject neoliberalism and favor protectionist markets and militant isolationism. They despise liberal democracy as a weakness and favor the illiberalism festering in nations like Russia and Hungary. As they represent a minority of the population, they prefer “natural rights” that lie outside the Constitution, the ballot box, and entrench hierarchical, hereditary power. At the heart of the project is virulent, poisonous white, evangelical, patriarchal supremacy.
What has made this possible is a hollowing out of the world through neoliberalism. As it favors unrestricted pursuit of profit and is, by design, anti-ideology, the weakness of this system is its lack of purpose and meaning. We have reached a late-stage in which the greed and inhuman cruelty is exposed and undeniable. We can no longer pretend there is a working meritocracy or that any sense of fairness exists. All that remains is toil and suffering. The National Conservatives seek to answer this emptiness by supplying a re-invigoration of faith and an answer to who must suffer the most.
Wielding Christianity and white paranoia as a weapon, they tell their followers that they are being discriminated against and are under constant attack by sinister, evil forces. To fight these forces, as fascists have always found, provides meaning for daily life, including labor and its accompanying suffering. The militarization of daily life, this battle over culture, is itself a meaning-giving struggle. Christianity, with its moral laws, is meant to supersede constitutions and secular laws, providing reasoning for discrimination and the all-out assault on liberal democracy.
As for the suffering, the white, evangelical, patriarchal appeals speak for themselves. If someone is going to suffer the brunt of austerity and neoliberalism, National Conservatives promise their supporters they will pick winners and losers, choosing to levy the kind of punishments and consequences against vulnerable populations, including people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities, they have longed for. Of cultural and political elites, they promise to war against them and restore something approaching “fairness.”
It’s debatable how much of this is sincere and how much is appeal. The actors behind it are power mad and pursuing projects to enrich themselves as they put together this movement. But they have something new. An alternative. The Mitch McConnell’s of the world are coasting in a car that ran out of gas a long time ago and only continues to roll due to its own momentum. Almost assuredly, the National Conservatives will replace the GOP neoliberals because the fracturing of the fusion coalition is an all but certainty at this point.
They are correct about one thing. This system is broken and it is ripe to be replaced by something new. Theirs is a sinister, troubling proposal though. And unless somebody, somewhere comes up with an alternative, we might very well see it and its accompanying violence come to pass.