You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything (at least according to the great country and western philosopher Aaron Tippin). But it also happens to be true.
Take the Republican Party.
Instead of turning on Donald Trump following the devastating revelations in the Jan. 6 hearings (or, at least, exercising strategic silence), the party’s reaction was to immediately fall in line. Again.
Trump, himself, is full of contradictions. The obvious hypocrisies include: “You can’t resist” (a police officer); “Lock her up!” (back when he thought it was OK to suggest using the government to jail his political opponents); and “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth?” (before he invoked the Fifth Amendment nearly 450 times this week). Clearly, this is an unprincipled man, whose positions are a matter of convenience.
But his impact on the Republican Party transcends his own moral flexibility. Look no further than the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence for proof.
After a 2020 election cycle that saw the “law and order” party criticize Democrats for wanting to “defund the police,” we’ve seen quite a few members of the right’s commentariat blithely wave off video of MAGA rioters beating Capitol police officers with flagpoles. (Those cops’ lives don’t matter, to the Blue Lives Matter crowd.) Now, a lot of those same voices on the right are saying, “Defund the FBI.” So much for lionizing the law enforcement heroes who run toward danger.
Why the reversal? It’s not because the police have suddenly become more abusive, and it’s not because Republicans figured out that standing against law enforcement wins votes. The real reason concerns Trump’s attempt to avoid accountability and oversight.
But this is just one of many outrageously cynical flip-flops for the party of Trump. Today’s GOP is inscrutable, even deranged. And the changes transcend a political reordering that brought more working-class Americans into the GOP fold—swapping free trade for populist protectionism and moving past the wealthy blue blood image evoked by establishment elites like Mitt Romney.
Consider foreign policy.
Ronald Reagan famously showed moral clarity by confronting and calling out the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire. Trump, by contrast, lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin (not to mention other authoritarian leaders of places like North Korea and China).
Consider a commitment to the American project, itself.
The fundamental goal of conservatism in America was to conserve democracy. Today’s illiberal right wants to destroy it. Conservatives lionized the Founding Fathers and America’s past leaders. Now, for all their fulminating over the left removing statues and renaming schools, some of Trump’s defenders sought to rhetorically tear them down as a way of excusing Trump’s inexcusable behavior in office. Republican politicians boasted about being for the “rule of law” and being “constitutional conservatives.” But then, they supported Trump’s bogus “emergency” order regarding the border wall.
And there’s more. Conservatives long decried the culture of victimhood, yet Trump constantly plays the victim and refuses to accept responsibility for anything (much less blame). Likewise, conservatives have criticized identity politics and “playing the race card.” Trump, who called New York’s attorney general (who is investigating him) a “racist,” does so with glee.
It’s all about power, presumably. But once issues and tactics become indistinguishable from the other side (except to the degree that you have escalated their worst impulses and tactics), the contest becomes a pointless power play. Presumably, it’s about tribalism. But who is our tribe? Absent any transcendent principles or policies, how do we tell the red shirts from the blue shirts?
For the GOP, I’m pretty sure the litmus test is to be pro-Trump. The only color that matters is orange.
The biggest reversal, of course, has to do with reversals. Conservatives have historically espoused a belief in moral absolutes, while decrying moral relativism. Yet, so much of what today’s conservatives say—about the “establishment” and institutions (like the FBI)—could have been spouted by a Berkeley hippie in 1968.
Go down a list of issues—character, values, free trade, earmarks, Russia, spending, law and order, the rule of law, etc.—and you’d be hard-pressed to find any semblance of a consistent position. Today’s Republican Party is 180 degrees different from the party that most of its members—like myself—signed up to join.
So we are left with a party without a foundation, without a roadmap, and without a soul. It does have a brand though, it’s tacky and gold-plated and it reads “TRUMP.”
While it may be possible for the GOP to abandon its premises and coast on the borrowed capital of the past, enduring without a raison d'être requires a constant stream of revenge fantasies to rationalize supporting such a shallow cult of personality.
Absent deep, abiding principles, we’ll fall for anything. Donald Trump probably won’t be around to see the aftermath when the music stops.