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The Republican Retreat From Governance

The direction of conservative “thought” since Trump left office suggests that the party’s future is limited to brutal voter suppression and culture-war conflict.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images
Senator Rand Paul has vowed to go “state to state” to fight phantasmic voter fraud—and engineer further voter suppression.

On January 26, 45 Republican senators voted for an amendment declaring the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump unconstitutionala stance not shared by legal scholars. Trump is facing a Senate trial for inciting an insurrection that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6; that trial could determine whether Trump is ever allowed to hold elected office again. The amendment failed, and the trial will go on, but the vote was the first test of the Republican Party in the post-Trump era.

If the vote is any indication, the GOP has declared it is not moving beyond Trumpism. In fact, the message it sends is that the party is in full retreat from meaningful policymaking of any kind, instead charting a course away from taking on the challenges of the moment in favor of further entrenching itself in the distant patriarchal mythology of America’s past, where the only thing left for conservative lawmakers to do is to fend off the liberal cultural forces that would deny this return to a gauzy, MAGA fantasia.

What else, if anything, does the Republican Party actually stand for right now? What sorts of policy solutions is it putting forward that would actually improve the lives of Americans? Perusing the messaging from prominent Republican lawmakers doesn’t provide a cogent answer to these questions. Texas Senator John Cornyn tweeted last Friday about President Joe Biden’s repeal of the transgender military ban, archly inquiring as to whether it was “another ‘unifying’ move by the new Administration?” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz laughably suggested that impeachment is the “zenith” of cancel culture.

Senator Josh Hawley, meanwhile, has been hard at work attempting to make his personal problems the concern of the entire nation, with an op ed in The New York Post and a subsequent appearance on Fox News, in which he claimed that he’d been silenced simply because he made a concerted effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and offered a raised fist of support to the insurrectionists who swarmed the U.S. Capitol in defense of the Missouri senator’s lost cause. Hawley’s main grievance was that he’d had a book deal canceled by publisher Simon & Schuster, which was subsequently picked up by conservative imprint Regenery (which is distributed by Simon & Schuster).

Even some moderate conservatives are starting to notice the direction their party is going. As Republican strategist Corry Bliss, a longtime adviser to Republican Senator Rob Portman, told The National Journal, “If you want to spend all your time going on Fox and be[ing] an asshole, there’s never been a better time to serve. But if you want to spend all your time being thoughtful and getting shit done, there’s never been a worse time to serve.” Not coincidentally, Portman announced this week that he would not be seeking a third term.

At the state level, conservative legislatures are pushing the illiberal envelope, prioritizing anti-abortion and anti-trans bills over measures to contain the deadly pandemic that’s claimed the lives of over 400,000 Americans, which rages on unabated on a planet these lawmakers no longer seem to occupy. Even more worryingly, several state Republican Party committees are either openly supporting QAnon or at least flirting with the baseless conspiracy theory that powerful Democrats are running an international child-trafficking scheme and drinking the blood of children.

QAnon, transphobia, and cancel culture don’t make for a reality-based policy platform. It’s hardly a surprise that Democrats found it so easy to step into the policy vacuum and turn traditionally ruby-red Georgia blue in two Senate runoffs earlier this month, by merely promising struggling voters some extra cash to deal with the pandemic.

That vacuum has been expanding for quite some time. Republicans actually won very few legislative policy victories during the Trump era. The president’s agenda consisted mostly of rolling back progressive Obama-era policies through executive orders. In this way, Trump aggressively rolled back reproductive health care gains and LGBTQ rights, as well as launching a raft of anti-immigration policies. More often than not, however, Trump’s activity seemed to be motivated more by erasing the existence of Obama’s presidency than by legitimate policy concerns.

Those policies, for the most part, have already been reversed or have begun to be reversed just seven days into the Biden era. But for a slate of Republican senators, many of whom will be defending their seats in just two years, the yield from the Trump era includes an unpopular round of tax cuts for the very wealthy and a battalion of (admittedly significant) judicial appointments.

Some political observers have noted that there’s a strain developing between the so-called business wing of the Republican Party and religious conservatives, an alliance that paid off for the party in 2016. “There’s a sense that the Trump years are over and what the big business side got was nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts, and what the cultural warriors got was Bostock,” Gillian Branstetter, a trans rights advocate and a press secretary at the National Women’s Law Center told The New Republic. Branstetter noted that Hawley referred to Bostock v. Clayton County, a Supreme Court decision banning LGBTQ employment discrimination under existing federal civil rights law, as the “end of the conservative legal movement.”

“They’re feeling duped,” she said, referring to social conservatives.

Nonetheless, conservatives who haven’t abandoned Trump are busy building political infrastructure to ensure that the Trump agenda will live on past his presidency. On Tuesday, Axios reported that former Trump Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought is launching the Center for American Restoration and a related advocacy arm, American Restoration Action. The project, it seems, is a Trumpian knock-off of the Center for American Progress, a D.C.-based liberal think tank whose director, Neera Tanden, was recently appointed by Biden to replace Vought at OMB.

However, according to Axios, Vought’s agenda is almost purely culture-war outrage fodder. “He’s working to ensure that cultural issues that Trump ran on, from transgender rights to critical race theory, remain front and center in the Republican Party and coming elections,” reported Axios.

But Dartmouth history professor Bethany Moreton told The New Republic that conservative culture-war issues can’t be divorced from the conservative economic agenda so easily. “I’ve always thought ‘culture wars’ is an alibi, a drag name for economic interests that don’t register on the NASDAQ,” said Moreton. According to her, traditionally defined “culture-war issues” like LGBTQ rights, reproductive health, and policies centered on families are a stand-in for household economies: who manages the home, who gets to work, who is responsible for caring for children.

Moreton further noted similarities between QAnon and the satanic panic of the 1980s, which blew up in part because women had begun to leave their traditional household roles behind to enter the workforce, giving rise to day-care centersand conspiracy theories about what strangers may be doing to children.

“There’s this question of who’s minding the children because of that flashpoint [of women entering the workforce],” she said. “That’s all about resources. Other countries have collectively provided for the care of children through government-provided day care, and that was defeated in the U.S. And so, instead, you wind up with this patchwork of private day-care centers that then become [the basis of] the satanic panic of the 1980s.”

The current conservative focus on QAnon, trans issues, and cultural education can be seen as a throwback to this era, when the notion of protecting children and the role of mothers in the family became a cultural concern. But while these issues may inflame passions within the conservative base, there’s little evidence that they alone will win elections for Republicans. In fact, conservative cultural values centering cisgender, heterosexual familieswith the husband going to work and the wife staying home to care for the children and homeare increasingly less salient in the U.S.

It’s this feeling of being marginalized within their own country that’s driving conservative claims of censorship and cancel culture, according to Harvard professor of American politics Pippa Norris. “For [conservatives, culture change] threatens their own core values as a minority. They think that their values are America,” Norris told The New Republic. “So America has changed, and they’ve become increasingly angry that their values are no longer represented in the mainstream media and American culture in general.”

According to Norris, claims of cancel culture all over the world are not just a left or right political issue, but a minority/majority issue. In the U.S., where conservative social values are in the minority, it’s conservatives who feel muzzled by social pressure to conform to mainstream society. In more conservative nations, especially those which are very religious, it’s liberals who feel their ideas are stifled by society at large. In this way, Hawley’s complaints of being “silenced” are more an indicator of where his ideological leanings lie within the American social spectrum, and less a core result of lefty social dogma.

As easy as it is to rile up the base with culture-war red meat, over the long term, the lack of a core set of cogent policy ideas, as well as the disintegration of any traditional policymaking infrastructure, has hurt Republicans’ effort to appeal to a majority of the American public. In last year’s election, the Republican Party didn’t even bother to draw up an official platform, instead swearing fealty to a man who is no longer in power and renewing its same platform, word for word, from four years earlier. And while Trump made some significant demographic gains in his second election, it seems likely these were the result of the Democratic Party’s own failures to do policy-centric outreach in key regions during the presidential campaign, and not an attraction to any specific Republican policy idea.

Since 1988, the GOP has only won one presidential general election popular vote: George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection win. Democratic senators represent over 50 million more Americans than Republican senators. As a result, Republican electoral chances increasingly depend on some manner of voter suppression, whether through gerrymandering or simply restricting access to the polls in states across the country.

After John McCain lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama, the Republican Party commissioned a study to figure out what went wrong and how it could be fixed going forward. The results of that study indicated that the Republican base was too old, too white, and too rural. That was a moment, then, when the GOP had an opportunity to develop a more relevant policy base that would appeal to 51 percent of the electorate. Trump’s ascension came at the expense of the lessons of that pivotal moment. His 2016 win has convinced Republicans to lean harder into identity politics and the culture war.

It’s hard to imagine the GOP, as it’s presently constructed, doing much to fill the yawning policy void it’s allowed to flourish at its heart. The future of Republican rule increasingly depends on either making it harder for voters to choose to vote for Democrats or further rigging the system to dilute the power of a majority that might prefer Democratic politicians or policies. If there is a policy future for Republicans, it will likely be centered on an increasing obsession with voter suppression. In an interview with ABC News’ This Week, Senator Rand Paul made this game plan clear, continuing to call into question the result of the 2020 presidential election and focusing on certain state laws that allowed easier access to absentee ballots because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of absentee votes had only the name on them and no address. Historically, those were thrown out, this time they weren’t. They made special accommodations because they said, ‘Oh, it’s a pandemic and people forgot what their address was,’” he misleadingly told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “So they changed the law after the fact. That is wrong, that’s unconstitutional. And I plan on spending the next two years going around state to state and fixing these problems, and I won’t be cowed by liberals in the media who say there’s no evidence here and you’re a liar if you talk about election fraud.”

This is the predicament Republicans find themselves in post-Trump. They’re increasingly clinging to minority social views and have no coherent policy solutions outside of culture-war issues and tax cuts. So they will be going “state to state,” as Paul put it, to restrict the vote and ensure that their inability to win over a majority of voters doesn’t intrude on their legislative and executive power.

None of this necessarily portends a bright future for Democrats, despite the fact that they seem much more inclined to maintain a policymaking apparatus that’s steeped in relevance. For Biden and congressional Democrats, who still seem intent on working across the aisle to create legislation to solve big-picture issues like climate change, racial equity, and the pandemic, it’s a potentially dangerous prospect to engage with a party increasingly bound to nihilism, especially considering the way voters handed Democrats thinner margins to work with in the House of Representatives. Ultimately, there may be nothing to gain from negotiating with an opposition party that doesn’t stand for anything other than maintaining its own power. The only solution might be taking the necessary steps to take that power away.