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We Are Sleepwalking Into a Dangerous Primary Season

A surreal run-up to the Iowa caucuses highlights just how strange—and treacherous—the Republican Party has become.

Tannen Maury/Getty Images

Anyone under the age of 40 reading this may find it hard to believe, but there was a time when the Republican Party had a brain. There were a number of interesting Republicans—moderates, even liberals (if you go back far enough)—and thoughtful conservatives who, though conservative and ergo anti-government, bothered to learn enough about policy details so that they could shrink the government knowledgeably rather than recklessly.

There was something else about those Republicans, even the conservative ones. They understood the value of compromise. They accepted the reality that there was such a thing as the Democratic Party, and that it represented and spoke for millions of Americans. They knew that America wasn’t theirs to remake solely in their image. So they cut deals, which is what we hire politicians to do.

Today, a week out from the Iowa caucuses, which are a sham and a farce and a pantomime, we look at the Republican Party, and what we see is a diseased organism that has become three things: a crime syndicate, a treasonous clique devoted to ending the United States of America as we’ve known it, and an Orwellian reality-inverter worthy of 1930s Pravda.

We’ll get to all that, but first, let’s talk about these upcoming caucuses and this primary process. There was a time when the presidential primaries, and the Iowa caucuses in particular, were the process by which the party decided what it stood for. In the 1970s and ’80s, there really was a battle for the soul of the GOP. On one side were the traditional establishment moneyed Republicans—the kind Alice Roosevelt-Longworth had in mind when she jibed in 1940 that Wendell Willkie’s campaign was launched “from the grassroots of a thousand country clubs.” On the other side was the New Right, led by evangelical figures like Jerry Falwell.

We know who won that battle. But even long after the New Right’s takeover, there were still enough shades of difference among the Republican presidential candidates that the primaries mattered. Take 2008 as an example: Early on, there were a number of candidates tugging the party rightward—Mike Huckabee, notably, along with Alan Keyes and Ron Paul (except on foreign policy). But they lost. The primary voters nominated the one person, John McCain, who had through much of his career made a point of working with Democrats to pass stuff.

Looked at in retrospect, 2008 turns out to have been a real hinge point, doesn’t it? If McCain had not allowed himself to be suckered into choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate and had trusted his instincts and taken someone with crossover appeal and won, we might have had a Republican Party that wouldn’t have been so susceptible to Donald Trump. (Mind you, I’m glad he lost, but it’s an interesting and somewhat poignant “what if.”)

In a two-party presidential system, as opposed to a parliamentary system, the presidential primary process is the time when the parties, by selecting a standard-bearer from among several choices, tell voters: This is who we are; these are our ideals, this is what we stand for. As recently as 2012, Republicans were still telling the country that they hadn’t gone off the cliff’s edge—the party was increasingly dominated by extremists who couldn’t accept Barack Obama’s quite convincing 2008 victory, but its voters still nominated, in Mitt Romney, the most mainstream of their four major candidates. (That same year, Romney notched his then–record setting fourth win in the CPAC straw poll, if you want to recall a halcyon era when the annual conference of conservatives wasn’t a confab of fascist fanatics.)

Then came Trump. Until then, the party, as extreme as it had become, still retained something of a superego, the brain’s critical and moralizing force that counters pure instinct. Open racism and calls for violence, for example, were still mostly verboten. But once Trump started talking about Mexican rapists and telling his crowds to “knock the crap out of” hecklers and suggesting that someone shoot Hillary Clinton, and the crowds responded the way they did, the superego was pulverized. It’s all id now.

And so here we are. The party is a crime syndicate because it has enthusiastically placed at its head a man who talks and acts like a mob boss and who follows no rules and who, as we just learned last week, made $8 million in two years of his presidency from foreign governments doing business with his companies. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mark Pomerantz, the prosecutor who was for a time pursuing Trump from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, compared Trump to John Gotti. According to The Guardian, a former Trump administration official called the comparison “unfair to the late Mr. Gotti.”

The entire party is in lockstep behind this, except for some holdouts such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, now drummed out of office for their trouble, and Romney, who is about to join them. Aside from these and maybe a few other occasional critics, we’ve seen an entire party wave away an insurrection, charges about sharing intelligence secrets with Mar-a-Lago buddies, sexual harassment, rape, and financial chicanery that would make Jay Gould blush. This is a crime wave, and the “Party of Lincoln” is all for it.

It’s a treasonous clique devoted to ending the USA as we’ve known it for reasons I barely need to spell out. The party already tried to end American democracy once, three years ago this past Sunday. Trump and other Republicans have said many times that they’re ready to do it again if they need to, and that they’ll finish the job this time. Remember, Marjorie Taylor Greene said that “if Steve Bannon and I had organized [January 6], we would have won. Not to mention, it would have been armed.” She later said she was joking. Right. Michael Luttig, the conservative former judge turned fierce Trump critic, has warned that what Trump tried in 2020 was just “a dry run” for 2024.

Finally, the party has become an Orwellian disinformation machine, again for reasons that we all know. Take virtually anything any major Republican leader says; it’s almost certain to be not just false but a direct inversion of the truth put out for propaganda purposes. The “Biden crime family” is a good one. January 6 was a normal day of tourism. Biden stole the election. Democrats run up deficits. There are thousands.

We have to endure eight more days of watching these people pretend they’re competing for a nomination, pretend they’re putting out a vision for a political party. It’s nonsense. These ersatz candidates are auditioning for chief of staff or secretary of state, and everyone knows it (except Ron DeSantis, who’s playing for 2028). Some commentators have been kind to Nikki Haley. She stands out from most of the field in that she is a competent politician and is not a maniac. She has recently turned up her criticisms of Trump, but she also praises him, and thus she’s not fundamentally challenging Trump or Trumpism. Only Chris Christie is doing that, and we see where he’s headed (the island of misfit Republicans, with Mitt Romney, in exile).

The Republican Party turns 170 years old this coming March 20, a Wednesday. That will be the morning when, it’s 99 percent likely, we will wake up to see that Donald Trump has swept the Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Ohio primaries. As fate would have it, that is the precise moment when Trump’s team has said it expects he will seal the nomination numerically. Other than that, Mr. Lincoln, how do you like your party today?