The moral collapse of the American conservative movement has taken place with remarkable speed.
The movement that advanced a measured, careful, temple worthy LDS Church bishop, Mitt Romney, as its presidential candidate just a decade ago has morphed at warp speed into an election denying, white-centric party of grievance and bat crazy conspiracy.
The Republican Party that put forward Romney and then-Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as its candidates in 2012 was, measured in the long arc of conservative politics, pretty standard issue: tax cuts and controlling the size of government with a conservative commitment to national security and foreign policy. Romney’s characterization of Vladimir Putin as the world’s greatest geopolitical threat was widely dismissed a decade ago. Now with many in his party openly embracing the Butcher of Ukraine, Romney seems a genuine prophet.
Romney was hardly a great presidential candidate. His private equity career was easily demonized, particularly after his campaign was roiled by a tin ear remark claiming that “47 percent” of the country were effectively deadbeats. Even then few of his partisan detractors could reasonably claim that Romney was going to take his party over an authoritarian cliff.
Mitt didn’t traffic in hate. Didn’t demean his opponent. He didn’t accuse Barack Obama of being a dangerous Muslim and didn’t surround himself with a bottom feeding collection of conspiracists, grifters, law breakers and people most of us would cross the street to avoid.
Unlike the current leader of his party, Romney hasn’t spread lies about the recent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband and he didn’t refuse to concede an election he clearly lost.
So, what happened to the Grand Old Party? Well, start with the fact that the nutjob fringe has long been lurking in the dark corners of a party that once celebrated Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and The Gipper. Goldwater gave the Birchers and the Klan a dog whistle in 1964, while opposing civil rights legislation and claiming “extremism” as a conservative virtue. Nixon went all “law and order” in 1968, while stoking fear and loathing among his “silent majority.” And Ronald Reagan was smart enough to know that cementing a solid, deeply race conscious American South for the GOP long-term was essential to winning the White House. Ronnie was also savvy, as Democrats were not, about courting middle class, blue collar white voters who had seen their small towns and factories wither and die.
But this represents only a partial answer to what happened. The rest of the story is the near total capitulation of elected Republican “elites” who have hunkered in office while many of their followers celebrate political violence and rally to Putin.
Only since Romney’s run has his party come to resemble – and emulate – the full-on authoritarianism of would-be rightwing dictators in places like Brazil and Hungary. The current leader of the party of Reagan doesn’t praise the western democratic alliance. He likes the “strength” of the new Chinese Mao or the “brilliance” of a 21st Century Stalin. And who counters him?
This is a party of moral rot and character perversion, a danger to the very idea of democratic pluralism.
Idaho is as good a petri dish as any to assess the wholesale abandonment of conservative principle in pursuit of political power, no matter the cost to democracy.
Next week Idaho’s very conservative Republican governor, Brad Little, will win re-election against a no-name Democratic challenger and the widely acknowledged leader of a West-wide militia movement, a law breaking radical named Ammon Bundy, who is running as an independent.
This race is a political weathervane indicating how far, far right the unhinged Idaho white nationalists are willing to go – people I respect worry that Bundy will win 20 percent of what would normally be the GOP vote – as well as a missed opportunity for Little and other officeholding elites who might have used the contest to assert control of a party they have largely lost.
Imagine had Little, knowing he could coast to re-election, made the election a referendum on a more sober, sane and serious type of conservatism. What if he had made Bundy and his violent ways an explicit example of what is wrong with the radical right? Yet, near as I can tell Little hasn’t uttered a word about Bundy, his antics or lawless past. And no debate and not much of a campaign.
I’ll just remind you that Bundy organized demonstrations outside elected officials homes aiming to intimidate during the worst of Covid times. He and some of his followers broke down a door in the state capitol building, a stunt ultimately earning Bundy and his big hat a jail term. The judge who sentenced Bundy after he blew off a requirement for community service told the radical had made a “mockery of the sentence you received.”
Bundy threatened state police officers with a promise that, “I’ll come after you, each one of you personally.” He is still embroiled in a lawsuit with a Boise hospital where he forced a shutdown. Bundy’s ridiculous 2016 takeover of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon where a protester died should have marked the end of his rise, but radical politicians in Idaho and elsewhere embraced him with little or no pushback from people like Brad Little. Now he’s on the ballot.
Bundy has been endorsed by the PAC connected to the radical Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), an anti-education, anti-government, anti-science lobby group that is no friend of Governor Little. Bundy also “enjoys” the endorsement of Roger Stone, the corrupt Trump advisor, Ron Paul, the crackpot former Texas congressman and Louisiana Klan leader David Duke.
If it’s true in politics that you are defined by your enemies these jokers would be worthy enemies.
Had Little the intestinal fortitude to cast the decency spotlight on this collection of radical right misfits he might have begun the process of leading the Idaho GOP back to sanity. That he has stayed quiet while Bundy peddled nonsense about schools, the state budget, the courts, Covid vaccines and more explains the ultimate moral rot that has eroded the foundations of legitimate conservative politics.
Little and other Republican elites know that Bundy – you could substitute the name Trump, as well – represents a real danger, long ago proving what he’s capable of doing. Rather than making him an example of what is wrong with the conspiracy mangled radical right, Little has ignored him hoping he’ll go away. He won’t.
At so many points in the remarkably swift descent of the modern GOP into a fun house arcade of conspiracy, mendacity and hate the Brad Little’s of the party could have – but did not – make an explicit stand for truth, decency, personal character and a better way.
It’s really too bad history doesn’t offer us examples of what can happen when hate peddling demagogues given to violence are left unchecked by people who should know better.
Some things I’ve found that you may find of interest …
Was Nixon’s Reelection Ted Kennedy’s Fault?
There is, for good reason, great anticipation about John A. Farrell’s new biography of Edward Kennedy. Farrell’s book about Richard Nixon is one of the great political biographies in recent memory. His Ted Kennedy book looks to be just as good.
This piece by Farrell appeared recently in Politico.
“Kennedy’s career has many might-have-beens. The most widely known occurred in 1991, when one of his investigators, Ricki Seidman, was the first Senate aide to speak to Anita Hill and hear her allegation that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in the years before his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The piece goes on to explore Kennedy’s role in not investigating Watergate in 1972. Here is the link:
Reading Langston Hughes’s Wartime Reporting From the Spanish Civil War
Black Americans were some of the most powerful voices warning about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, including Langston Hughes’s warnings about Franco’s Spain.
“Hughes was not a bombastic speaker, but rather spoke in an even, assured tone. He could sometimes appear bored while reading his older poems for audiences, but when discussing contemporary events, his understated and direct speaking style conveyed passion and urgency. ‘Yes, we Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action,’ he said. ‘We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.'”
A fine piece by historian Matthew F. Delmont in Literary Hub.
Russians Used a US Firm to Funnel Funds to GOP in 2018
This story has flown under the political radar in the run up to the midterm election. It should be getting more play.
The story illustrates two huge problems: the toothless tiger of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and the fact that vast sums of foreign money continue to pollute our politics.
“Anyone who follows campaign finance knows that the FEC has been toothless for years due to GOP commissioners’ opposition to any enforcement of laws designed to oversee money in politics. But Weintraub and Broussard suggest the agency hit a new low by letting the US firm, American Ethane, off with a deal in which it agreed to pay only a small civil fine.”
The FEC was created in the post-Watergate world and it’s never been particularly effective in policing money in federal politics. It’s a scandal. One of many, I fear. Here’s the story from Mother Jones.
That’s it. Vote for democracy.