America’s Republicans still matter, because they could easily regain power, dynamiting the world’s arrangements again. Meanwhile, they can hamstring Joe Biden’s presidency.
Yet when people ask where the Republican party is now, they get distracted by the entertaining “civil war” between Trumpists and “establishment conservative” officeholders. That focus misses the point. In truth, the party’s two sides differ chiefly on language, etiquette and respective tastes for conspiracy theory. Look at how harmoniously they worked together for four years until January 6, when President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol building.
Republican officials will soon probably hammer out an internal peace treaty. To understand where they go from here requires understanding what unites them. Republican elites have downgraded Ronald Reagan’s “small government” ideology into something qualitatively different: anti-government. Except during emergencies, most agree they don’t want a federal government any more. Establishment Republicans still place Reagan at the top of their totem pole. But they have binned one of his articles of faith: that the existential duty of the federal government is national defence.
For exactly 50 years, from the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Republicans obsessed about foreign enemies. After 9/11, they obsessed about jihadi terrorists. In Reagan’s day, Republicans expected to lead American defence: they held the White House for 20 out of 24 years from 1969 through 1993.
Republican interest in defence faded well before Trump. In the nearly 20 years since 9/11, Islamist jihadis have killed 107 people in the US. Awful as that is, it’s only about one hour’s worth of deaths from coronavirus on a moderately bad day this winter. Meanwhile, the Iraq fiasco has made it nearly impossible to send the US military abroad. In any case, who is the enemy now? China, Russia and Iran aren’t going to attack the US. Whatever they do to Taiwan or the Middle East probably won’t affect American wellbeing.
The closest to a “homeland security” issue in today’s Republican world view is immigration, but Guatemalan families cannot be made as scary as Soviet nukes. Most Republicans have therefore ceased to consider defence a reason for maintaining a serious federal government. That’s why they stuck with Trump while he savaged US intelligence agencies, war veterans and Nato.
Republicans are a lot less keen on government now that they no longer expect to control it: Democrats will have held the White House for 20 of the 32 years from 1993 to 2025, and demographic change is on their side. (For all the hullabaloo about Trump’s unexpected success with Latinos in November’s elections, he only got about 32 per cent of their vote.)
In short, Republican officials are now asking themselves: what do we want from a Democratic-run government when defence no longer matters much? Their answer: almost nothing. They didn’t even put together an infrastructure bill under Trump, although the government could get paid for borrowing money. Republicans in Washington and state capitals mostly stood by while Covid-19 killed more than 500,000 Americans. In Texas this month, Republicans couldn’t even lay on power and drinking water, leaving some people to melt snow for water.
Only when a catastrophe affects Republican voters will the officeholders suddenly pony up fortunes: after Hurricane Katrina, after the financial crisis and after Covid-19 sank the economy. In George W Bush’s words: “When somebody hurts, government has got to move.” As a governing philosophy, this is like living in a straw house and rebuilding it every time the wolf blows it down. Otherwise, the only branch of federal government the Republicans treasure is the judiciary, because it’s the only one they expect to control, through their advantage in the Senate.
Their ideology is (in Engels’ phrase) a withering away of the state. But this anti-governmentalism cannot quite speak its name. That’s because large majorities, including many Republican voters, support a European-style social-democratic welfare state. Pollsters have run the numbers. “Taken as a whole, Americans consistently say they want Social Security benefits retained with no cuts,” reports Gallup. Two-thirds or more now back Biden’s Covid-19 relief package, according to Quinnipiac, and the same number are for his measures increasing food stamps and extending the moratorium on evictions, says Morning Consult. Seventy per cent support “Medicare for all that want it”, says the data guru Nate Silver. If Republican officeholders spend most of their time playing culture war, that’s because it’s more popular than their anti-governmentalism.
No wonder they were happy to back a cartoon president with almost zero interest in policy beyond tax cuts. Every day, Trump advanced their long-term project of reducing public trust in government. He ran for re-election without a policy platform. By their own lights, most Republican congresspeople were right not to impeach him for encouraging an attempted coup. To them, his attack on their own branch of government wasn’t an outrage. It was a symbolic enactment of their world view.
Simon and author Leïla Slimani will discuss “The future of the Fifth Republic: writing and thinking about modern France” at the FT Weekend Digital Festival, March 18-20. For more information and tickets visit ftweekendfestival.com
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