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Peter Lake: On Republicanism, Before and After Trump

A good deal of recent commentary about the Republican Party conceives of it as a Trumpist rump devoid of any ideology save the acquisition and maintenance of power. The figurehead for this stance is Mitch McConnell, who, many in the commentariat claim, has no ideology. This is nonsense.

To begin with, the Republican Party is anything but in crisis. It has escaped the immediate effects of Trumpism pretty much intact. Republicans seem likely to retain control of the Senate and have improved their position in the House. (They have even increased their share of the vote amongst various minorities.) Trump’s, and their own, antics have created the impression in the majority of the Republican electorate, and a substantial minority of the general electorate, that Biden is an illegitimate president. This accepted alternate “fact” will enable them not merely to frustrate, but to block, a great deal of the Democrats’ agenda, with minimal political consequences. Since the result of that obstructionism will be to exacerbate the effects of the pandemic and the economic recession consequent upon it, the Republicans will then be able to hang the effects of that policy failure around the necks of the Democrats. Or that at least is clearly the plan. (Whether Biden’s gestures at bi-partisanship will be adequate to the task of resisting this strategy remains to be seen.) Certainly, there is only one political party likely to benefit from the widespread belief that Biden stole the election.

Moreover, the notion that the Republicans, as currently constituted, have no ideology, except the acquisition of power, is simply untrue. McConnellite Republicanism has a very clear policy agenda; indeed, it has a very clear ideology, one that entails no elaborate legislative program. (Criticism of the legislative indolence or obstructionism of the Republicans, even when in control of both Houses, is thus entirely beside the point.) The ideology continues to involve the radical shrinkage of the state—to undo, in effect, the last vestiges of the New Deal settlement. The massive Trump tax cuts, beloved of Republicans, are designed not merely to favour the rich and major corporations, but also to cause, if not the bankruptcy of the state, then at least the expansion of the deficit to such an extent that future (Democratic) administrations will be unable to do much of anything except attempt to reduce the deficit. (The ‘starve the beast’ strategy is alive and well.) In the interim, for Republicans, federal regulation of almost everything – of the environment, of the capacity of major corporations to oppress and immiserate their labour force, of the health care industry – is to be cut to the bone, in effect disappeared and the judiciary stuffed with conservative hacks, at the upper end of the intellectual range with so- called intentionalists, i.e Scalia look-a-likes, and conservative Catholics, whose zeal in the conservative cause does indeed have an extra legal, ideological edge, but about which they claim it is entirely inappropriate, even ‘un-constitutional’ to question them. Meanwhile, Republicans can use the impact of the pandemic and its economic consequences to drive state and local governments into something like bankruptcy, thus further reducing the capacity of the state, in its federal, state and local forms, to do anything much at all. Hence McConnell’s refusal to include any support for state and local government in the Covid relief bill. Hence too the Republican refusal to accept the reality of climate change, since to do so would inevitably require the expansion of the role of the state in the economy. Because, for Republicans, that represents the ultimate evil, climate change just can’t be happening. Denialism thus represents the limiting example of an ideologically induced cognitive dissonance, that, unchecked, will drag the rest of us to disaster.

This to-do list is not only a programme, therefore, but also the realization of a virulent ideology determined to reduce the capacity of the state, as an instantiation of the public good, almost to nothing, and to leave the social, political and economic spheres to the tender mercies of the so called ‘private sector’, i.e. of increasingly monopolistic corporate power, an agenda talked up in terms of ‘the market’, ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ (vide the Citizens United decision). To advance this agenda represents the long-term aim of the Republican Party. Talk of ‘fiscal conservatism’ and ‘free trade’ have never been anything other than mere fig leaves. For evidence, look not at what Republicans say, but at the size of the deficit every time they leave office; look not merely at Trump’s tax cuts and deficits, but also at Bush II’s. It is not an accident that those aspects of the state that Republicans support and want to expand — defense/ ‘national security’ and the incarcerative state, aka the prison- industrial complex — involve the transfer of truly vast sums of public money to private corporations.

For all his vulgarity and idiocy, Trump has enabled Republicans to advance all these objectives, and on that basis, his presidency might well be thought by them to have been a price well worth paying. Doubly so when viewed from the perspective of Republican successes down ticket at this last election, which was a defeat for Trump but not for the Republican Party. Further, the Providentialist version of Christianity— both evangelical and conservative Catholic—holds Trump, and others like him, however (literally) damning their personal sins, to be the providential instruments of a God busy saving America from the scourge of secularism and the genocide of abortion. (‘He may be a barbarian but he is our barbarian’, as the disgraced Australian Cardinal Pell rather succinctly puts it.) If all that is not an ideology, I don’t know what is; an ideology that provides the Republican Party post Trump with quite enough emotional juice to sustain itself in vast swathes of the American social order. (God knows if McConnell believes any of that God-stuff, but the likes of Bill Barr, and, one suspects, many on the current Supreme Court, led by that decidedly sinister Stepford Judge Amy Coney Barrett, undoubtedly do.)

Whatever we are dealing with here, it is neither a political party in crisis or decline, nor one devoid of a programme or ideology. Claims to the contrary represent either misplaced Democratic triumphalism or the self-serving fabrications of ex- Republicans determined not to be tainted with Trumpism, unwilling to admit the integral relationship between Trump and the policies and practices of the Republican party in the period since Nixon, and thus desperate to claim that Trumpism and the present Republican party represent some sort of fall from a truly conservative (Reaganite) Eden. I am not suggesting that the continued hegemony of the Republican Party is set in stone— in the short term, a great deal turns on the Georgia run-off elections—but that we must remain clear headed about the nature both of the beast with which we are dealing and of the situation in which we must confront it.

So much is obvious, but at this point I want to connect this analysis with a recent news story about the massive cyber-attack on various parts of the federal government, and a number of Fortune 500 companies, aka the private sector, by the Russians. The Russian hackers managed this feat by penetrating a private company that was using a password—Solarwinds [the company’s name] 123, almost as ridiculous as the one—Maga2020—that allowed a vagrant Dutchman to hack Trump’s twitter account. Nor, despite the massive resources devoted by the American government to ‘cyber security’, was this breach discovered by the agents of the state, but by employees of another private company. The Federal government is now in the process of asking yet another private firm, Microsoft, just how many of its agencies have been hacked and to what effect. Rather than concluding that this incident reveals something fundamentally wrong with the way in which the American government conducts its business, and great swathes of both parties conceive of ‘national security’, commentators and journalists have instead taken to referring to this calamity as evidence of ‘supply chain’ problems.

Moreover, most public comment has concentrated on the entirely unsurprising failure of Trump to say, let alone do, anything about yet another Russian affront. But that predictable failure is surely beside the point. Or rather it is just another example of the commentariat’s Trump obsession preventing it from seeing what is actually happening. What we have here is one more example of the appalling consequences of the outsourcing of the basic functions of the state to private companies. In what universe is ‘the most powerful country in the world’, or indeed any competent state, dependent for the software necessary to oversee some of the major functions of government upon a private company only recently converted to cyber security? That would be the same universe in which much of the post-invasion administration of Iraq was consigned to private security companies and what were in effect ‘mercenary armies’; in which national security is equated with the amassing of vastly expensive weapons systems that enable the USA to blow up almost any place it wants to blow up, but otherwise allows other basic capacities of the state to wither on the vine; in which the prison system is run for profit by private companies; and in which the entire health care sector—the ‘greatest in the world’, if you can afford it—is run for private profit, and in which the state is currently dependent on large scale private pharmacies – the Walgreens and CVSs of this world—for the dissemination of various Co-vid vaccines. (Given the pharmacy deserts in the poorest neighbourhoods, this approach bodes ill for both the efficacy and the equity of that process.)

Since 1980, vast areas of American life have been abandoned, and great chunks of the core functions of the American state have been sold off, to the private sector. Not content with the current state of the entirely unsystematic health care ‘system’, and vast disparities in public health dividing the population, Republicans want to impose a similar blight on public education, while also privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and cutting Medicaid, Food Stamps and other programmes designed to mitigate, but not actually to address, the vast inequalities and obscene levels of poverty and indigence revealed (yet again, this time) by the pandemic. Republicans especially have been responsible for systematically shrinking the remit of the state and atrophying its capacities and competencies.

The result is that the military remains the one public institution in which the mass of Americans seem to retain much faith, and the one arm of the state they deem genuinely competent. And this despite the military’s vast cost, its heroic levels of waste, and its serial failure to emerge ‘victorious’, or even very effective, from any of the misadventures into which various Administrations have lately launched it. Both parties have been willing participants in this process, but the agenda of the current Republican Party represents a radical extension of what is an entirely malign trend. (Anyone who objects is immediately denounced as a ‘socialist’ and thus condemned to the lunatic fringe, a childishly effective rhetorical ploy, borrowed from the school yard, but one with which all too many ‘moderate’ Democrats seem more than ready to collaborate, if not indulge in themselves.) Whether the Biden administration is up to doing anything about this situation—a return to ‘normal’ will not undo it—remains to be seen. Certainly the collection of (suitably ‘diverse’) clapped-out centrists— including the general just four years out of the military and currently receiving $350,000 a year from Raytheon who is now being recruited into Biden’s Cabinet— gives little reason for hope.


Peter Lake is the University Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His books include The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat (Yale University Press, 2002) and The Boxmaker’s Revenge (Stanford University Press, 2002).

Peter Lake.(Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt University)

Copyright 2021 Peter Lake

One comment on “Peter Lake: On Republicanism, Before and After Trump

  1. Catherine Neal
    December 30, 2020

    It’s not a very hopeful picture Peter, though I don’t disagree with your points. Nicely written and informative. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on December 30, 2020 by in Opinion Leaders, Social Justice and tagged , , , , .

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