Republicans are banking on a fusion of Trump autocracy and McConnell nihilism, but will it work for them?
Donald Trump still retains a strong hold on the Republican voting base but as his presidency recedes further into the past, party elites like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are beginning to reassert themselves. In a book excerpt published this past Sunday, McConnell confirmed that he never believed Trump’s deranged lies about losing his re-election bid. Last month, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan denounced the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as a “dishonorable and disgraceful end” to the former administration and urged the GOP to move on to finding new leaders.
Trump, who demands absolute loyalty which he never returns, has chafed at his intra-party rivals for their lack of fealty, calling them RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”), and repeatedly demanding that McConnell be replaced. In response, McConnell has largely kept his side of the feud out of public view, concentrating instead on opposing Trumpish candidates he thinks are likely to lose their election bids and supporting incumbents like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney who have dared to oppose the ex-president on key votes.
Maintaining party unity during times of infighting is difficult enough, but Republicans’ task has been made even tougher by President Joe Biden, whose calm demeanor and deliberate avoidance of media overexposure has made him an elusive target. The fact that he is an older white Christian, like so many GOP voters, has also fortified him against right-wing attacks.
Republican campaign operatives, who had no difficulty promoting reasons to hate former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been struggling to find attack lines against Biden. The conservative book industry can’t sell books about him. Even conservative paraphernalia merchants are having trouble selling anti-Biden wares.
GOP elites are also finding it difficult to perform another task that political parties often do when they lose out on the presidency, returning to the policy drawing board to create new proposals or adapt existing ideas in order to advance their values while still attracting new voters. But in Trump’s GOP, such efforts are impossible since most Republicans continue to believe that he didn’t actually lose.
But even if the Republican base thought it was time for a change, the network of anti-government activist groups and media outlets that so utterly dominates GOP politics is so wealthy and entrenched that people aiming to publicly challenge Trump, such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), soon find themselves running from an angry mob of censors. While Republican voters aren’t too interested in the minimalist state conservative activists want, moderates have no present ability to build power within the party.
Faced with the reality of an activist elite with unpopular opinions about the size of government and a voting base (retirees and blue-collar Christians) that is increasingly dependent upon government spending, Republicans seem to be settling on an approach that fuses McConnell’s bland machinations with Trump’s smash-mouth authoritarianism. In both cases, actual policy outcomes matter far less than the raw pursuit of power.
The merger between McConnellism and Trumpism wasn’t inevitable, however.
On Nov. 3 and shortly thereafter, as it became evident that Biden had won the presidential election, several Fox News anchors and correspondents (mostly from the GOP’s McConnell wing) stood up against Trump’s false claims of victory. The conservative network’s executives even defended their political data team’s correct call of Arizona and the race as a whole for Biden, a fact which enraged the then-president. McConnell himself tried to make space for the legitimacy of his caucus by leaking word that he was “happy” that Democrats had impeached Trump for inciting the Capitol attack and also telling GOP senators that he would not urge them to vote a particular way on conviction.
But these tentative efforts at separation proved ephemeral in the face of Trump’s continuing popularity with GOP voters. They raged against McConnell for his perceived lack of loyalty and turned away from Fox News towards more openly sycophantic Republican propaganda outlets OAN and Newsmax. Most Republican politicians relented. Fox did as well, firing the people it had once defended against the former president’s attacks.
But the fact that right-wing elites returned so rapidly to their previous Trump sycophancy cannot be explained only by their fear of Republican voters. Not only have many of them actually come to believe the disgraced ex-president’s lies, the rest seem to have realized that any position they take on Trump ultimately is unimportant.
That’s because they appear to have learned from McConnell that actually campaigning on their policy or procedural views is no longer necessary. Not only do most political reporters have little interest or knowledge of policy questions, most of the public has little interest in procedural debates, even those as consequential as setting up the framework for Congress’s investigation into the many failures that led to Jan. 6.
As Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman noted in January:
“McConnell’s key insight is that, as a general matter, the public neither understands fights about procedure nor particularly cares. At the very least, voters quickly forget about them once they’re over. There is little or no political price to be paid for taking unreasonable positions in a procedural argument and no gain to be had from presenting oneself as the reasonable one. Activists and political junkies may get worked up about procedural unfairness, but their minds were already made up anyway.”
Embracing McConnell’s cynicism and Trump’s performative politics has been a revelation for Republicans. The GOP infamously never bothered to create a policy platform for its 2020 national convention and it hasn’t even pretended since then to be interested in selling policy ideas to the public.
They still have policies that they seek but they never have to explain them so long as they genuflect before Christian nationalism and keep the base fired up about imaginary controversies. And because the federal courts are so packed with right-wing judges, Republicans have already made it so that elections are almost unnecessary for them. They can get many of the budget cuts they crave without having to risk anger for killing popular programs. Under Trump-McConnellism, Democrats have the entire responsibility for governance while the GOP doesn’t have to run the risk of creating internal divisions. In short, Republicans have become the political equivalents of internet trolls.
While having a majority of voters isn’t necessary to force their will onto the public, the two essential components of the new Republicanism is to shape Senate rules through the filibuster and the electorate in such a way that the doctrinaire conservatism of Mitch McConnell becomes the center-point of the American spectrum—and that progressives are entirely shut out.
Even before Trump’s term ended, what remained of GOP policy-making had shifted almost entirely toward preserving the right’s minoritarian electoral strategy. The Heritage Foundation, which made its name crafting budget-slashing proposals for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has rebuilt itself as a hub for voter suppression. After citizen participation soared to historic highs in the 2020 elections, GOP state legislators across the country have crafted more than 380 bills placing limits on voting methods favored by Democratic constituencies such as vote-by-mail and drop boxes for depositing ballots. In a March 30 interview, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp even admitted that the law passed in his state “is dealing with the mechanics of the election. It has nothing to do with potential fraud or not.”
In a private conference video which later leaked, Jessica Anderson, director of Heritage Action for America, boasted that her organization’s goal was to duplicate its success in Iowa where it changed election laws with little public attention.
“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson said. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”
Similarly, right-wing immigration restriction proponents routinely stress that the policies they favor are designed to keep out Latinos and Asians whom they see as less willing to vote for Republicans. As early as 2016, Trump warned the Christian Broadcasting Network that “this will be the last election if I don’t win” supposedly because Democrats would grant citizenship to unauthorized immigrants, thereby dooming Republicans forever.
Fox News Channel hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson have made this argument in even more racialized terms. In 2018, Ingraham ranted that “in some parts of the country, the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She also blamed foreign-born immigrants for turning Virginia into a Democratic voting state. Carlson has repeatedly warned that Democrats were trying to use “demographic replacement” to “change this country completely and forever” through immigration. “The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he reiterated in a March 30 guest appearance on “Fox and Friends” in which he denounced “massive demographic change.”
Besides thoroughly adopting Trump’s rhetoric, Fox News’s recent personnel decisions demonstrate that Trumpism and McConnellism are fusing together. Once the public relations arm of McConnell under its founding president Roger Ailes, the right-wing channel has fast become a slush fund for Trump’s entourage. The ex-president’s former top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, now hosts a Fox Business Network weekly show; his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, just signed a deal to become a staff commentator while she builds buzz for a possible run for office in North Carolina; and his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is now the co-host of its “Outnumbered” program. In the same week that Kudlow’s hire was announced, Fox disclosed that McEnany’s White House predecessor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, would be resigning her paid commentator position to run for governor of Arkansas.
While they haven’t needed or bothered to present their own policy agenda to the public, Republican politicians have been very careful to keep their voters and the public distracted with manufactured social controversies such as “critical race theory,” the supposed teaching of racial Marxism to elementary school students and “cancel culture,” the alleged epidemic of conservatives being censored by an all-powerful political left.
Though the campaign is little more than re-branded complaints about “political correctness” that were commonplace in the 1990s, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have been promoting the idea relentlessly for months.
According to closed-caption data collected by Stanford University, since January of this year, Fox News Channel has spent more airtime each month hyping fake controversies about children’s figures like Peter Pan, Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, and the Muppets than the Congressional debate over President Biden’s coronavirus stimulus spending.
A separate analysis by the progressive group Media Matters found that on March 2, Fox News spent more than an hour discussing Dr. Seuss and less than 30 minutes talking about major coronavirus vaccine developments or the first public testimony of FBI Director Christopher Wray about the Jan. 6 attempted coup.
As it often does, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) proved a useful testing ground for Republican elites to calibrate the message for right-wing media commentators. This year’s theme was “America Uncanceled,” and nearly every politician behind the podium railed against what they said was a left-wing plot to systematically silence conservatives. (No one discussed the fact that CPAC itself was forced to cancel a far-right “hotep” speaker who was exposed as anti-Semitic.)
Since then, Florida governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is one of several Republican politicians who have proposed fines for social networks who ban political candidates. Major tech CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai have been subjected to hostile questioning from GOP members of Congress, not about their practice of predatory surveillance capitalism, but about false allegations of censorship from MAGA e-celebs.
Unsurprisingly, the right’s supposed free-speech warriors have shown themselves to be utterly unconcerned with actually protecting censored material. There was no outcry from Republicans on Monday, when Trump was revealed to have asked the social media platform Parler to ban anyone who criticized him from its site and hand over 40 percent of its revenue in exchange for his participation. Republicans have similarly not bothered to respond to the fact that the most frequently banned books in America’s libraries are titles that feature realistic portrayals of teens and sex, LGBT characters, and plots critical of Christian nationalism and theocracy.
The “cancel culture” trolling serves as a perfect offensive weapon, since it allows Republicans to focus their messaging on topics that are boring to the media and divisive among Democratic voters. Even more importantly, stoking fear of godless socialists is an appealing message to Christian Americans, even those who do not vote Republican. The victim narrative is especially energizing to theologically conservative Christians, who have been conditioned for decades to look for persecution around every corner and to relish the opportunity to die for Jesus in a culture where LGBT people are increasingly free to be who they are and in which non-Christians are no longer shunted to the margins of society. (There’s room for improvement, however, considering that atheists and Muslims continue to face unique political discrimination according to polls.)
It also appears that GOP efforts to portray Trump as the tribune for embattled Christians may have played a role in increasing his share of both the Latino and the Black vote. Pushing back against “corporate communism,” as extremist Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene calls it, also allows conservative and far-right figures to assume the mantle of populism, without having to actually advance any populist policies.
The side-effect of constantly reminding Christian fundamentalists of their decreasing cultural power is that the process has to be continually ratcheted up in order to be effective. It’s a process that has been in motion since the very beginning of American conservatism in the 1950s, but became particularly destructive in 2016 as Republican loyalists sought to devise an argument for reluctant traditionalists to show up and vote for Trump, a man known to them at the time for his immorality and past Democratic loyalties, who they had not supported in the GOP primaries.
Michael Anton, who was later hired to work in the Trump administration, soon set the tone for future right-wing discourse in an essay for the Claremont Review of Books called “The Flight 93 Election,” in which he compared Democrats to the al-Qaeda terrorists who highjacked an airplane on 9/11 in the hopes of crashing it into the White House. Voting for Trump, Anton posited, was akin to storming the cabin on that doomed flight. There was no way to know if the effort would succeed, but the alternative was certain death and humiliation.
“Over time, the relationship between the GOP and the Religious Right has became so co-dependent that Republicans had to constantly perform their collective anger at societal changes and maintain a sense of urgency regarding the country’s moral compass,” Angie Maxwell, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas and co-author of “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics” told Flux.
“Rejecting Starbucks holiday cups, refusing to wear masks, eating ‘Freedom fries,’ buying old Dr. Seuss books, etc., have all become ways to defend religious liberty in an imagined war that they themselves fabricated,” she said.
Right-wing media figures will even admit sometimes that Republican voters and elites feel they are in a life-or-death struggle against the forces of secular left-wingers who seek their extinction. Radio host and columnist Ben Shapiro, who once accused “Jews in Hollywood” of waging a “war on Christianity” on a white nationalist podcast noted this in a January column for Politico in which he disclosed what he said was the real reason that Senate Republicans opposed convicting Trump for inciting the Capitol riots.
“Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior,” he wrote.
That the Republican base feels this way is entirely the fault of its grifting religious and media elites, who have repeated this message to them for years. ”Dilbert” creator Scott Adams provided a particularly egregious example in July of 2020 when he claimed on Twitter that “if Biden is elected, there’s a good chance you will be dead within the year.”
“Republicans will be hunted,” he added, “Police will stand down.”
Needless to say, Adams’s ridiculous prediction hasn’t transpired. But the far-right’s perpetual stream of victimhood and imagined oppression continues unabated.
In a March 25 discussion on his nightly Fox News program, Tucker Carlson and far-right radio host Jesse Kelly argued that Republicans were going to have to become fascists in order to stop allegedly hypocritical and authoritarian progressives.
“At some point people are going to say, ‘Why should I follow the rules? Why should I be a good citizen if they don’t have to follow the rules?’” Carlson asked.
“I have said this before, and I’m telling you I’m worried that I’m right, the right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20 years,” Kelly replied. “We’re not a tiny minority, and if we’re going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law, while Antifa Black Lives Matter [sic] guys go free and Hunter Biden goes free, then the right’s going to take drastic measures.”
“That’s so well put and you’re absolutely right,” Carlson agreed. “We are moving toward actual extremism because they’re undermining the system that kept extremism at bay. I don’t think we can say that enough. I’m so glad that you just said it.”
The question of how to respond to a political movement built on a demographically decaying Christian fundamentalism that’s now openly pondering the merits of fascism looms over American politics, even as the country has yet to exit the Covid-19 pandemic.
The GOP “cancel culture” distractions over cartoon characters and children’s books has proven befuddling and infuriating to many Democratic politicians and progressive commentators. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan likely spoke for many in a highly animated March 10 House floor speech in favor of a bill to protect worker unionization rights.
“Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us on behalf of the American workers!” he thundered. Video of the speech was viewed millions of times, according to the Washington Post.
The Biden administration’s response has been far more tempered; officials seem to have settled on a strategy of de-escalation rather than engagement with Republican trolling. In her daily news briefings, White House press secretary Jen Psaki has demurely refused to engage with conservative media correspondents whenever they’ve tried to drag her into contrived controversies. Sometimes, she has even tried to flip the script on Republicans, as she did earlier this week when she accused them of “defunding the police” by refusing to vote for the president’s economic stimulus bill.
Biden himself has yet to comment at all on various right-wing pseudo scandals. He’s also stuck to a very tightly controlled messaging environment, refusing to insert himself into the spotlight. He delayed his first joint address to Congress for months longer than is traditional for new presidents and lets his staff manage his social media accounts.
The low-exposure strategy has been enormously frustrating to right-wing commentators yearning for ill-considered comments of the sort that former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton occasionally made which provided months of material for Republicans. Before he held his first news conference, Fox News repeatedly tried to bait Biden into doing one.
“Biden, not only do I think is a terrible president in these last few months, it’s just terrible for talk radio,” far-right radio host Dan Bongino groused in a March interview with Business Insider’s Sinéad Baker. “I think Biden is a disaster for the country and his ideas are an atrocity. But he’s boring. He’s just boring. […] It’s going to be a challenge. It is. It’s going to be a challenge.”
The other component of Biden’s strategy for handling the right-wing troll operation has been to focus on policy outcomes, betting that most Americans, and more than a few Republicans, just want a president who will do the job without embarrassing them. He’s already succeeded on that score with passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan which not a single Republican voted for, though many shamelessly tried to take credit for it. Not content to rest on that achievement, Biden and congressional Democrats are moving forward with a $2 trillion national infrastructure plan designed to improve roads and bridges across the country and move the United States toward greener energy in a major way.
The strategy seems to be working. Excepting the surveys of the far-right Rasmussen Reports company, Biden’s approval rating has been consistently higher than his disapproval rating. Some polls have even shown him hitting 60 percent approval, a seemingly impossible number in a political environment assumed to be irrevocably polarized. That the president’s numbers have been so high after such a controversial beginning to his administration is no surprise given how closely the Biden policy and public relations strategies seem to be calibrated to fit the contours of public opinion.
“The old cliché from politicians is bragging they don’t look at the polls. For Biden admin, it’s constantly telling everyone to look at the polls,” NBC policy editor Benjy Sarlin has observed.
In the media realm, some journalists seem to be figuring out better ways to handle right-wing trolls as well. After initially trying and failing to get congressional Republicans to admit that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, political news shows (with the exception of NBC’s Chuck Todd) seem to be moving past the point rather than allowing their guests to repeat the lies. Others have calmly and firmly refused to allow Trump representatives to verbally filibuster the duration of their interviews–often to their enragement such as when former Trump impeachment lawyer Michael van der Veen stormed out of an interview with CBSN host Lana Zak.
Online, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have also implemented policies against election falsehoods and have stood firm in upholding bans against Trump and conspiracy theorists like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell.
Another positive development in post-Trump media has been a raft of lawsuits pursued by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, two election ballot processing firms who were smeared relentlessly by the former president and his allies during his desperate bid to cling to power. Already, both companies have forced on-air corrections from Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, and Newsmax. The lawsuits also appear to have made right-wing media afraid of repeating Lindell’s deranged lies about Chinese and Venezuelan fraud rings.
The pillow magnate raged against his media isolation during a June 12 interview with comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent Jordan Klepper filmed on-location at a sparsely attended “MAGA Frank Rally” in Wisconsin.
“We’re supposed to let people like you destroy us and take away our voices?” he raged. “Fox isn’t here, shame on Fox! Nobody’s here! Have you seen CNN, Fox, or any of them here to talk about anything? Doesn’t anybody care?”
As the voting companies’ suits proceed, they are demonstrating that far-right disinformation can be countered through aggressive defamation suits and media responsibility rather than pie-in-the-sky talk of amending the Constitution or overturning the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.
There are many challenges yet ahead, but for the first time in the years since I left the radical right and began trying to warn America about it, I now believe there is a way forward.
Biden’s brand of boring inclusiveness and the media’s increasing realization that malicious liars don’t deserve to be amplified are exactly what’s needed. Even Fox News, on whose corporate board former House Speaker Paul Ryan sits, has decided to start cutting away from Trump’s election rants. It will certainly be interesting to see the attitude the network takes toward the unofficial Arizona ballot fiasco that is nearing completion.
All that being said, the disgraced ex-president’s malign influence on our politics is far from completely faded. American conservatism is dying, but just like large animals, ideologies in their death throes can still be incredibly dangerous. Another important thing to watch will be how Biden and his party respond to the GOP’s attempts to shape voting laws to exclude populations that predominantly vote for Democrats.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) seem to still be clinging to the idea that Republicans want to legislate, when their actual aims are inflaming Christians from the sidelines while sabotaging governance.
Progressive activists and commentators have argued that the duo will need to overcome their naiveté in order to pass the voting reform bill known as the “For the People Act” and approve Biden’s upcoming major infrastructure bill. While such actions would certainly be beneficial, I think there are multiple ways forward. America has been heading toward autocracy for years, but for now at least, there is a glimmer of something better.