It is a curious fact of the Trump era that Donald Trump’s ascent to the top of the Republican Party has caused many liberals to deepen their love for the GOP—well, the “old” GOP, that is.
It seems like you can’t move these days without hearing loving thoughts about George W. Bush, or watching people like Nancy Pelosi describe the GOP as a formerly great institution brought low by Trump’s villainy.
Sunday’s New York Times editorial “R.I.P., G.O.P.” is full of all the familiar tropes. As such, it is pretty ridiculous from start to finish.
The Times editorial board pays fulsome tribute to its version of the GOP which used to be:
However you characterize it, the Republican Party’s dissolution under Mr. Trump is bad for American democracy.
A healthy political system needs robust, competing parties to give citizens a choice of ideological, governing and policy visions. More specifically, center-right parties have long been crucial to the health of modern liberal democracies, according to the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt’s study of the emergence of democracy in Western Europe. Among other benefits, a strong center right can co-opt more palatable aspects of the far right, isolating and draining energy from the more radical elements that threaten to destabilize the system.
Today’s G.O.P. does not come close to serving this function. It has instead allowed itself to be co-opted and radicalized by Trumpism. Its ideology has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs. Its policy agenda, as defined by the party platform, is whatever President Trump wants — which might not be so pathetic if Mr. Trump’s interests went beyond “Build a wall!”
You don’t have to wonder whether the Times would ever pine for, say, a system in which a socialist party helps keep Democrats in check. Of course it wouldn’t! Challenges from the left are never appreciated; challenges from the right are a thing of solemn beauty. You also don’t have to wonder whether a conservative newspaper would wax poetic about the many glories of the Democratic legacy.
The rest of the editorial continues in this vein, running through the ways in which the GOP has abandoned its supposed principles—”family values,” “law and order,” and “revering the Constitution” get a name check—in order to perpetuate the Trump machine.
It is always fascinating to see liberals toss basic history aside in service of these kinds of arguments. You would think, based on the way the Times is weeping here, that George W. Bush never got into office because a Republican Supreme Court handed him the election, and lied the country into war and shed torrents of blood across the globe, and spied on everyone without warrants, and used homophobia and religious fundamentalism to prop up his reelection; that Ronald Reagan never illegally supported death squads and fueled a racist assault on the welfare system and let AIDS run rampant through the U.S.; or that Richard Nixon never rode a white supremacist backlash to civil rights straight into the White House, or lied about Vietnam, or helped to overthrow Allende, or (lest we forget) did Watergate. What are all these things if not “a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism”? What are they if not the hallmarks of a party that has been pure poison going back decades?
This kind of argument would be pretty ludicrous whenever you read it, but considering it amid the backdrop of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s all-but-assured confirmation by the Senate on Monday gives it that special added air of nonsense.
Barrett’s elevation to the court is the culmination of literal decades of work by the conservative movement in America to pack the federal judiciary. She will join hyper-conservative justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito who, for instance, recently hinted that they would like to overturn same-sex marriage rights across the country. Both of these nutjobs were appointed by Republican presidents long before Trump ever came on the scene. The court’s assaults on things like voting rights and gun control also have nothing to do with Trump. They have everything to do with the GOP’s longstanding existence as a radical right-wing outfit.
Liberals and Democrats surely know about all of this, but they are too wedded to the notion of a pleasant bipartisan system in which two competing parties trade power back and forth and everyone is basically decent and America strives to acknowledge what is staring them in the face. To do so would be to admit that a system that plays host to the Republican Party might not be a system worth preserving. (It could also invite something even more frightening than conservative rule: the advancement of truly left-wing politics in America.)
Weirdly, the Times gestures at this reality at the very end of its editorial:
Mr. Trump’s corrosive influence on his party would fill a book. It has, in fact, filled several, as well as a slew of articles, social media posts and op-eds, written by conservatives both heartbroken and incensed over what has become of their party.
But many of these disillusioned Republicans also acknowledge that their team has been descending into white grievance, revanchism and know-nothing populism for decades. Mr. Trump just greased the slide. “He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party has become in the last 50 or so years,” the longtime party strategist Stuart Stevens asserts in his new book, “It Was All a Lie.”
So, which is it then? Have Republicans been newly radicalized by the bad man, or have they been playing these tunes for generations? The Times appears to want to have it both ways. Until liberals and their representatives in the Democratic Party face up to the fact that they can’t have it both ways—that the existence of the Republican Party is incompatible with progress and democracy and that it has been this way for a very long time—they will continue to betray the rest of us.