Some years ago, I wrote a book arguing that Democrats should learn from the things Republicans did well. One of these was that the GOP had a simple foundation of shared beliefs that could be easily communicated to voters. Ask a Republican running for any office from dogcatcher all the way up to president what it meant to be a conservative, and they’d tick off some version of the same four pillars: small government, low taxes, a strong military and traditional social values.
Conservatives still believe in those things. But no one could seriously argue that they are any longer the animating purpose of the Republican Party. Instead, the one thing that unites the right and drives the GOP is hatred of liberals. That hatred has consumed every policy goal, every ideological principle and even every ounce of commitment to country.
“But Democrats hate conservatives, too!” you might say. Indeed they do. Negative partisanship — being more motivated by your dislike of the other party than by affection for your own — is a key feature of contemporary politics. But when 18 Republican state attorneys general, more than half of House Republicans and multiple conservative organizations all demand that the results of a presidential election where no fraud was found be simply tossed aside so that Trump can be declared winner, something more profound has been revealed.
The Republican Party has proved that its hatred of liberals is so foundational that it will abandon any pretense of commitment to democracy, if democracy allows for the possibility that liberals might win an election. They have come to regard Democratic voters as essentially undeserving of having their will translated into power, no matter how large their numbers.
They might have believed it before, but now they’re willing to proclaim it even after they just lost a presidential election by 7 million votes and a 306-232 electoral college margin. Forget all that inspiring talk about the genius of the Framers and their vision for democracy; if having an election means that the people we hate might win, then the election must simply be nullified.
You might say that the Republican officials signing on to this deeply anti-American crusade are doing so out of fear as much as conviction, but the two are not mutually exclusive. All elected officials worry about contradicting their base, but in today’s Republican Party, that worry is almost completely divorced from policy. Yes, you’d get flak if you voted to raise taxes, but the greatest danger comes from failing to fight the left with sufficient vigor.
That danger, furthermore, is not only electoral but physical; the Republican leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate said this week that if she refused to sign a letter demanding that Congress toss out her state’s votes in the presidential race, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.” It might not actually happen, but the point is that Republican officeholders understand well what their party values above all else and what kinds of transgressions will not be tolerated.
Trump has often cited the extraordinary loyalty he has received from his party’s voters; it’s one of the few things he says that’s true. But it isn’t because Trump signed a corporate tax cut and slashed environmental regulations.
When you ask the typical Trump supporter what they love about him, they don’t mention some substantive policy position; what they say is that he is a fighter. The petty squabbles, the insulting tweets, the deranged conspiracy theories — the things that the Never Trumpers and most other Americans find off-putting are exactly what endears him to the Republican base.
Trump fights and fights, angrily, bitterly, endlessly driven forward by his hatred of the people his supporters hate. That’s what the base loves, and every other Republican knows it.
Everything about the election that just ended reinforced for conservatives that nothing is more important than hating liberals. The rhetoric of the 2020 campaign, starting with Trump but going all the way down the ballot, was that if Democrats were elected, then it would not be suboptimal or bad or even terrible, but the end of everything you care about. Towns and cities would burn, religion would be outlawed, America as we know it would cease to exist. These horrors were not presented as metaphors, but as the literal truth.
In the face of that potential apocalypse, who could possibly care about mundane policy goals? So no Republican argued that if we didn’t cut the capital gains tax then it would be the end of life as we know it. They want to cut the capital gains tax, sure — but its importance pales next to the urgency of stopping the cataclysm that would engulf us all if Democrats were to hold power.
To be clear, there are still thoughtful conservatives out there trying to advance a coherent ideological project. But seldom have they mattered less to their movement and their party. They may produce white papers on free-market health-care solutions or innovative tax plans, but no one really cares.
If it doesn’t Own the Libs, it doesn’t matter on the right. That’s what the Republican Party and the conservative movement are about today, and it might take a long time for them to change.