The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Republicans manage to be both anarchists and authoritarians

Texas Gov, Greg Abbott (R), right and state senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), pose for photos after Abbott signed Senate Bill 1, also known as the election integrity bill, into law in Tyler, Tex., on Tuesday. (LM Otero/AP)

Republicans are confused about their views and confusing to outsiders. Hypocrisy and incoherence, opportunism and irrationality are the hallmarks of the Trumplican Party. It is hard to find a consistent through-line beyond “owning the libs,” i.e., doing and saying whatever is most likely to outrage progressive opinion.

Trying to make sense of the GOP’s shifting positions, I argued last month that the party had fallen prey to nihilism. As evidence, I cited Republican attacks on the police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, on the FBI, on the military, on big business, on the media, on the scientific establishment and on virtually every major institution in America. Republicans even oppose mask and vaccine mandates while covid-19 is ravaging red states.

Thomas Zimmer, a historian at Georgetown University, posted an interesting Twitter thread in response. He argued that Republicans are not motivated “by nihilism, but by conviction — by the idea that America must be a white Christian nation, a place where a white Christian male elite gets to rule.”

There is plenty of support for his view, too. Look, first and foremost, at the Republican-controlled Texas legislature banning abortion after about six weeks and empowering vigilantes to enforce its provisions via lawsuits. Five Supreme Court justices — all appointed by Republican presidents — refused to stop implementation of this draconian law. Now other red states are likely to follow the Texas model.

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Look at the 18 Republican-controlled states, including Texas, that have passed laws to restrict voting rights to ensure that Democrats cannot win the White House and Senate as they did in 2020. Republican legislatures are also gerrymandering House districts to ensure that Democrats can’t win the House either.

Look at eight Republican-controlled states that have passed laws to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory — which means banning, in effect, teaching about the baleful impact of racism in U.S. history. Similar legislation is being pursued in 20 other states.

Look, finally, at conservative attempts to harass, intimidate and punish those who offend their sensibilities. For example, a Tennessee teacher was recently fired by a conservative school board for assigning to his class an Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates arguing that Donald Trump was elected president because of White grievances and a poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey entitled “White Privilege.” This is a “cancel culture” outrage you will not see on the Fox “News” Channel.

So are Republicans anarchists or authoritarians? They are both. The two outlooks are complementary, not contradictory.

Most on the right refuse to accept the authority of any institution they do not control, and they will go to any lengths to undermine it. Witness growing Republican approval for the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. In one recent poll, a majority of Trump voters described the insurrectionists as engaged in “patriotism” or a defense of “freedom.” Another poll found that nearly 50 percent of Republicans think it’s appropriate for state legislatures to override the popular vote and more than 60 percent to deny that Biden is the rightful president.

But once right-wingers take command of an institution — whether the Supreme Court or the 23 states where Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the legislature — they will do everything possible to ensure compliance with their diktats.

Republicans are fighting, just as Zimmer suggested, to establish a state in which conservative White Christians are in charge. But until that happens, they will undermine every institution that they perceive as being under the control of their progressive foes. That is a long list, since Republicans are ludicrously convinced that the left has hijacked even institutions such as big business and the military.

What can appear to be a contradictory outlook is actually typical of authoritarian movements. When they are out of power, they will attack the state with every weapon at their disposal. Once they take power, however, they will entrench their own authority and repress dissent. Look at the right-wing ruling parties in India, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, which the GOP increasingly resembles. Like them, Republicans combine support for the free market (or at least crony capitalism) with an illiberal social agenda.

The GOP’s growing authoritarianism was ameliorated in recent years by Trump’s incompetence and incoherence. But we cannot take too much comfort in his ineptitude. With a helping hand from then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who refused to give a hearing to a Democratic president’s Supreme Court nominee in an election year but then rammed through a Republican president’s nominee just before the 2020 election — Trump has come close to achieving the right’s half-century goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and taking away abortion rights from millions of women.

Moreover, Trump came perilously close to overturning the 2020 election results. Republicans could achieve greater success in toppling U.S. democracy in the future under a more disciplined demagogue. They are maligning and undermining one “liberal” institution after another so they can enshrine in power a regime that imposes the values of White, rural, conservative America on a fast-changing, urban, diverse and progressive nation that will soon be “majority minority.” You might say they are practicing tactical anarchism with the strategic goal of instituting right-wing authoritarianism.

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Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Video: Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)