In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has finally drawn the line, describing Greene’s views as “loony.” But it is too little, too late. The party has been encouraging loony views for years. Today we rightly laud Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for his political courage — but it’s worth recalling that when he was running for president in 2012, he craved Donald Trump’s endorsement. When Romney got it, he gushed, “There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life.” Later that year, he tacitly endorsed Trump’s most noxious lie — birtherism — joking that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
The real big lie at the heart of the modern Republican Party is about public policy, not conspiracy theories. Starting in the 1930s, Republicans promised their voters the repeal of FDR’s New Deal. When the next Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did nothing of the sort, the modern conservative movement emerged, furiously branding Ike a traitor. When LBJ enacted the Great Society, conservatives pledged that once elected, they would tear it all down — and never did. Ronald Reagan launched his political career by denouncing Medicare as a direct path to socialism. If it passed, he warned, “[We] are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” Of course, as president, Reagan left Medicare largely intact.
In the early 1990s, House leader Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) doubled down on a rhetoric of radicalism and extremism. He promised revolution and described political opponents as the embodiment of evil, who won only because they lied and cheated. E.J. Dionne Jr. has described the toxic results of this strategy as “the politics of disappointment and betrayal.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) follows the same strategy today. His 2016 platform included promises to repeal Obamacare, abolish the IRS and balance the budget — plans that he knew could never get enacted but were just the right red meat for the base. He treats his supporters like cannon fodder, whipping them into hysteria and sending them into battle.
The party endlessly crowed about “repealing and replacing” Obamacare, only to come to power without a viable plan and then quickly accommodate itself to the reality it had vowed to overturn. This strategy has led millions of Republicans to feel cheated and lied to by their leaders, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion toward anyone who is not utterly extreme. It also feeds the notion that true conservatism fails because of some kind of collusion, treason and betrayal. It is a short and direct line from Gingrich to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
If you are looking for an alternative path for a conservative leader, one who even knows how to appeal to populist and nationalist sentiment, look at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson, who initially bungled covid-19 but is now tackling the pandemic with much greater seriousness, has gradually emerged as the most consequential Conservative politician since Margaret Thatcher. He has been slowly but surely reshaping his party to make it more compatible with modern-day Britain. His cabinet is remarkably diverse, with two of the three most powerful positions filled by Asian Britons.
Describing his plans for big spending during the pandemic and after, Johnson said, “It sounds like a New Deal and all I can say is that, if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be — because that is what the times demand: A government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis.” He adds to these innovations more traditional Thatcherite ideas such as efficient government, free trade and a moral foreign policy. “We will build better and build greener,” he said, “but we will also build faster” — by dispensing with much of the red tape and regulation that burden Britain today.
If Republicans are searching for a conservatism that can work in the modern era, they should first stop lying to their own voters and look to examples such as Britain’s to bring their party into the world of facts and reality.