Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

For Today’s GOP, the Power Is the Point

The ascendancy of Trump has shown that Republicans stand for nothing more than keeping progressives out of power by maintaining their own.
August 25, 2020
For Today’s GOP, the Power Is the Point
TOPSHOT - Campaign signs are seen on the ground as US President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the economy at an airport hanger on August 17, 2020 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The one constant of the Republican party in the age of Trump—perhaps best demonstrated by the convention’s literal failure to come up with a new platform—is an inability to define what, exactly, the standard-bearers of conservatism actually stand for.

As Republicans moved from the party of Nixon to the party of Reagan, they couched their work as a defense of the Constitution and claimed to be conserving classically liberal ideals: separation of power, checks and balances, property rights, individual rights, and so on. More deeply, Republicans and conservatives claimed to be defending virtue in public and private life. They were proud of themselves for standing up to the corruptions of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy and the bigotries of the Birchers. Above all, conservative intelligentsia, mostly in the pages of National Review, claimed to be defending the idea of a natural right against the moral relativism of the progressive left and historicism and positivism in academia. And, to be fair, they did more than claim. They did make these arguments.

Not anymore. Looking at the Republican party and the conservative movement, one has to struggle and squint to see even the slightest reflection of any of the ideals they formerly championed.

The Republican party has no interest in property rights. Its leader, Donald Trump, has a history of trying to abuse eminent domain. Republicans don’t seem to be bothered by the footage of guardsmen who shot paintballs at residents inside their own property.

Today’s GOP is not interested in checks and balances, either. Most Republican members of Congress have done nothing to oppose the president’s unilateral declaration of a trade war with China, even though the imposition of tariffs is a task reserved for Congress, on allies and enemies alike. Worse, most Republicans supported the president’s bogus emergency declaration last year that allowed him to shift congressionally appropriated funds to pay for his fence at the southern border.

Republicans have no particular interest in legislating, preferring to leave action to the executive branch so they can’t be held accountable by their constituents. After all, doing the right thing might be unpopular and cost them re-election.

But why does that matter? This is the real problem: They want to win re-election for the sake of winning. Victory is not a vehicle for governance. It is a good unto itself. What was once a governing philosophy has been replaced by a mere desire for power.

The only point to winning is to stop the left from taking power, and this might be a problem inherent to conservatism: It has always been a reactionary movement against progressivism. The left stands for more government, and the right stands against the left. As long as the other side is not in power, all’s well. The right currently has no agenda beyond stopping the left. Even in power, even in majority, they have the mentality of the minority in opposition.

But even though conservatism was reactionary and oppositional, it still used to have proposals. This new stupid conservatism is partially a result of the decline of the conservative intelligentsia in the post-Reagan years. The intelligentsia either ran out of ideas or failed to persuade Republican candidates to run on them. Reagan won 49 states in 1984. His platform was a successful one. As a result, Republicans have run on that platform ever since, and the conservative intelligentsia has advocated for the same policy proposals.

Except those issues aren’t really relevant anymore. Tough-on-crime policies are a difficult sell when crime is at historic lows (though rioters across the country are doing their best to revive the issue). Religious conservatism (not to be confused with cultural and social conservatism) is difficult when irreligiosity is at an all-time low in the United States. Tax cuts make no sense with a runaway deficit, especially when the rates are quite low anyways, as opposed to the 1980s. Eventually, you fall on the other side of the Laffer curve. Yet, the right has nothing new to propose.

As the old ideas fade into irrelevance, the right doesn’t even really talk about them any longer. All they have to offer is saving America from progressives and Democrats. Some party stalwarts even openly admit as much, as Tim Alberta noted in a grim new Politico article:

“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”

So much for “the party of ideas.”

Progressive Democrats will be ruling if the right continues its current course. Not because of changing demographics. Not because the future is less white and less religious. But because the right has become the party of Nietzsche in a society that belongs to Montesquieu and Locke.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.