The Rise and the Fall of the Grand Old Party

September 16, 2021

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

“There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.”

– John Adams, writing to Jonathan Jackson, October 2, 1780.

Despite a likely erstwhile displeasure with 235 years of American political party history, John Adams is marginally to blame for its creation as the considered architect of American constitutional government. Lamenting the two party system of American politics is a masturbatory exercise in impotence since we experience the hegemony of this dichotomous political binary repeating throughout history primarily because ours is a winner-takes-all electoral system; without the sort of proportional representation utilized in other democratic systems around the world, our political dominion has necessarily been reduced to two opposing forces that broadly dominate the political landscape as contending socio-economic and political ideologies.

We fancy otherwise with the negligible inclusion of liminal political parties enticing a portion of the electorate, but without consequential changes to our Constitutional Republic enabling proportionate representation of the nuanced socio-economic beliefs and political identities of our citizenry, those marginal parties are a dubious distraction from abject political reality: their inclusion in the political landscape is a desultory equivocation at best, if not simply a Machiavellian method of social control meant to placate a deceptive belief that choice equals power.

The political parties dominating the landscape simply fracture and change over time with names and beliefs altered by emerging socio-economic stressors and a need to form new ideological coalitions when their current affiliations have clearly failed. Sometimes that transformation absorbs a marginal political party (or some disaffected members of the opposing party) in effort to facilitate transformation, but those marginal political parties have not replaced an existing party in the hegemonic binary. Only the progression of time and evolving socio-economic realities have substantially altered the ideological political landscapes and formative political identities of our Republic.

It has been almost a hundred and seventy years since the last dissolution and renaming of a dominant political identity, absorbing fringe political beliefs and malcontents in its rebirth: when the Whig Party dissolved and became the new Republican Party. Consider the historical and material consequence of disintegrating durability within a dichotomous political existence, a crucial reminder that political institutions may well be perishable, and understand that we occupy a remarkable historical moment for experiencing the pathological partisan fracturing of a longstanding prominent identity in our political landscape: the deleterious and endogenous Grand Old Party of present seems destined to become the defunct Grand Olde Party of the past. And for the Republican party, the contemptuous ruin and civic decay is coming from inside of their house.

I wonder which factions, identities, and socio-economic beliefs will rise from the ashes to assume the new dominant political establishment in its stead.

While troubling salient changes appeared in hasty fashion with Donald Trump’s possession of the GOP beginning in 2016 (including the return to normalizing an unabashedly public celebration of undisguised bigotry and willful ignorance), the decay of America’s Grand Old Party began long before Donald Trump arrived on the political stage to instigate its momentous and ruinous closing acts.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by remaining members of the Whig Party and the Free Soil Party (together with a few disaffected members of the Democratic Party) joining forces to oppose the Democratic Party. The Free Soil Party, founded in 1848, was a marginal political party: primarily a single-issue party with a brief existence opposing slavery in the new western territories. The Whig Party, founded in 1830, was formulated from the short-lived National Republican Party, which evolved from the anti-Jacksonian faction of a divided (Jeffersonian) Democratic-Republican Party along with remnants of the Federalist Party (the Jacksonian faction became America’s oldest political party: the Democratic Party). Positioned in opposition to the Democratic Party, the Whigs favored the power of Congress over the presidency, modernization, meritocracy, economic protectionism, funding of infrastructure, and the creation of a national bank while opposing Manifest Destiny and expansion into additional western territories.

But let’s take a step back further in time to 1818 when Missouri applied for statehood as the first slave state in the Louisiana Purchase territories west of the Mississippi. The potential for upsetting the balance of federal power with the addition of another slave state to the union did not go over well and members of Congress fought about permitting slavery in new territories and new states admitted to the union. In 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, a balancing act of admitting the states of Maine and Missouri to the union: Maine admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with slavery banned in the remainder of the unorganized territories north of Missouri.

The Missouri Compromise enabled the co-admission of slave and free state while indicating the region within which slavery could continue its expansion. This demarcation of the southern line of permissible slavery expansion into western territories was only one of many legislative struggles with slavery’s persistence into the expanding geographical (and imaginative) spaces of the nation, all apparently temporary solutions to a much bigger problem.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act later dissolved the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in the remaining territories north of Missouri: settlers in each territory would be granted sovereignty in determining whether they would allow slavery in these new territories of Kansas and Nebraska created from the unorganized northern territory. With passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, what remained of the struggling Whig Party disintegrated. From its ashes arose the new Republican Party: a free-enterprising phoenix fearing the power and dominance of slave-holding interests in national politics, and at its inception had almost no support in the South.

Let’s shake off some of our cultural mythologies: the Whigs, and then the Republicans by design, had no issue with the slaveholding South and were happy to just let them be; where slavery became an issue for political leaders, it did so not for American ideologies of Liberty & Justice or (radical) humanitarian concerns for generations of human beings owned as property and borne into bondage due to no fault of their own. While the (white) abolitionist movement of the early 19th century was essentially religious rather than political at the outset, resulting from humanistic notions appropriated as new moral ideologies of Protestant Revivalism in the North (as abolitionism was decidedly illegal in the South), slavery became a political problem for the nation primarily due to concerns about geography and economics: the expansion of slavery into new western territories and the fear of potential power and political dominance brought to Congress when admitting new slave states in excess of free states. These fears were heavily influenced by the fiscal concerns of emerging industrial economic ideologies: how instituting slavery wherever they could during westward expansion would prevent economic opportunities for free white laborers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the industrialists who relied upon that very labor to expand their wealth and laissez-faire sovereignty.

In 1857, the United States Supreme Court made clear in the landmark racist decision of Dred Scot v. Sanford that racial equity was not on the table: with a 7-2 ruling, the Court determined that African Americans, free or slave, were not included nor meant to be included as citizens and thereby were not given the rights and protections afforded by the United States Constitution. Going even further, the Court struck down the Missouri Compromise as an unconstitutional overreach of power by Congress, indicating that the Legislative Branch had no actual authority to regulate slavery in the states. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion on the decision reaffirmed white supremacy as American as apple pie while believing the decision would settle the slavery issue once and for all.

It most certainly did not.

Instead, the decision intensified national debate over the issue of slavery and deepened the country’s political divide. By 1860, when the Republican Party held its second national convention nominating Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate, there were four candidates running for the presidential office: one nominated by each the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, Democratic Party members in the South, and the Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln won with a 40% plurality of the popular vote and 180 electoral college votes.

Although the Republican platform in 1860 declared no intent to interfere with slavery in the South, the region was not pleased with the election results, advancing a belief that the Republican-led federal government meant eventual emancipation and equality for African Americans. The southern slave states of the union created their own self-fulfilling prophecy with these beliefs; their response to the election would ultimately provoke precisely the federal action they dreaded the most: emancipation (and the first feigning attempt at equality).

Imagine if the next historical moments of secession and civil war had never occurred: how long would it have taken, America, to remove the sinister shackles of human enslavement from our nation? How much farther would slavery have spread across the Land of the Free before that incongruent abomination was finally abolished?

One month before Lincoln was sworn into office, seven states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas; these were followed shortly thereafter by Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee. The western third of Virginia seceded from the Confederate state, forming the new state of West Virginia, and was admitted to the Union in 1863. The border slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri stayed in the union, but would send men to fight for the South in the impending Civil War.

Lincoln’s intent for civil war was not to end slavery: he desired the return of Confederate states to the Union. As the war dragged on and hundreds of thousands of people died, emancipation became a strategy meant to undermine the South. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate states: it did not include the four slave border states that had remained in the union. It wasn’t until 1865 when Congress passed the 13th Amendment, ratified by the states, that slavery was abolished nationwide (unless you were Native American or Mexican in the unorganized and Indian territories, or if you were a racial minority being punished for a crime).

For a brief time after the Civil War during the Reconstruction, some Republicans did fight for the rights of African Americans with a radical portion of the Republican Party battling for civil rights and voting rights in Congress by passing the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection of the laws to anyone naturalized or born in the United States and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of citizens to vote.

Well, they fought for these rights for African American men. Women would continue to be second class citizens well into the next century.

Reconstruction necessarily revealed the importance of economics in Republican Party governing: affluent business and financial interests have always been a concern of the GOP. The Republican party emerged in conjunction with the rise of industrialization and creation of enormous wealth in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their economic policies during the period of Reconstruction led to the growth of the Federal government, which spent a lot of money on infrastructure, and created a whole lot of wealth for the industrialists and bankers.

You see, Republicans do like big government, including the creation of national infrastructures, and they always have, so long as it benefits their monied interests.

As wealthy capitalists exerted more influence and control over the Republican party, business interests took the lead in political ideology and governing, while reforming and rebuilding the South became little more than corrupted and pretentious annotations in the writing of American history. The administration of codified rights for African Americans after the Civil War would essentially evaporate while the South was left to do as it pleased, advancing racist beliefs that the growing Federal government’s interference employing taxation, social programs, and infrastructure promoted the redistribution of wealth from hard working white taxpayers to lazy African Americans: the same African Americans who created the wealth of elite white southerners exploiting enslaved labor for centuries were now reduced to a Southern discourse of undeservingness and illicit appropriation of wealth with the assistance of a Republican-led federal government. That same racist discourse of lazy undeservingness still persists today.

Across the South, the Democratic Party took control of state governments and enacted laws that erased and made mockery of the right to equal protection of the laws and voting rights while promoting white supremacy by any means necessary. Civil rights simply disappeared from the national dialogue until the middle of the next century.

And with few exceptions, the Republican Party didn’t care. The GOP had done what it set out to do: reunite the Union and eliminate the economic threat to bolstering industrial interests by the unchecked expansion of slavery. As they patted themselves on the back for going one step further and eliminating slavery altogether, legislative attempts by radical Republicans in Congress failed to protect former slaves or create fundamental changes to the cultural landscape of the South. The Republican Party became the party of wealthy Northerners invested in public policies favoring domestic industry that generated, protected, and promoted economic growth and prosperity by means of a free market.

By the end of the 19th century, the Grand Old Party had become the party of America’s elite – much like America’s first political party: the Federalists. Early post-colonial American (political and economic) elitism was a different ideological animal than that of the arising industrial corporate enterprise of the late nineteenth century though; as the GOP’s political focus shifted toward the interests of society’s privileged, the period of Reconstruction came to an end and the Gilded Age was born.

Ongoing economic scandals effectively distracted already indifferent Northern interest in Southern Reconstruction while the vanguard of political and economic corruption sat firmly with the nation’s railroads and financiers. The railroad system was an enormous infrastructure undertaking financed by the federal government: enabling westward expansion and economic opportunity while forming powerful monopolies for private industry with bribery and graft, fraud, and political patronage common mechanisms for intersecting corporate and political criminality. In the last decades of the 19th century, temperance and purity politics united with xenophobic attempts at restricting immigration were employed as methods of social control for the populace in the guise of uplifting society while the elite enjoyed vulgar displays of wealth and conspicuous levels of consumption.

{Checks notes about history repeating itself…}

Unfettered capitalism eventually motivated Congress to pass laws attempting to stem the flow of corruption, although the efficacy and enforcement of those laws in the last few decades of the 19th century was at best mediocre.

Congress passed the Act to Create the Department of Justice in 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses Grant: a president whose administration and sitting Congress were both plagued by scandals and the incompetent consequences of political patronage. The DOJ was created for what is traditionally believed to be an effort to manage and litigate increasing postbellum legal concerns: to facilitate Reconstruction and enforce civil rights. The Department’s creation also coincided with bureaucratic civil service reform and the rising establishment of the legal profession, lending itself to the legitimization of legal sophistication and respectability.

The newly formed Justice Department had its hands full prosecuting the violence and terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Attorney General Amos Akerman actively prosecuted members of the Klan and worked to reinstate the rule of law in the South, but his attention and scrutiny of federal land deals with the railroads, in conjunction with culturally entrenched beliefs of white supremacy and its fear of actual equality before the law, led to his dismissal as Attorney General. The horrific violence in the South could not drag Republican attentions away from the seductive pull of industrial growth and the developing wealth of corporate enterprise to empower reliably curative action for the domestic needs of a wounded nation.

Congress then passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883 mandating government appointments be based on merit, qualification, and competitive exams instead of the spoils system of political patronage, and created the United States Civil Service Commission to oversee civil service exams. This law attempting to reign in the corruption of political cronyism and pecuniary consideration in awarding civil servant employment was passed two years after the assassination of president James Garfield by Charles Guiteau, whose delusional belief that he played a significant role in Garfield’s election entitled him to political appointment as foreign consul in Paris. When that consulship did not materialize, believing he was on a mission from God to save the Republican party, Guiteau shot Garfield in the back at a railroad station.

Congress also passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 outlawing monopolistic business practices and regulating interstate commerce in an effort to protect business competition and the public from failures of the free market. While both political parties supported fair and competitive interstate trade, the vague Congressional intent of the law led to judicial restraint (and sometimes hostility) limiting the scope of the law’s enforcement while administrative disregard and indifference led to poor oversight and application of the law’s potential power and intent.

Overall, the last few decades of the 19th century were remarkably ineffectual and unproductive political incidence in governing at the federal level, particularly given all the legitimate work that admittedly needed to be accomplished. Presidents wielded little real power or achievement, and Congress was awash in political malfeasance and economic avarice.

The rampant economic and political corruption at the turn of a new century brought a progressive movement to politics: two decades of tackling political corruption with government reform, regulating business practices, and improving working conditions beginning with Republican president Theodore Roosevelt’s unexpected rise to the presidency in 1901 when president William McKinley was assassinated. Considered the first modern president due to his expansion of the power of the Executive Branch, Roosevelt believed government regulation and intervention was essential to achieving economic and social justice. He challenged notions of limited government and asserted the president had the right to use all powers available in executing duties except those specifically prohibited by the Constitution.

Despite being the arbiter of modern socio-economic justice at the hands of an expanding Federal government, Teddy Roosevelt was not a champion of racial equality. While known for his passion as a conservationist, having set aside hundreds of millions of acres of land for national parks and wildlife refuges, he forcibly removed and displaced Native Americans in order to transfer tens of millions of acres of tribal lands to the national forest system. Likewise, although he was the first president to invite a black man, Booker T. Washington, to the White House for dinner with his family, Roosevelt believed African Americans were racially inferior and thereby did little to assist with civil rights and disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow South.

Roosevelt chose not to run again for the presidency in 1908, allowing his protégé, William Taft to take the Republican nomination and the 1908 presidential election win. When Taft proved to be a pro-business, limited government president, much to Roosevelt’s chagrin, he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Taft in the 1912 Republican primary, and then with a new Progressive (or Bull Moose) party in the general election; both candidates failed to win the presidency.

Despite incipient differences emerging in Republican party governing ideologies, the GOP enjoyed several decades of power in the federal and northern state governments, riding a wave of industrial economic prosperity into the 1920s on a platform of domestic economic accomplishment and the support of business interests. While workers were asking for more business regulations and better working conditions, politicians feared curbing the power of business activities would impede economic growth, right up until the party hit an enormous economic reckoning called the Great Depression in 1929.

Americans blamed the Republican party for the crisis experienced during the Great Depression, particularly given Republican president Herbert Hoover’s refusal to utilize federal government intervention to adequately help the people. Unlike his predecessors since the period of Reconstruction whose policies of bigger government invested in infrastructure and provided some relief for the poor, Hoover believed in small government and that assisting the social and economic needs of the people during times of crisis with government intervention would lead to laziness and dependency. This inchoate shift in political ideology combined with abysmal failure in tackling the fallout from a disastrous Great Depression led to a landslide victory for the Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1932 and ensured Democratic political dominance for several decades, not in small part with the support of northern black voters, who had been Republican party supporters through 1932 (even while Hoover devised the first racist strategy appealing to white southern voters). Suffering enormously during the Great Depression, black Americans predominantly began voting Democratic starting in 1940 when benefited by a share of New Deal economic relief programs and nascent shifting socio-political party ideologies once again.

By the election of 1940, Roosevelt’s New Deal fractured the Republican party political ideologies into conservative and liberal factions, further complicating the ability of the party to create effective coalitions and regain control in federal governance. The conservative Republicans opposing the New Deal wished to return America to the socio-economic realities of the 1920s when the only thing government really did was protect the interests of business. This faction of conservatism in the Republican party would eventually win the economic heart of the GOP, although it would take several more decades to do so.

Viewed as a moderate or centrist Republican, Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency from 1953 to 1961 is historically distinguished as the concluding political era of the reigning liberal contingent of the GOP. Eisenhower continued most of the New Deal and Fair Deal programs of his Democratic predecessors, increased minimum wage, strengthened Social Security programs, created the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, and established the Interstate Highway System, the largest public works infrastructure program in U.S. history, creating 41,000 miles of roads across the country. Eisenhower also sent federal troops to assist with integrating the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, and signed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction in 1957 and 1960.

Despite Eisenhower’s high approval ratings during his presidency, subsequent shifts in Republican political ideologies would mark a forthwith embrace of conservatism during the Civil Rights era that began with Eisenhower’s presidency.

The South had remained firmly Democratic during the first half of the 20th century, albeit some southerners began shifting party affiliation in disagreement with the New Deal economic programs and policies. When Harry Truman, a southern Democratic party member, introduced a pro-civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic convention, many members of the party, led by Strom Thurmond (who would become known as the Dixiecrats before switching party affiliation altogether), walked out of the convention. While many southerners continued to vote Democratic at this particularly turbulent historical moment (because they still considered the Republican party to be the party of Lincoln, Emancipation, and Reconstruction), the steadfast Democratic hold on the southern states began to loosen and would eventually disintegrate altogether.

In voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which received bipartisan support (with the exception of the Dixiecrats, segregationists, and white supremacists), Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who beat his moderate Republican opponent Nelson Rockefeller to win the Republican presidential primary nomination in 1964, became the political figure flagrantly enabling white southerners to begin shifting their political allegiance to the Republican party. Although Goldwater lost his presidential bid to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, his vote against civil rights in conjunction with Johnson signing both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, created the momentum needed by the GOP to swing the south in their direction and dominate the southern vote over the next fifty years.

Former Congressional member and Vice President under Eisenhower, Republican president Richard Nixon capitalized on the reconstitution of the political parties with his “Southern Strategy” that appealed to racists and white supremacists by supplicating white voter racial grievances and anxieties. With race riots across the country in the 1960s indicating a clear need for the socio-economic changes of Civil Rights, Nixon rode the backlash against civil rights to presidential victory as the “law and order” candidate in 1968, a clear racist dog whistle and political nod to the south of his disdain for the black power movement and deferential approval of repressing black civil rights activism.

Despite being far ahead in the polls of the 1972 presidential election, and winning the election by an impressive margin, Nixon’s campaign conducted several illegal operations meant to undermine the opposition in the election. With the arrest of burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex, Congress initiated an investigation, which eventually led to impeachment hearings: rather than face trial in the Senate, Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Nixon’s presidency would revive a sense of political criminality in politics, and the Republican party in particular; this scandalous sort of political corruption would rear its ugly head in similar manner nearly fifty years later.

Another consequence of the shifting ideologies and upheaval of political reconstitution during the period of civil rights was the rise of the neoconservatives. The term “neoconservative” began as an insult to a faction of formerly Marxist intellectuals in the Democratic party who felt disillusioned by the failure of utopian communism under Stalin’s ruthless reign, estranged from the Democratic party’s failure to address foreign policy issues from a position of might and aggression, and averse to the peaceful and pacifist counter-culture movements of the 1960s. The neoconservatives originally considered themselves to be neoliberals, but eventually embraced the neocon political moniker to differentiate themselves from mainstream liberals in the Democratic party.

Concerned primarily with the imagined danger the Soviet Union posed to democracy, neoconservatives believed in military interventionism with the goal of American economic power and political ascendancy embracing aggressive militarism and neo-imperialism. Rising up through Nixon’s administration, neoconservatives became firmly implanted in the Republican party’s political workings during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, influencing foreign policy initiatives and further calibrating their political beliefs for American global dominance as unmistakable war hawks at the end of the Cold War.

By the time Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the Republican party had effectively cemented their hold on white southern voters, embarking on a revised political ideology grounded in the backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements, including the public policies and legislative attempts at codifying equality associated with racial minority and women’s rights. In order to better foment these evolving culture wars as their means of commanding the political landscape, the movement conservatism of the GOP embraced conservative religious ideologies of the Moral Majority establishment, lauding a belief in the hegemony of patriarchal family values, espousing anti-abortion and anti-homosexual rhetoric, misogynistic opposition to equal rights, and imagining a hostile liberal enemy to evangelical Christian values in America resulting in society’s moral decay. While the predominance of fundamentalist religious political ideology would wane somewhat in the final decade of the 20th century, the consequence of modern racist and sexist socio-political beliefs were firmly embedded in dominant Republican discourse moving forward, enmeshing movement conservatism’s anti-union and anti-regulation pro-business beliefs into an identifiable populist base that had little to gain from modern conservative economic policies.

This would not be the last time the Republican party hitched its wagon to a minority religious voice desiring to legislate from an evangelical pulpit in direct conflict with the establishment clause: galvanizing a political base to vote against their own economic interests in favor of anti-social movement beliefs averse to accepting change and cultural difference was becoming the Republican party modus operandi.

Reagan’s administration also saw the most aggressive changes to the federal taxation system since the increases during the first World War and the subsequent implementation of the New Deal fifty years earlier. Despite the volleying of tax cuts and increases in Reagan’s first term, by 1988, the progressive income tax code was reduced to two nominal brackets while the specious policy of trickle down economics effectively reduced federal tax revenues, resulting in budget deficits that tripled the national debt under a single president. Reaganomics became the arbiter of normalized deficit-spending and increasing economic inequality: over the course of the decade, mean incomes increased by 75%, but the median increase was only 10%, less than inflation for the period, an indicator that the benefits of economic growth were largely funneling up to America’s wealthiest, while the average citizen incomes were falling further behind. The enormous wealth being created in lieu of redistributive taxation was not trickling down.

Despite the economic consequences and unequal realities of lower taxes on America’s wealthy, and consequentially incongruent with material reality, Republicans since Reagan have continued to insist that lower taxes motivate business to create more jobs and greater wealth that would then trickle down to everyone else. Republican leaders continued promoting the myth that tax cuts would create such economic growth as to eventually pay for themselves, which has yet to materialize, while budget shortfalls and deficits have continued to mount in the decades since the trickle-down, supply-side rhetoric of Reaganomics became the lead gaslighting tale of Republican party economic belief systems.

Reagan also facilitated the conservative ideological shift to a belief in small government, which typically meant the reduction of social programs and infrastructures that provide for the country’s general welfare. Despite the fact that the size of federal government actually increased under Reagan, conservatives appropriated the cherry-picked fragment from Reagan’s inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” to advance the belief that government has no place in actually governing for the needs of the people. The dogma of private industry superiority and fabricated mythos of rugged individualism and personal responsibility in conjunction with sexist and racist representations espousing the lazy undeservingness of America’s marginalized and disadvantaged citizens would replace beliefs concerning the responsibilities of a government by the people for the people promoting the general welfare of the nation: the political ideologies of decades of Movement Conservatism had reached fruition.

As the Republican party took control of Congress for the first time in forty years, the final decade of the 20th century saw the party founded on federalism, government expansion, shared economic prosperity, and a budding sense of equality transformed into the party of state rights, limited government, rapacious economic inequality, and a palpable hostility to promoting fairness and egalitarianism in public policies.

The shift in political resentments that led to anti-government, anti-poor, anti-woman and anti-equality beliefs in the Republican party’s culture wars nearing the end of the 20th century were fed by the rise of conservative think-tanks crafting policy and discourse as commodities for movement conservatism’s fixation on wealth acquisition and corporate economic ascendancy. A strategy of unchecked economic avarice for elite and corporate interests with repressive austere frugality for a culturally divided and politically estranged populace would have significant consequences, not the least of which was an increasingly resentful Republican populist base supporting a discernible end to bipartisanship and cooperative compromise in governing. The party of Lincoln finally turned its back on the socio-political ideologies of a century earlier, embracing the racism, sexism and economic elitism of their emerging political aspirations to power at any cost and at the expense of their political rectitude and integrity, including any remaining sense of loyalty and responsibility to their country.

The beginning of the 21st century saw a resurgence of neoconservative political power in Republican George W. Bush’s two terms as president when members of the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative foundation advocating global military and economic dominance, held high positions of power in the president’s administration. Capitalizing on the attacks on the World Trade Center to advance a foreign policy agenda using military force as a unilateral moral imperative, neoconservatives in the Executive Branch were able to redefine the role of foreign policy and international politics to advance ideological goals of American global power. While the War on Terror further destabilized already turbulent geo-political regions in the Middle East, the failure of unilateral foreign policy aggression also damaged America’s prominence and respectability on the global political stage.

The wars in the Middle East beginning under Bush coincided with additional tax cuts implemented in 2001 and 2003, the first time the United States had lowered income taxes during consequential military conflict, leading to enormous deficit spending for military action that did almost nothing to benefit domestic economic activities with the exception of elite military contractors that remade international conflict into morally dubious profit-driven opportunities. In conjunction with the economic disaster instigated by sub-prime mortgage lending after the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had regulated the separation between banking and the securities market, America faced a Great Recession near the end of G.W. Bush’s second term in office.

The election of the first black Democratic president in 2008, Barack Obama, and the federal spending efforts of his administration meant to stem the economic hemorrhaging of the Great Recession and address the tens of millions of Americans without access to affordable, non-discriminatory healthcare coverage, brought about a new conservative movement in the Republican party: the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party movement was a fiscally conservative populist movement within the Republican party that supported small government, lower taxes, eliminating deficit spending, and reduction of the national debt, enabled primarily by reduced government spending. Tea Party ideologies influenced by libertarianism advocated for a national economy without any government oversight, anti-union “right-to-work” laws, supply-side economics, and tighter border security. The movement opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants, environmental protection laws aimed at businesses for reducing carbon emissions, and public healthcare reform including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

While the Tea Party movement’s predominance in public political discourse was short-lived, its populist political beliefs persist, having pushed the Republican party further to the right once again, while revisiting the extant wounds of xenophobia, bigotry, and disparate cultural animosities as methods for evading the truth and placing the blame for economic discord where it actually belonged. The cursory notoriety of the Tea Party further revealed how conservative groups, think-tanks, and media personalities on the rise since the last two decades of the 20th century, as well as the wealthy individuals behind many of those organizations, played a major role in funding, shaping and framing spurious political discourse for consumption by the masses in order to pursue an elite economic agenda. The movement also showcased the emerging partisan polarization in American politics as the Republican party moved further and further to the right, both socially and economically, while intentionally mischaracterizing moderate Democratic members and policies as far left, a prevarication used as justification for being less inclined to work with their colleagues across the aisle to find common ground and compromise in legislating the needs of the country and its people.

With the rise of Republican Mitch McConnell to Senate Majority Leader in 2014, the Republican party became the clear party of obstructionism in Congress. Any feigning attempts at working with their Democratic colleagues in the beginning of the 21st century came to a discernible end once McConnell, the wealthy senator from one of the poorest states of Kentucky, revealed to the nation that he didn’t really care about policies providing for the general welfare or the bipartisanship needed to pass meaningful legislation built on political compromise, but rather about the accumulation and consolidation of power throughout his political career. McConnell’s focus would shift to remaking the federal judiciary, enabling the dark money of powerful conservative actors to create a federal court hostile to progressive social liberties yet sympathetic to and favoring corporate interests while cementing their power in constitutional law for decades into the future, long after the perfidious McConnell and his elderly cohorts in Congress are gone.

This single minded fixation on consolidating conservative power at any cost would showcase the Republican party’s developing dissonance and hasten its unabashed descent into treachery and lawlessness with the forthcoming presidential election.

Seventeen different Republican candidates were vying for the party’s nomination for the 2016 president election, indicating a fragmented Republican party that could not coalesce around a respectable few primary candidates that reliably represented a majority of Republican voters with an apparent ability to govern competently. That Donald Trump, a middling reality television star with multiple business bankruptcies and a repugnant personal history with no civic experience, was able to clinch the Republican nomination even after the discovery of sordid details of numerous sexual assault allegations and improprieties spanning decades is telling about how far the party of Lincoln had fallen from its original notable place in American history. In conjunction with an overarching sense of criminality that could be found in racial discrimination in housing, refusing to pay workers and contractors, questionable business ties to organized crime, and antitrust violations, the man who would be the Republican candidate for president was recorded bragging about his perceived celebrity privilege to sexually assault women and openly mocked a disabled reporter at a presidential rally right before the presidential election without consequence. This revolting behavior didn’t even register as abhorrent for the masses who were worshiping at the Trump celebrity alter as blindly loyal Republican voters no matter what their candidate did or what his behavior revealed about his human character.

By the time Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016, almost every Republican politician who had candidly criticized the presidential candidate simply fell in line behind the inexperienced and crude television personality with his openly bigoted rhetoric appealing to America’s cultural tendencies toward racism, misogyny, and xenophobia as ideological methods for distracting the populace from economic policies that continued to exacerbate social and economic inequality. The culture wars continued providing a boorish platform for Republican politicians to stoke ignorance, fear and hatred in America in lieu of genuine policies for governing in a multicultural global world.

Losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost three million votes, Donald Trump won his 2016 presidential bid with 304 electoral votes abetted by the assistance of foreign misinformation campaigns aimed at the United States through a pervasive rise in social media. The electoral system created by the founders and authors of the United States Constitution, a system designed to mitigate their fears of direct democracy where an uneducated electorate might chose a charismatic and authoritarian leader of the Executive Branch, enabled the election of America’s most corrupt, unqualified, reprehensible and useless president in history.

Unable to fill all the vacancies in his administration or retain high level employees, focused on economic activities that likely violated the domestic emoluments clause of Article II, not reading daily intelligence reports or taking daily briefings, insulting members of Congress and foreign leaders on a regular basis, being the only president in history twice impeached (and let off the hook both times by his unscrupulous enablers in the United States Senate), cultivating public relationships with right-wing racists and domestic terrorists, spouting bigoted hyperbole and solicitous chicanery at rallies and on his social media accounts, spending an inordinate amount of time watching television and golfing, failing to lead and protect Americans during a global health pandemic, and inciting a violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, Donald Trump has proven to be one of the most incessantly inadequate, shiftless, vainglorious, and damaging presidents that our Union has had to endure.

President Trump’s high rate of turnover in his administration, particularly the serial turnover with senior level advisors, and failure to fill almost two hundred key positions requiring Senate confirmation by the end of his term demonstrated both his inability to properly govern as well as the acquiescence of Republican party members in Congress to enable the president’s ineptitude in order to fulfill their own goals of cementing power at the federal level. At the expense of hundreds of bills from the House of Representatives that made it to the Senator Majority Leader’s desk, Republican Senator McConnell focused primarily on reshaping the federal Judiciary with lifetime conservative appointments, his ability to stack the courts enabled by his refusal to allow former president Obama to fill over a hundred vacant judiciary appointments in the last two years of his presidency, including the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016. The lawmaking graveyard of the United States Senate ensured the 116th Congress would be the least productive in legislative history.

Senator McConnell’s legislative dereliction in combination with the non-existent work ethic of the inexperienced and indolent President Trump would ensure little accomplishment at the federal level, reminiscent of political incapacities at the end of the 19th century, and indicative of a desperate need for principled changes in politics once again. The lack of genuine engagement with the actual work of governing would reveal itself during the 2020 Republican convention: the Republican party had literally no agenda, platform or plan for governing. Movement conservatism had arrived at its consequential denouement whereby the Republican party no longer had any actual policies or principals beyond promoting intolerant rubbish while simply supporting their demagogue Donald Trump with dollar signs in their eyes. The Republican party would continue to rely solely on the inflammatory and divisive hyperbole of the culture wars to satiate their base in lieu of providing real policies for governing that would attract voters based on substance and merit.

President Trump’s inadequate governing revealed how little the Republican party expected of its leaders beyond consolidating power and enabling their wealthy cohorts. During his single term as president, Trump’s political appointments throughout the federal government were performed in a manner resembling the incompetent political patronage experienced near the end of the 19th century, although the contemporary experience was a purposeful hampering of government agencies rather than the inadvertent byproduct of corruption. Dismantling necessary infrastructure as part of a duplicitous rhetoric nourishing the grievances of white voters whose real incomes and opportunities had continued decreasing in the decades since Reagan’s presidency, Trump repeatedly hammered the belief that government was the problem while depriving the administration of the staff and resources it needed to function properly. Beguiling millions of supporters by openly encouraging their socio-economic bigotries, Donald Trump exacerbated cultural discord and partisan divide in the nation while he subsequently encouraged the dismantling of federal governing infrastructures with political appointments that categorically undermined and divested the agencies with which they were tasked to run.

And once again, Republican leadership in Congress didn’t care: despite their initial aversion to the clearly inept and repugnant president, Congressional Republicans used the incompetent and egotistical president to push through an agenda stacking the federal courts with conservative judges while passing gratuitous tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy: the Republicans in Congress would take as much as they could for as long as they could get away with it despite the moral and professional shortcomings of the pathological liar in the White House, and with complete disregard for the real damage he would inflict in treating a serious job leading the Executive Branch like the best reality television show he’d ever had the opportunity to produce.

With the nation and the world facing dire environmental and health issues, the president and his Republican cohorts continued stoking an agenda of elite avarice by promoting misinformation, obtuse biases, and anti-science attitudes that undermined an ability to address genuine issues in the material world by encouraging public ignorance and enabling the arrogance of unsophisticated, prejudiced, and dim-witted belief systems that had no bearing on abject reality. The conservative think-tanks of the late 20th century cultivated the rise of conspiracy and fake news outlets of the early 21st century with no fairness in reporting doctrine or codified journalistic integrity to interfere with the propagation of disinformation originating at home and from abroad, supported by a president who made over 30,000 misleading or false statements during his term from a position of authority, gaslighting America from its White House with the weight of the Executive Branch’s influence and prestige.

On the international stage, Trump marginalized allies, ingratiated himself to dictators, and openly adored fascism while his “America First” rhetoric realistically translated into “America Alone” unilateralism that impaired normative relations with international partners. The president reneged on agreements, abandoned treaties, and withdrew from international organizations showing his clear disdain for international law and global cooperation, while sabotaging the integrity and character of the United States as a reliable global power in multilateral and worldwide governing initiatives.

Trump withdrew from executive agreements, which create legal binding obligations for the United States, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, the World Health Organization constitution, and UNESCO. He withdrew from important nonbinding and international arrangements that establish diplomatic commitments toward global goals and objectives such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, as well as the humanitarian UN Relief and Works Agency. The president also withdrew from four Article II treaties in an unprecedented three year span, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Treaty on Open Skies, the Optional Protocol of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights with Iran. He additionally signaled his refusal to extend the New Start Treaty on strategic arms reduction in 2021 had he won an additional term as president.

Then at the beginning of 2020, in the final year of Trump’s presidency, a global health pandemic like nothing the world had seen in a century spread around the world, threatening the lives and stability of not just the nation, but the entire world. From the beginning, president Trump lied to the American people about the true nature and severity of the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic and did nothing to mitigate its deadly consequences. In conjunction with the president’s apparent incompetence in governing, his misinformation and purposely downplaying the severity of the crisis in combination with his refusal to harness the power of the federal government to combat the pandemic and provide health mandates for everyone to follow in order to fight the plague as a nation, his ongoing stupidity splashed across television screens on a daily basis, undermining his own health experts at the Center for Disease Control and the state governors he refused to assist with federal pandemic health guidance and directives, while holding in-person campaign rallies in defiance of decency and common sense, directly contributed to over 25 million Covid infections and a half a million deaths in the United States by the end of his term. The president’s willful negligence and combative disregard for public safety effectively discouraged millions of Americans from employing methods for controlling the spread of disease, and then utilizing vaccines once they became available, contributing to an ongoing crisis of disease and death even after he was no longer president.

One of those millions of Covid infections was the president himself, contracted when he hosted a super-spreader event in the White House Rose Garden on September 26, 2020 to celebrate his appointment of a third Supreme Court justice just weeks before the next presidential election: an appointment that revealed the complete hypocrisy and blatant power grab by Senator Majority Leader McConnell, in direct contrast with his refusal to hold hearings for former President Obama’s judicial nomination to replace Justice Scalia in the last year of his presidency, four and half years earlier.

It would seem that Trump’s poor handling of the Covid pandemic just had to be the worst of all his negligent incompetencies and purposeful malfeasance, but no, it would actually get worse.

Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, a faction of the Republican party split from the blind followers of Trump, creating the political action committee the Lincoln Project, whose primary goal was to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump and any Republicans in close Senate races who supported Trump. On April 15, 2020, the group announced its support for Democratic candidate Joseph Biden, the former Senator from Delaware and Vice President under former president Barack Obama.

As a distinguished minority of current and former Republicans lined up against the president under the guise of combating Trumpism and holding accountable those who violate their oaths to the United States Constitution, President Trump pursued a public campaign agenda to undermine a legitimate presidential election by actively promoting the deception that the only way he could lose would be due to widespread election fraud perpetrated by Democrats. While the actual incidence of voter fraud is exceedingly rare, the president continued repeating the lies that fraud was rampant, and that the various strategies designed to assist with voter safety and accessibility during a health pandemic were actually Democratic machinations devised to steal the election.

With record voter turnout for the 2020 election, Joseph Biden won the presidential election with a record 81+ million popular votes and 306 electoral votes: almost seven million more popular votes than received by the sitting president. But Donald Trump would not accept the results of the election, nor would he go quietly.

While Trump refused to concede the election and his administration refused to allow the president-elect’s transition team to formerly begin its work, the Trump campaign sued to contest vote counts in six states, demanding recounts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Georgia. The campaign and others on the president’s behalf lost 63 lawsuits contesting the election process, vote counting, and the vote certification: all of the suits were dismissed or lost due to lack of evidence indicating any voter or election fraud. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case asking for electoral votes in four states be rejected.

And yet, Trump continued to claim the election had been stolen, stoking a hostile, divisive, and blatantly deceptive discourse: a deliberately pernicious lie that Democratic votes are illegitimate and thereby responsible for stealing his election win; this “Big Lie” would enrage and incite his credulous supporters to commit a collective act of violence at the nation’s Capitol on his behalf.

On January 6, 2020, while Congress convened to officially count the electoral votes, certifying the presidential election win for then president-elect Joseph Biden, thousands of Trump supporters gathered in Washington D.C. at a presidential rally to support the president’s patently false and plainly ridiculous claim that his landslide election win had been stolen from him while demanding that Congress and the Vice President reject Biden’s victory. Short of stopping these damaging lies meant to undermine our democracy, over a hundred Congressional members intended to object to the election’s certification, while many of the remaining Republican members of Congress refused to openly refute the absurd accusations of election fraud and reign in their disorderly members enabling a corrupt president, their silent consent acquiescing to a belief in Democratic voter illegitimacy that Republicans had been surreptitiously cultivating for decades with years of gerrymandering and oppressive voter regulations.

After listening to Trump repeat his conspiracy theories and false claims of election fraud, and being told they needed to be angry and “fight like hell” or they would no longer have a country, Trump encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol building and “stop the steal” of the election.

And they did: the supporters attending Trump’s rally descended on the Capitol building where hundreds of them rioted, breached security perimeters, broke into the building, trespassing, vandalizing and looting while assaulting police officers and reporters, and attempting to locate members of Congress and the Vice President with the intent to capture and harm them. For the first time in history, a Confederate battle flag was flown inside the Capitol.

The President of the United States watched the melee on live television and did nothing to stop it while secret service evacuated the Vice President and the Speaker of the House as the mob swarmed outside of the House chamber and members huddled on the floor with their staff, fearing for their safety. Breaching Senate chambers, video shows rioters rifling through papers, looking for something they can use against their duly elected representatives who they refer to degradingly as “scumbags.”

Three hours after the insurrection begins, the President releases a video, sympathizing with the rioters, repeating his lies about a stolen election, and finally tells the rioters to go home.

Congress initiates impeachment hearings and a trial against the president (once again): after a compelling and methodical investigation of the evidence, the House votes to Impeach, but a majority of Republicans in the Senate do not vote to Convict the president, leaving the Senate shy of the 2/3 majority it needed to convict the president of his high crimes. The seven Republican Senators and ten Republican House members who did vote to convict and impeach Trump face backlash from their colleagues in the coming months as the Republican party misses its chance to distance itself from the former president, and instead doubles-down on following their path to undermining democracy and embracing authoritarian ruin with their strongman Donald Trump leading the way.

Following Republican losses in the Executive and Legislative branches in the 2020 election, most notably the two new Democratic Senators from the state of Georgia winning run-off elections, red states across the nation begin legislating new voter suppression laws meant to make voting more difficult, and attempting to ensure Republican party wins regardless of the fact that the GOP now represents a minority of Americans in governing. Restrictive voter laws that would create obstacles for tens of millions of American voters tantamount to restrictive ballot access not seen since the period of Reconstruction when southern states enacted voter laws meant to effectively halt the voting rights of formerly enslaved African American men openly showcase the Republican party’s belief that Democratic votes are not valid or legitimate. New voter restrictions that are burdensome and effectively racist, disadvantaging black voters in particular who typically vote Democratic, by restricting the rights of people with less power and resources to access voting and voter registration, abating their ability to ensure their voter registrations are not indiscriminately purged by their states, and sabotaging their civic engagement by requiring burdensome forms of identification under the guise of preventing non-existent voter impersonation at the polls; all of these legislative acts implemented by Republicans are specifically meant to curb the ability of Democratic voters to chose America’s political leaders and have a voice in governing.

In the contemporary world where Republicans depend heavily on the sectarian white vote to maintain power with gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics that had been disallowed in states with a Jim Crow history of voter disenfranchisement until the United States Supreme Court struck down the anti-racist provisions at the very heart of the 1965 Voting Act, requiring racist southern states to seek federal approval before changing their election laws, the GOP has readily joined hands with white supremacy to make mockery of democracy while upending the historical mythos of their own party’s foundational heritage.

Given the chance to distance themselves from the former menace in the White House with the inauguration of a new president and the opportunity to salvage their integrity by participating equally in creating an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, the Grand Old Party has instead taken the politically lawless and morally bankrupt path of rejecting their responsibilities to the nation and blindly embracing their new toxic identity as the party of Trump, their political character now inexorably tied to a treasonous imbecile deserving of little more than a striped jumpsuit emblem of the federal penitentiary to which he justly belongs.

The inability of the Republican party to adapt to the changing needs of its electorate, to have restricted itself to the outdated regressive ideologies of a decreasingly populous and aging white religious constituency of bigots fearing the decline of their racial supremacy and eroding gendered hegemony in the melting pot of America, leaves the GOP wallowing in the midst of an existential crisis with no apparent skill or ambition toward political evolution and self-preservation. The Republican party’s implacable avarice and patriotic apostasy signifies their disinclination to see outside of the paradigm that privileges them exclusively, a socio-political shortcoming that in conjunction with their ever diminishing cultural audience, will inevitably lead to their political extinction without acute measures by any remaining moderate members of the party currently hiding from the shameful degeneracy on display, many of whom have already exited the party like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

As increasingly menacing evidence mounts, exposing the instability and deplorable conduct of the former president and the enablers surrounding him, including abetting members of Congress, Republicans have a critical choice to make: abandon conservatism, rejecting the divisive and pathological movement conservatism in particular, or abandon democracy. At this politically unfortunate historical moment, the Grand Old Party appears to be choosing the latter: should democracy survive despite their betrayal, it may only do so without them.

“Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.”

– John Adams, writing to John Taylor, December 17, 1814

One Response to “The Rise and the Fall of the Grand Old Party”

  1. Too Intreresting facts
    Thank you Racheal

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