What If The Republican Party Was Always Hot Garbage?
Last week, Lauren Boebert, an actual member of Congress, called for the expulsion of Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger because they put the bipartisan in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's January 6 commission. She declared, "They are a cancer to our party and to our caucus, and they must be expelled from our conference."
Our party, our conference, she says. Boebert has stunk up the House for just half a year but she's claiming proprietary interest in the GOP. Kinzinger has served in the House since 2010 (an important date we'll return to in a moment), and Cheney's father is Dick Cheney, the former two-term Republican vice president over George W. Bush and one-time GOP House whip.
How the worm has turned and devoured the very people who used voters' ignorance and fear as bait to win elections. Kinzinger claimed recently, after the latest sedition caucus stunt, that "clown politicians" had hijacked his beloved party. But the circus has been in town for a while, long before former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Kinzinger during the 2010 Tea Party takeover. Palin's lies at the time about “death panels" were just as repugnant as Greene and Boebert's anti-vaccine rhetoric.
Kinzinger defeated Democratic incumbent Debbie Halvorson 58 to 42 percent. It was one of the most decisive butt thumpings in the GOP midterm rout, especially considering that Halvorson won her seat two years earlier by a 24-point margin. Kinzinger might lament "outrage politics" now but it's what brought him to the dance.
The Aaron Sorkin 2012 HBO drama, The Newsroom, featured Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a Republican news anchor who's horrified by the Tea Party's apparent “transformation" of the GOP. He denounces the Tea Party as the “American Taliban," because he's apparently a Republican who's unaware that Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms existed.
MCAVOY: I'm not, however, ashamed to say that I'm a Republican .. I'm what the leaders of the Tea Party would call a “RINO," Republican In Name Only, and that's ironic, because that's exactly what I think of the leaders of the Tea Party, because the most conservative Republicans today aren't Republicans. Republicans believe in a prohibitive military. We believe in a common-sense government and that there are social programs enacted in the last half-century that work, but there are way too many costing way too much that don't. And we believe in the rule of law and order and free-market capitalism. The Tea Party believes in loving America, but hating Americans.
Almost two decades earlier, Newt Gringrich led a Republican Revolution based on demonizing Democrats as "the enemy." When one of the worst people who ever lived was your party's highest-ranking official for several years, 2012 is a little late for a crisis of conscience.
In a later episode, set on election night 2012, McAvoy insists he's still a Republican because "I believe in market solutions, common sense realities, and the necessity to defend ourselves in a dangerous world." That's not the definition of modern conservatism. That's more like Bill Clinton's 1992 stump speech.
MCAVOY: The problem is now I'm expected to be homophobic. I have to count the number of times people go to church. I have to deny facts and think scientific research is a long con. I have to think poor people are getting a sweet ride. I have to have such a stunning inferiority complex that I have to fear education and intellect in the 21st Century. But most of all, the biggest new requirement ... the only requirement really is that I have to hate Democrats.
He's obviously been in a coma since at least 1980 because all of that was true of the Republican Party long before the John McCain campaign picked Sarah Palin's name out of hat. The ongoing culture war escalated in 1992 precisely because Third Way "new Democrats" gave Republicans very little to attack on policy. As a writer said at the time, Bill Clinton took the GOP's best ideas and left them with Phyllis Schlafly.
Sorkin's starry-eyed view of Republicans who only ever existed as centrist Democrats provides a sharp contrast to the Republicans we meet in Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America. In one of my favorite scenes, Martin Heller, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, cynically lays out the Republican agenda. It is tragic in its prescience.
It's a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda and finally a real leader. They got back the Senate, but we have the courts. By the nineties the Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the Federal bench--Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn. Affirmative action? Take it to court. Boom! Land mine. And we'll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defense, Central America, family values, a live investment climate. We have the White House locked till the year 2000. And beyond. A permanent fix on the Oval Office? It's possible. By '92 we'll get the Senate back, and in ten years the South is going to give us back the House. It's really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism. The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Make no mistake: Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, while not literal traitors, have still lunched with real-life Martin Hellers and shared his enthusiasm for the gradual then sudden dismantling of the Great Society. Mainstream Democrats weren't running on a flag-burning, free-love, no nukes platform. People weren't Republicans because they wanted “common sense solutions." They wanted exactly what the Tea Party and MAGA would later offer without the veneer of pinstriped decency.
There has long been a classist aspect to Never Trumpism, as well as a sneering misogyny from both the left and right: If Barack Obama and John Boehner shared one thing in common, it was refusing to take the Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmanns seriously until it was too late. The establishment risks repeating that error with Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the consequences could be even more dire.
The dwindling number of Republicans who openly reject MAGA resent the crassness, vulgarity, and the willful ignorance. Yes, Nixon swore like a sailor while smearing Jews but he did so in the privacy of the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan, who Never Trumpers still idolize, rose to power with attacks on the so-called intellectual establishment. The inmates are now running the Republican asylum and are about to cast out the former administrators. I can't feel sorry for them. I've watched enough monster movies to know this was inevitable.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."