Donald Trump did not emerge from the primordial swamp of contemporary conservative Republicanism and create something new. He dove into the swamp. His policies, his language, and his destructive and irresponsible approach to politics are familiar to anyone who has traveled in the circles of the supposedly “mainstream” conservatism that has come to define today’s Republican Party. That may explain why embattled Republicans senators who sometimes position themselves as critics of Trump sound so very much like their party’s nominee.
Yes, Trump may be cruder, and slower to apologize, but how much does the billionaire’s approach to politics really differ from that of Mark Kirk in Thursday night’s Illinois US Senate debate?
Kirk, one of a number of Republican senators facing tough reelection fights this fall, identifies as “a fiscal conservative, social moderate and defense hawk on our national security.” On paper, there’s nothing “alt-right” about this guy. His social moderation, which places him roughly in the vicinity of Dick Cheney and Barry Goldwater on the historical continuum, leads some newspaper editorial writers to imagine that he is a reasonable guy. But Kirk is only “reasonable” on a political continuum that has tipped so far to the right that anti-labor zealots like Scott Walker and proponents of anti-LGBTQ discrimination like Mike Pence are imagined to be mainstream political figures. By that standard, Ronald Reagan would be suspiciously moderate and Richard Nixon would be a flaming liberal.
For all intents and purposes, Kirk fits within the comfortable confines of today’s Republican Party—which is to say that, like Trump, he is far more comfortable with extremism, far more inclined toward obstructionism and far more prone to engage in the cutthroat politics of personal destruction than responsible Republicans and conscientious conservatives of the past. Along with a number of allegedly “mainstream” Republican incumbents who are running in states that are unlikely to back Trump on November 8, Kirk has tried to distance himself from a presidential nominee who keeps exposing himself as a xenophobe, racist, and sexist.
Yet in Thursday’s debate with Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, Kirk offered a reminder of the underlying coarseness of contemporary conservatism and the new-model Republican Party it has created.
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who served as a US Army helicopter pilot and lost both of her legs as a result of combat wounds, spoke in the debate of the care she would take during Senate deliberations on war and peace.