I am sick of letting Republicans mangle the narrative of how their party became a clear and present danger to American democracy. I am tired of the media lauding the few Republicans (or “former” Republicans) who belatedly speak out against the Trumpist cult of bigotry and lies that they themselves helped construct. Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, John Boehner—these people are not iconoclasts; they’re complicit. Long before Donald Trump, they greedily made a deal with the devil and are now miffed that the bill has come due. Republicans who speak out against the threat that other Republicans pose to democracy are just dog-whistle salesmen trying to claw back market share from the ascendant bullhorn industry.
The latest entrant into this field is former representative Paul Ryan. Most people will remember Ryan for his mewling cowardice in the face of Trump’s bullying and bigotry, despite his being the Republican speaker of the House. Ryan basically invented the “I didn’t see the tweet” defense. Now, he has joined the tiny rump of Republicans trying to wrest their party back from white domestic terrorists—the same people Ryan used to coddle in his own quest for power—by denouncing the GOP’s slide toward antidemocratic authoritarianism and urging a return to some made-up principled past.
In a speech last night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (of course), Ryan made a big show of warning that the Republican Party is at a “crossroads.” “If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere,” he said. He also warned that, should conservatives fail in future elections, “it will be because we gave too much allegiance to one passing political figure, and weren’t loyal enough to our principles.”
Given that the Republican Party has now mainstreamed infection and insurrection, I get why mainstream media makers might think it’s newsworthy when any erstwhile Republican leader is willing to speak out against the party orthodoxy of lies and deceit. But let’s not make any mistakes about who Ryan still is and what his “principles” are. Before he debased himself into retirement, Ryan was an Ayn Rand sock puppet on a personal crusade to starve the government of resources so it could not deliver services. And the glory days he’s hoping to resurrect are nothing more than that: a return to the days where Republicans expressed their cruelty through charts and graphs instead of tweets and slurs. Ryan just wants the cult of tax cuts to reassert its dominance over the cult of Trump.
Remember, while the current GOP rhetoric is overtly racist, the old GOP policies have long been as well. This is a party that, for decades, has attacked the social safety net through racist depictions of “welfare queens” and other “takers,” while carrying out union-busting in the name of the “white” working class. Its fiscal plan has long been to give more benefits to the already rich while providing fewer services to the currently struggling—and then call those who struggle “lazy” or lacking in “personal responsibility.” When Ryan talks about bringing back his party’s “principles,” of returning to the Reaganite good old days, that’s what he means.
But that’s not the only problem with his big attempt. Part of Ryan’s critique of his GOP brethren is that they are too caught up in “culture war” issues, that they too often “mistake reactionary skirmishes in the culture wars with a coherent agenda.” That might sound good to anyone desperate to prove that the GOP is not an utterly bankrupt institution. The problem is that the party has always engaged in those “reactionary skirmishes,” and they’ve done it precisely because the above-mentioned economic agenda has been repeatedly rejected by the American people when it’s been left to stand on its own.
Republican policies are broadly unpopular and empirically ineffectual, so the people peddling them realized long ago that they must be tethered to some hysterical lie or cultural threat to keep just enough white people voting against their own economic interests. Hell, Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman! The only difference is the color of the hood these people wear now.
Here’s a one-paragraph history lesson on the Republican Party, 1932–present. During the Great Depression, white people demanded more government services and better working conditions, which Democrats reluctantly provided. This freaked out corporate interests that held unpopular beliefs about unfettered capitalism—beliefs which the defeated Republican Party embraced. Recognizing that nobody wanted what Republicans were selling, the party started telling white people in need of government services that various out-groups were coming to take their freedom. In the 1950s, it was “communists.” In the ’60s and ’70s, it was “communists, immigrants, and Black people,” and by the ’80s it was “communists, immigrants, Black people, and liberated women.” Now, white people have literally gone to Congress looking to kill a socialist, brown woman from New York who doesn’t care which bathroom you pee in, and the United States has the largest wealth gap of any G7 country. All according to the Republican plan.
So-called “fiscally conservative” Republicans will occasionally bemoan that they “don’t have a party” anymore, but they have exactly the same party they’ve always had: an unpopular group of megalomaniacal robber barons who cannot win elections without the rabid and sometimes violent support of their white cultural grievance foot soldiers. Most people do not like the Republican economic message and proactively hate the CEOs those policies benefit. The natural constituency for “tax cuts for the rich, crumbling roads and bridges for everybody else” is so small you can fit them all into a moderately sized marina.
To overcome this rather massive barrier, every Republican in office or in the media today has made the same deal. Every one has, at some point, decided to throw their hat in with the MAGA forces before those forces were unified under Trump’s banner, and either explicitly or tacitly given aid and comfort to hate and grievance politics to achieve their otherwise unpopular agenda.
So when Paul Ryan tells his fellow Republicans to abandon the “cultural battles,” he’s telling them to abandon the only parts of their platform that their voters actually like. If Ryan were right about the appeal of “conservative principles,” he’d still have a job. Instead, Majorie Taylor Greene does.
And yet, you don’t see most Republicans, current or former, wrestling with that fact. The narrative anti-Trump Republicans paint is one that sees Trump as conducting a hostile takeover of their party. They act like the bigots and racists currently representing the GOP are a minority faction that is feasting on the weakness and low character of their current leadership.
But that narrative is just not true. This form of the Republican Party, the one that doesn’t think Black people should be allowed to vote and doesn’t accept the legitimacy of a pluralistic democracy, is what the “real” Republican Party has been about for nearly a century. Republicans have spent my entire lifetime telling their voters that Black people were dangerous and lazy, immigrants were leeches, liberals were godless, and women who want access to their own bodies are in fact conducting mass baby murder. All to support the biggest lie: that tax cuts for the wealthy would trickle down and result in increased wages for all, a theory that’s been every bit as debunked as the one that Earth is flat.
Is it any wonder, then, that the group of voters who have been fed this drivel, not for four years but for more than four generations, now believes in pedophile rings and stolen elections? Republicans asked their voters to believe in things that were demonstrably untrue long before Trump came along. They spent decades poisoning the well. They cannot now cry over their party’s lying to people about the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine when most of them spent decades letting their voters believe that climate change isn’t real and Jesus rode around on dinosaurs.
Trump did not “change” the Republican Party; he just inverted its message. He put the popular stuff, the bigotry and sexism and anti-science articles of faith, out front and sold the unpopular stuff, the corruption and graft and permissiveness of corporate malfeasance, as a small price to pay for all the good white supremacy he was delivering for his people.
Now, establishment conservatives can’t take the party “back” from Trump, because they’ve never invested the time in developing a popular message that can be supported without the racism their voters have always really wanted. And they’re not investing that time now either. Paul Ryan has nothing to offer Trump voters—which is why his message and those like it are falling flat with the base.
Though the media desperately tries to prop up the Ryans and Romneys and Cheneys as examples of how the GOP can be saved, the GOP cannot be saved. Republican voters were never in it for the conservative principles; they were in it for the white ethnostate. Now that Trump has said the quiet part out loud, there’s no stuffing the message back into a box. This is the Republican Party now. It’s the same one it’s always been, just with their bigoted voters empowered to say what they’ve always believed.
But nobody’s going to listen to me. I’m just a Black person who has been absolutely right about what Republicans are this entire time. Instead, anti-Trump Republicans will keep spinning the same, tired message about fiscal restraint that nobody except three pundits on a Sunday show cares about, and wonder when the racists they used to rely on will come home to “the party of Lincoln”—which is a phrase Republicans invented to make themselves feel better while their voters stocked up on Confederate flags.