The Republican National Convention’s speaker lineup is the sign of a party that knows itself well: First there’s Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood clinic director who had a very lucrative anti-abortion epiphany and has since created an entire persona and career as a repentant abortion convert. Then there’s Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the gun-toting couple from Missouri who were charged for threatening peaceful police brutality protestors with their firearms. There’s also Nick Sandmann, the teen from the 2019 viral video in which he and a group of fellow students from Covington Catholic High School stood smirking in front of Omaha elder Nathan Phillips as one of his classmates opined, “Land gets stolen; that’s how it works.” It’s the modern Republican Party, preserved in amber: Wealthy grievance warriors living the double mandate around top-down class war and white identity politics.
As it has since its national rise in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the Republican Party recognizes that the most effective and efficient way to galvanize its base is to consistently cast itself as a collective of aggrieved, put-upon, mostly white citizens. Sandmann, Johnson, and the McCloskeys—each the self-described victims of the out-of-control Communists running roughshod in our streets and in the halls of power–are the same basic blueprint. Republicans, a collective in desperate need of proving that its bedrock of imagined white grievance will be maintained and emboldened by a dwindling number of young conservatives, know what it has been, what it is, and what it needs to be to survive enough to keep those tax cuts and corporate giveaways flowing.
On Wednesday, my colleague Alex Pareene, writing on the rise of Madison Cawthorn’s brand of Nazi-cozy conservatives, made the assessment that “the Republican Party, right now, is recruiting its future leaders from a pool of people attracted to the furthest fringes of far-right thought simply because those are the only young people currently interested in being associated with organized Republican Party politics under Donald Trump.” The party has chosen this tactic because it recognizes that it is standing on wet sand, ideologically speaking. A quarter of the conservative base is already on board with single-payer health care, with roughly 63 percent of all voters leaning toward universal health care. A majority of all registered voters approve of the statewide mask mandates that just a few months ago were the target of the right’s inane, self-defeating culture wars. On police reform, the country is in wide agreement that chokeholds, no-knock warrants, qualified immunity, local police militarization, and inaction by police witnessing abuse by fellow officers all need to go. Two-thirds of the country’s voters believe that the federal government is currently doing too little to combat climate change. This isn’t a country of radicals. Many of these changes are the lowest possible bars of a democratic society and, at least on climate change, one that wants to stave off mass extinction.
There is no unwinding any of this, not by the current champions the Republican Party has dealt itself. So instead, it dedicated the last decade to perfecting minority rule. Right-leaning state legislatures—voted in by a wave of reactionary racism responding to the election of Barack Obama—gerrymandered state electoral maps so badly that, until the courts finally stepped in, winning was their only option. From there, they took on the Democratic Party’s social agenda on a state level, enacting bans on abortion and gay marriage, drafting a political agenda of overt discrimination against transgender people, and stripping away any rights and protections that non-citizens previously held. Few of these measures were particularly popular on a statewide level and, in cases like that of North Carolina’s anti-trans legislation, actually led to serious electoral losses.
The past three-and-a-half years under the Trump administration took this approach and applied it nationally, redirecting every major federal agency to work with only obedient political allies and industry cronies. Little of the subsequent horrors pursued and enacted by this administration has proven to be popular in a democratic sense. Then again, enacting the will of the people was never the end goal; it was power, by any and all means necessary.
But as Pareene argued, democracy does not seem to be the goal of America’s two-party system, either. If one swiveled his or her head from the RNC to the Democratic National Convention—with the caveat that they had no prior information about what shape the modern Democratic Party has actually taken—it would not be outrageous to expect to see explicit, concrete goals to not just return to the pre-Trump status quo but to progress well beyond the deeply fractured legacy of the Obama administration.
Instead, what they would find is a convention dedicated to simply not being its heinous opposition. The Democratic Party is still confused about who it wants to be, oftentimes devoting its energy to beating back a left flank with the same rigor the Republican Party is using to maintain its grip on power. A party in which John Kasich is not just somehow allowed through the doors but is given a primetime slot to lecture America on the road not taken. A party in which basic plans, like eschewing future fossil fuel subsidies, are quietly abandoned overnight.
Republicans, then, at least seem at peace with the forces bringing new energy to the party. They happen to be young Nazis and Youtube conspiracy heads, but they are a life force. They’re the party content to watch the world melt if it means being able to pass one last tax cut for their Big Oil buddies. That’s where a party in pursuit of power will inevitably end up because once common decency and the ideals of representative governance are abandoned, there’s no reason to believe in anything save for that power. Those that tune into the RNC to listen to Sandmann droning on about cancel culture or the McCloskeys shouting about the Second Amendment will hear precisely what they want to hear because, at the very least, the Republican Party knows who the hell it’s talking to: White people who love nothing more than to complain about being in control.