A Party At War with Itself

Alan Zendell, February 15, 2021

In his new book, A History of What Comes Next, Silvain Neuvel describes the unfortunate circumstances in which the German population, specifically, it’s surviving men, found itself in 1946:

The Germans are in shock, stunned, stripped of who they were and everything that held their world together. It doesn’t matter what they believed in, it’s gone. They were promised the world and lost everything. Those who believed feel cheated, robbed by one man’s stupidity. Those who didn’t are defeated just the same. There’s no prize for having been ashamed early.

What a metaphor for today’s Republican Party. Led astray by a charismatic madman, they were assured that their destiny was to inherit the mantle of power and transform the nation into a Fascist Utopia. That’s not what their maniacal leader called it, but even the dimmest of them eventually got it.

It was clear to many from the start that that’s what Donald Trump was trying to create. They spoke out half-heartedly, mostly out of self-interest, but possessed neither the wit nor the will to stop him. Just as Germany allowed itself to be swallowed up in nationalist pride and prejudice, they took the easy path of going along with the rising tide. If you read what they said five years ago, it’s clear that they were appalled by what they were signing on to, but they played along to get along. In the aftermath, most probably regret supporting the Big Lie, but to paraphrase Neuvel, there’s no prize for being ashamed.

The Republican Party is a shambles, at war with itself, with no outcome in sight. Saturday’s Senate impeachment vote defined three factions – those with the courage to remain faithful to their conservative values, those who appear willing to stick with Trump to the end, and perhaps the largest group, who are horrified by what they allowed themselves to be dragged into, but can’t see a way forward.

Those divisions will be sharpened as President Biden proceeds to methodically level the playing field for Americans caught in the middle. His efforts to assure that people are not left in financial ruin by Trump’s criminal neglect of the pandemic, to expand health care to as many as possible, and to get vaccines into 300 million arms have the support of eighty percent of the country. Standing against them is the only thing that unites Republicans: obstruction. After blowing up the national debt to pass a disingenuous tax law that made the rich richer, Republicans who disagree about everything else are suddenly concerned with the cost of Biden’s recovery program.

Republicans and Democrats have been engaged in class warfare since the New Deal. It was ugly and painful, but somehow, the system functioned that way for more than eighty years. Trumpism, desperate to prevent evolving demographics from transforming America into a majority nonwhite nation, expanded the battle lines by injecting white supremacy and xenophobia into an already explosive mix.

The supply side economic policies Republicans have pushed since the Vietnam War were never more than a smoke screen for maintaining an elitist, classist society. When the nation elected Barack Obama to two terms, it was a sign that the winds of change had shifted toward equality, a word we were once taught was the basis of our Constitution, but was anathema to those who preferred to keep power in the hands of an American oligarchy. Americans revered fictions like the New York 400, the official list of those worthy of high society,  as recently as the second world war. But the Depression and the war showed that kind of elitism for what it was, and the growing middle class rejected it.

The Republican Party courted middle class votes, but their megadonors weren’t about to share their wealth. The extreme faction that formed the Tea Party movement more than a decade ago was dedicated to defending what Bernie Sanders called the Billionaire Class. Trump went a step further, feeding his supporters the lie that he wanted to lift them up. In fact, Trumpism requires a carefully managed underclass to survive. The Trump model differs only in detail from the Fascist tactics that transformed Germany in the 1930s.

Trump supporters in Congress face a conundrum. They are fully invested in currying Trump’s favor because they fear it’s their only ticket to remaining in power. They know it’s wrong. They understand that history will judge them badly, but they’re riding an out-of-control locomotive they can’t stop. The future is not theirs, as the various jurisdictions planning legal action against private citizen Trump are about to demonstrate. The question is what will take their place.

The country needs a loyal opposition. Domination by either party would be a disaster. Perhaps the best solution is Adam Kinzinger’s, a viable third party he refers to as center-right, but which might also include Democrats like Joe Manchin. A third party would enable strong coalitions and end partisan gridlock. It would also make it much more difficult for future demagogues to rise to dominance.

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