Real conservatives must make a choice

Former President Donald Trump and his wife Melania perform the tomahawk chop before for Game 4 of baseball's World Series
Associated Press/David J. Phillip

For decades, conservatives who favored small government, stability, order, the rule of law, and respect for established institutions found a congenial home in the Republican Party.

These days, the GOP is more like a wholly-owned Trump subsidiary, which pledges allegiance to conspiracy theories, white supremacy, and voter suppression, rather than a political party with a coherent conservative philosophy and policy agenda.

Roughly 63 percent of Republicans believe their party should not be too accepting — or at all accepting — of elected officials who openly criticize the former president.

A full two-thirds claim that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” by Democrats; 30 percent say that “true” American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country, and more than a quarter of them — 26 percent — believe the U.S. government is controlled by Satan worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking ring.

“We’ve learned the wrong lesson as a party,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) has declared. Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump and recently announced he will not run for re-election. “In this day, to prevail or survive, you must belong to a tribe,” claims Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a veteran, and another conservative member of Congress in Trump’s crosshairs who has decided to retire. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the uber-conservative who was deposed as the third-ranking Republican leader in the House after she blasted Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, insists that the former president should not “play a role in the future of the party or country.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who was censured by his state’s Republican committee for voting to remove Trump from office, believes “most Nebraskans don’t think politics should be about the weird worship of one dude.”

Gonzalez, it’s worth noting, voted in line with Trump’s policy positions 85.7 percent of the time; Sasse 84.8 percent; Kinzinger 90.2 percent, Cheney 92.9 percent.

More than 50 years ago, in a book that has become a classic, social scientist Albert O. Hirschman explained that individuals who conclude that the quality, direction, or effectiveness of their organization has declined have two choices: voice (complain and propose changes) or exit.

Loyalty to the organization plays a pivotal role in the decision.

Most important — and counterintuitively — Hirschman demonstrated that exit can be a successful strategy for gaining greater political voice.

It seems clear that disaffected Republican officeholders have not brought the GOP back to its core principles. After all, 67 percent of Republicans now want Trump to retain a major role in their party, a ten-point increase from January 2021. Trump loyalists, moreover, are intent on purging “apostates” from the party.

And so, exit is almost certainly the best option for GOP officeholders and activists who share Adam Kinzinger’s “huge” disappointment in “leaders who don’t lead” and warnings that the fate of our democracy hangs in the balance. Or at the very least, they should do everything in their power to defeat GOP candidates who do not publicly repudiate lies about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Facing similar choices, major Republican donors appear to be stepping back from deploying either voice or exit. In January 2021, corporate donors — including American Express, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Dow Chemical, Marriott, Airbnb, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Disney, Verizon and Walmart — halted donations to members of the House and Senate who refused to certify the Electoral College results. They have not, however, applied this criterion to 2022 candidates who embrace groundless claims of widespread election fraud. Wealthy financiers (including Stephen Ross and Larry Ellison), who have lost interest in Trump’s “shit show,” are nonetheless writing checks to support GOP efforts to take back Congress and candidates who have made a pact with “The Donald.”

The moral outrage of evangelical ministers, whose congregants constitute the foundation of the Republican base, also seems to have dissipated. In January 2021, Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, asserted, “I would be hard-pressed to find Bible-leaning Christians that would be okay with what took place at the Capitol.” Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, deemed the events of Jan. 6 “a moral abomination incited by the president.” Predicting that it “will take decades to rebuild from the wreckage in this country,” Moore added, “but as Christians, we can start now — just by not being afraid to say what is objectively the truth.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists’ flagship seminary, who voted for Trump in 2020, declared that Trump had attempted “to subvert the very constitutional order that he took an oath of office to defend … I do not follow a cult of personality.”

These days, however, the voices of these faith leaders — and others like them — are much less in evidence.

The MAGA GOP no longer represents the values of conservatives and small d democrats. Nonetheless, as last Tuesday’s election results demonstrate, the party remains a potent force in American politics, hell-bent on regaining control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

Reason enough, then, to heed the admonition of the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past [or, I would add, choose to ignore it] are condemned to repeat it.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Adam Kinzinger Anthony Gonzalez Ben Sasse conservative principles conservatives Conspiracy theories Criticism of Donald Trump Donald Trump fiscal conservatives Jan. 6 Capitol attack January 6 insurrection Liz Cheney personality cult Republican Party right-wing extremism trumpism

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