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GOP becoming a cult of know-nothings

The Republican Party is becoming a cult. Its leaders are in thrall to Donald Trump, a defeated former president who refuses to acknowledge defeat. Its ideology is MAGA, Trump’s deeply divisive take on what Republicans assume to be unifying American values.

The party is now in the process of carrying out purges of heretics who do not worship Trump or accept all the tenets of MAGA. Conformity is enforced by social media, a relatively new institution with the power to marshal populist energy against critics and opponents.

What’s happening on the right in American politics is not exactly new. To understand it, you need to read a book published 50 years ago by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, “The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970.” Right-wing extremism, now embodied in Trump’s MAGA movement, dates back to the earliest days of the country.

The title of Lipset and Raab’s book was chosen carefully. Right-wing extremism is not about the rational calculation of interests. It’s about irrational impulses, which the authors identify as “status frustrations.” They write that “the political movements which have successfully appealed to status resentments have been irrational in character. [The movements] focus on attacking a scapegoat, which conveniently symbolizes the threat perceived by their supporters.”

The most common scapegoats have been minority ethnic or religious groups. In the 19th century, that meant Catholics, immigrants and even Freemasons. The Anti-Masonic Party, the Know Nothing Party and later the American Protective Association were major political forces. In the 20th century, the U.S. experienced waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. After World War II, anti-communism became the driving force behind McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Goldwater movement in the early 1960s (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”).

The roots of the current right-wing extremism lie in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Americans began to be polarized over values (race, ethnicity, sex, military intervention). Conflicts of interest (such as business versus labor) can be negotiated and compromised. Conflicts of values cannot. 

You see “the politics of unreason” in today’s right-wing extremism. While it remains true, as it has been for decades, that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican (that’s interests), what’s new today is that the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic, at least among whites (that’s values, and it’s been driving white suburban voters with college degrees away from Trump’s “know-nothing” brand of Republicanism).

Oddly, religion has become a major force driving the current wave of right-wing extremism. Not religious affiliation (Protestant versus Catholic) but religiosity (regular churchgoers versus non-churchgoers). That’s not because of Trump’s religious appeal (he has none) but because of the Democratic Party’s embrace of secularism and the resulting estrangement of fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics and even orthodox Jews.

The Democratic Party today is defined by its commitment to diversity and inclusion. The party celebrates diversity in all its forms — racial, ethnic, religious and sexual. To Democrats, that’s the tradition of American pluralism — “E pluribus unum.” Republicans celebrate the “unum” more than the “pluribus” — we may come from diverse backgrounds, but we should all share the same “American values.”

One reason right-wing extremism is thriving in the Republican Party is that there is no figure in the party willing to lead the opposition to it. Polls of Republican voters show no other GOP figure even close to Trump’s level of support for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. The only other Republican who seems interested in running is Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who recently criticized “Trump cancel culture.”

If Trump does run in 2024, as he seems inclined to do, can he win?

It all depends on President Biden’s record. Right now, Biden’s popularity is not very high. In fact, Biden and Trump are about equally unpopular (Biden’s job approval is 52 to 43 percent negative, while Trump’s favorability is 54 to 41.5 percent negative). Biden will be 82 years old in 2024. If he doesn’t run, the Democrats will very likely nominate Vice President Harris. When a president doesn’t run for reelection, his party almost always nominates its most recent vice president, assuming they run (Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000, Joe Biden in 2020). Democrats would be unlikely to deny a black woman the nomination. There is also some talk of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg running if Biden doesn’t.

The 2024 election could be a rematch between Trump and Biden. Or a race between Trump and a black woman. Or between Trump and a gay man with a husband and children. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New America think tank, recently told The New York Times, “I have a hard time seeing how we have a peaceful 2024 election after everything that’s happened now. I don’t see the rhetoric turning down. I don’t see the conflicts going away. … It’s hard to see how it gets better before it gets worse.”

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2024 election Al Gore Cult Donald Trump Far-right politics Joe Biden Know Nothing non-college educated Pete Buttigieg Purge QAnon Radical Right Religiosity Republican Party trumpism white voters

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