The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has Only Just Begun

There is a fusty old school of thought called the Great Man Theory, which attributes the tides of history to the decisions and character of a handful of fateful men. While it lives on in the popular ­Father’s Day – gift/doorstop-biography genre, the theory fell out of favor more than a century ago, and historians now understand that larger social forces — movements, ideas, institutions, economic interests, power — are usually more responsible for shaping our destiny. Yet Donald Trump’s horrifyingly unique combination of personal traits, together with rather fluid beliefs about policy, has reoriented American politics as a psychology seminar. Never before in our history has a major presidential character stood apart as so great (in the Great Fire of London sense) or so opposite-of-great. We have been consumed with wonder at just what it would mean to have this flamboyant sociopath pacing the Oval Office. Trump has made Great Man theorists of us all.

But something important is happening that has been obscured by the captivating spectacle. Forget about Donald Trump for a moment. Or — given how famously difficult it is to not think of a pink elephant, not to mention an orange one — consider Trump’s rise not in terms of his uniquely dangerous personality but instead as the interplay of broader trends.

Approaching the 2016 election from this historical perspective, in which Trump’s every boast, tweet, and threat disappears into the ether, may at first blush sound like a relief. It is the opposite. Trump is an extreme event, but Trumpism is no fluke. Its weaknesses are fleeting, and its strengths likely to endure. Far from an organization that is “probably headed toward a civil war” — as the Washington Post recently put it, summing up a rapidly congealing consensus — the Republican Party is instead more unified than one might imagine, as well as more dangerous. The accommodations its leaders have made to their erratic and delirious nominee underscore a capacity to go further and lower to maintain their grip on power than anybody understood. More consequentially, the horrors Trump has unleashed are the product of tectonic forces in American politics. Trump has revealed the convergence of two movements more extreme than anything in the free world that may yet threaten the democratic character most Americans take as their birthright.

During the Republican primaries, Marco Rubio frequently said, “I will not allow the conservative movement to be taken over by a con artist.” What would have struck a Republican from four or six decades ago about that line (other than the fact that Rubio endorsed the con artist months later) is that Rubio assumed that the term “conservative movement” was synonymous with “the Republican Party.” The two were not always the same. Like right-of-center parties in industrialized democracies across the world, the GOP throughout most of the 20th century understood there to be a role for government in daily life. During the years immediately following World War II, the Republican Party, led by figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, accepted the broad contours of the New Deal and governed much like, say, David Cameron or Stephen Harper recently did in Britain and Canada. The party did not attack government intervention as an impingement on freedom or as inherently immoral.

The modern conservative movement was a revolt against the Republican Party’s leaders. When it began in the 1950s, it amounted to a minority faction operating only loosely within the party, somewhat like the relationship between today’s Democratic Party and the Bernie Sanders movement. Conservatives regarded the party’s leaders as traitors, and the leaders regarded the conservatives as kooks. Phyllis Schlafly’s popular conservative treatise from 1964, A Choice Not an Echo, posited that “secret kingmakers” employed “brainwashing and propaganda blitzes” to maintain their nefarious control of the GOP, in part to serve their own self-interest.

Conservatives, not yet in possession of much political power, rejected the expanded role of government in modern life on philosophical grounds. Whether any government program “worked” in any practical sense was immaterial. For the federal government to intervene in the economy and social welfare was by its nature “violence to the Constitution,” as Barry Goldwater put it. In supporting Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy for president, a young Ronald Reagan asked, “Have we the courage and the will to face up to the immorality and discrimination of the progressive surtax, and demand a return to traditional proportionate taxation?” It is this moral opposition to government that set them apart from the pragmatic skeptics of bigger government who then controlled the Republican Party.

From the very beginning, however, the conservatives faced a predicament: Their belief that government is evil irrespective of whether its programs function as intended only had traction with a minority of voters. Americans may have opposed big government as an abstract notion, but they did not want to do away with their Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, ­minimum-wage laws, and progressive taxation. This misalignment between the conservative movement and the American people has, in fact, bred among conservatives a fundamental distrust of the American people. The welfare state, in the eyes of conservatives, was merely a government-sponsored mechanism by which the masses of voters could steal from the minority. (Russell Kirk, the influential mid-20th-century conservative, lamented that “taxation of the prosperous for the benefit of the less wealthy, through the votes of the benefiting crowd,” was “first cousin to theft.”) Since conservatives define liberty as the preservation of property rights, democracy — and its potential for legalizing theft via redistribution — poses a constant threat.

And yet American democracy was where the conservatives lived, and so a movement built on distrust of the majority set out to find a constituency. It found one in the segment of the country where conservative anti-government theory had deep resonance: the white South. Since the 18th century, most white Southerners had feared that a powerful federal government would override their system of slavery and white supremacy, and they opposed any expansion of federal power, from canals to colleges, as unconstitutional. Conservatives discovered they could attach their rhetoric to the appeal of white identity politics, as well as ally themselves with the religious right, which formed a powerful bulwark against all variety of social change. “We must go hunting where the ducks are,” Goldwater declared in a 1962 debate with his liberal Republican rival Nelson Rockefeller.

Eventually, Goldwater won the debate, but it took decades for the relatively moderate Republican Party to go extinct—­literally, until its voters died and its operatives and advisers in Washington retired. As recently as the mid-1970s, conservatives debated whether to work within the GOP or form a new party. Some mainline Republicans continued to exert themselves through the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush presidencies, all of which had a mix of movement conservatives and traditional Republicans in positions of advisory power. (In 1990, President Bush’s moderate advisers pushed him to accept a small tax increase as part of a deficit-reducing deal, which provoked a right-wing revolt by House Republicans.) Over that half-century, a thriving ecosystem of think tanks, media, magazines, talk radio, newspapers, and pressure groups arose — first to influence the party and ultimately to define its thinking completely.

There is no longer any such thing as a Republican who is not conservative. The collapse of the George W. Bush administration was greeted among his party not as an indictment of its fanatical tax-­cutting, deregulatory agenda and failed effort to privatize Social Security, but as evidence that Bush was not conservative enough. During the Obama administration, a spate of right-wing primary challenges eradicated what was left of the party’s vestigial moderate wing and cowed its remaining mainstream members into submission.

That the contemporary Republican Party shares a name with the Republican Party of the 1970s — or even of the ’80s or ’90s — has created massive confusion over just how distinct its worldview is. According to one measure of ideology used widely by political scientists, the most conservative Republican in the House 25 years ago, when the House attacked a Republican president for the heresy of increasing taxes, would be among the most liberal House Republicans today. “I’m a conservative from the conservative wing of the conservative movement,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said earlier this year, marveling at how he has become a mainstream figure among his peers. “I was always kind of a bomb-thrower from the right … it just shows you that we have shifted the center far to the right, in a good way.”

Still, as the conservative movement has completed its conquest of the Republican Party, it has never resolved the dilemma that haunted it from the beginning. Conservative opposition to policies like business regulation, social insurance, and progressive taxation has never taken hold among anything resembling a majority of the public. The party has grown increasingly reliant upon white identity politics to supply its votes, which has left an indelible imprint on not only the Republican Party’s function but also its form.

Right-wing populism has had the same character for decades — in 1950, Theodor Adorno described the fear of outsiders, and the veneration of law and order, as “the authoritarian personality”; in 1964, Richard Hofstadter described a similar tendency as “the paranoid style” — but until recently, those movements lived outside both political parties. The political scientists Jonathan Weiler and Marc Hetherington found that, as recently as 1992, the Republican and Democratic parties had an equal proportion of voters with an authoritarian personality. By Obama’s first term, authoritarian personalities identified overwhelmingly with the GOP. In its preference for simplicity over complexity, and its disdain for experts and facts, the party has steadily ratcheted down its standard of intellectually acceptable discourse: from a doddering Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin. From this standpoint, Trump is less a freakish occurrence than something close to an inevitability.

An October Trump rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

Why, exactly, is Ryan, as well as senators Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, enduring the reputational damage and personal humiliation of endorsing a presidential candidate who has belittled and mocked them?

One reason is obvious: fear of the party’s voting base, which has fallen in line with its bullying presidential candidate and turned sharply against most Republican dissenters, who saw their approval ratings among their own base plummet. Another consideration, which has received far less media coverage, is something of the opposite of fear: lust. Republicans have had good reason to believe that a Trump-led government would grant them a degree of control over American government unprecedented in this nation’s history. To imagine the entire Republican leadership as nothing but a gaggle of sad-sack cowards is to create a personality-based explanation for a phenomenon that has a deeper, structural explanation. They support Trump not only out of character weakness but because his election would grant them transformational power.

Because Trump’s record of loyalty to the conservative cause is so haphazard, and his grasp of policy detail so scant, the small core of anti-Trump intellectuals on the right have insisted a President Trump would betray them—a charge that, having been echoed by jeering Democrats, has settled into conventional wisdom. But on the vast majority of issues, Trump has aligned himself with standard conservative dogma. The Wall Street Journal editorial page probably got it right when it reasoned that “precisely because [Trump] is such a tabula rasa, he would be more dependent than any other President on Congress.” In September, Trump appointed a former lobbyist and aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney to his transition team, which would staff his administration, and the Heritage Foundation has taken an active role in supplying ideas and candidates for his prospective administration. As Ryan gushed after Trump’s first debate, “I see emerging in front of us the potential for what a unified Republican government can get you.” The conservative movement would have full control of a party that had full control of the Legislative, Executive, and (after filling the Supreme Court vacancy Republicans left open for him) Judicial branches. Not to mention full control of half of all state governments.

President Trump’s domestic policy, in other words, would look a lot like President Cruz’s. Or President Ryan’s. Ryan has rolled out a suite of right-wing policy changes that has attracted little attention for anything other than the fact that its name, “A Better Way,” subtly implies some distance from the presidential candidate he has endorsed. Tonally, Ryan has struck a calculated contrast, promoting his plan as an antidote to “anger” and “division,” but in substance his and Trump’s overlap almost completely. Trump has proposed a $6.2 trillion tax cut, about half of which would accrue to the richest one percent; House Republicans propose a $3.1 trillion tax cut, of which 99.6 percent would go to the richest one percent. Trump has promised to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a decision that would cause the treaty to unravel, and has appointed as the leader of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team Myron Ebell, a ­climate-science skeptic who has called the Paris agreement “unconstitutional.” Ryan has called it “disastrous for the American economy” and claimed it was entered “unlawfully.” His plan would repeal all climate-change regulations related to global warming. Trump and Ryan would also both repeal Obama’s health-care reforms and regulations on Wall Street.

Democrats would be powerless to stop them. Trump could renounce the Paris climate accord immediately after his election, reversing international momentum toward green energy, and then quickly dismantle Obama’s regulations that enabled the pact to be negotiated in the first place. Democrats in the Senate may threaten to filibuster legislative action, but if Republicans continue to control the Senate (as they surely would after a Trump victory), they could abolish the filibuster with a simple majority vote (as they surely would if it were all that stood in their way).

Even if Republicans uncharacteristically were to shy away from such an aggressive approach, Congress could, under existing rules, pass a budget bill that is exempt from the filibuster as long as it contains only tax-and-spending-related matters. That means a single law ripping up the subsidies required for Obamacare’s insurance expansion, instituting gigantic regressive tax cuts and deep reductions in anti-poverty spending, and bringing about the largest shift in resources to the rich from the poor in American history could be whisked to Trump’s desk within weeks of his taking office. Asked if such a bill would be a good vehicle for Trump’s policies, Lawrence Kudlow, who has advised Republicans for decades and currently advises Trump, replied, “Not good, fabulous.” Ryan himself explained his intention to pack his agenda into such a bill.

Ryan’s belief that his differences with Trump over trade and immigration can be papered over, for all the mockery it has received, is probably correct. After all, Republicans already gave up on immigration reform in the face of a blistering grassroots revolt when they tried to work with Obama in 2013. New trade agreements are an ancillary part of their domestic agenda. In any case, they have good reason to doubt that Trump has any unbending principles on either subject. As recently as 2012, he disavowed mass deportation (“Now we’re supposed to send them out of the country? I don’t believe in that”). He continues to call himself a “free trader” who will somehow negotiate more beautiful agreements through force of will. Nor do his promises to maintain spending on retirement programs present a frontal conflict with conventional Republicans, who also insist they will not touch benefits for anybody at or near retirement. Nothing Trump has done or said constitutes apostasy against a core tenet of conservative doctrine. He has not advocated tax increases, or defended Obamacare or Wall Street regulations such as Dodd-Frank.

It is the tantalizing prospect of crippling the welfare state that has lured Republicans into endorsing a president who has threatened to jail his opponent, go after the business interests of news outlets critical of him, and praised dictators in North Korea, Russia, and China for crushing their opposition. They are willing to give Trump control of the military, the Department of Justice, and the domestic-security apparatus as long as Ryan controls the legislative agenda.

That congressional Republicans would submit to Trump even at the risk of compromising the basic security of the American government is not merely a hypothesis. It already happened. U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly grown concerned about links between the Trump campaign and the Russian campaign strategy of using cyberattacks to help elect him. Republicans in Congress conceded to Daily Beast reporter Shane Harris that they shared these concerns but nonetheless refused requests by their Democratic colleagues to launch an investigation, which would have had subpoena power to force witnesses to testify.

The episode is telling because Republicans have no ideological motive to oppose an investigation — indeed, as the generally hawkish party on Russia, they might have been especially concerned by the prospect of Putin’s subverting the American political process. As Harris reported, they simply “have no appetite to launch inquiries into their party’s presidential nominee.” Their willingness to turn a blind eye to what even Republicans acknowledge as a security threat is a display of the absolute logic of party unity that would prevail under a Trump presidency.

The likelihood that Hillary Clinton will win on November 8 reduces the possibility of total conservative control within the next four years. But Trump has revealed — and hastened — the Republican Party’s transformation. In June, Ed Conard, a former business partner of Mitt Romney’s and a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told a gathering of wealthy Republicans that they needed to find a way to appease Trump’s blue-collar supporters while still maintaining their grip on the party’s agenda, especially its fixation with reducing the top tax rate. “So the question is, how do we build a coalition with displaced workers like we did with the religious right after Roe v. Wade and which we used to lower the marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent … and that leaves us in control, us being advocates of free enterprise, in control of the coalition?” he asked. Conard explained, “The answer, I believe, is tough, and perhaps even odious, compromises.”

Conard was expressing in unusually blunt terms the strategic calculation that has preoccupied his party’s elite, which understands that its small-government message still does not attract a natural majority on its own. Trump has propelled the party onto a course that may sometimes be discomfiting but could satisfy every faction: libertarian ends achieved through authoritarian means.

Four years ago, conservatives repeatedly argued that defeating Barack Obama gave them their only chance to preserve the America they knew. They believed, as the pollster Stan Greenberg found in extensive interviews, that “big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes.” That coalition would soon overwhelm “real America” at the polls, turning democracy into a rigged contest, and so the 2012 election would be conservatives’ “now or never” chance to outvote Obama’s coalition. There was some truth to that analysis: The white-nationalist politics that is the conservative movement’s lifeline to power from the 1960s through the ’90s has become a demographic death trap. And so the Republican Party has turned to post–“now or never” tactics.

Consider the following statements that have been made as this campaign comes to a close. “The election is rigged,” Mississippi’s Republican governor Phil Bryant has declared, arguing that since blue states have more people, “all you have to do is win those particularly large states. You can forget about flyover country. That doesn’t seem fair to me at all.” Pat Buchanan has gone further, noting that, since politicians “rig the system through mass immigration and a mammoth welfare state so that Middle America is never again able to elect one of its own,” it was only natural and fair that “it is the ­populist-nationalist right that is moving beyond the niceties of liberal democracy to save the America they love.” Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage has brought this line of thinking to its logical conclusion. “Sometimes I wonder that our Constitution is not only broken,” he said, “but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.”

Here is a sitting governor in the United States, not some post-Soviet kleptocrat, actually calling for “authoritarian power.” To be sure, LePage lies along the edge of his party rather than at its center. But the nature of party coalitions is that they cluster around common principles, and the mainstream of Republican thought is closer to LePage than anybody could have imagined possible a few decades ago. In a September National Review cover story, co-authors Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru, two of the right’s most erudite intellectuals, acknowledged that Trump has made some questionable statements that “certainly do not sound like the views of a person with a deep esteem for the constitutionally limited role of the president or for the delicate balance of our system of government.” But, they quickly insisted, Hillary Clinton’s support for executive actions, laws that create more bureaucracy, and liberal judges poses “a more concrete and specific threat than Trump.” Indeed, “mainstream liberalism now subverts and threatens our democracy,” and so they concluded that the safer choice, from the standpoint of the republic’s stability, would be to hand control of the Executive branch to Trump. This is how a party consensus forms. The more strident wing openly endorses authoritarianism, and the “moderate” wing refrains while agreeing that authoritarianism is still preferable to liberalism.

A crucial component to this line of thinking is the delegitimization of the Democratic Party. “We’ve had eight years of a president — he’s an autocrat — he just does it on his own, he ignores Congress, and every single day we’re slipping into anarchy,” LePage continued. Denouncing an “autocrat” while calling for authoritarian power may sound contradictory, but ­LePage is merely making explicit beliefs that the conservative movement has held implicitly for decades. After the GOP’s 1994 midterm-elections sweep, which conservatives proclaimed was a “Republican revolution,” the party proceeded to shut down the government, an act reflecting their fury that President Bill Clinton had dared to veto their fiscal policies. The entire Republican Party treated the passage of Obamacare — with a House majority, and a Senate supermajority, following months of deliberation — as a crime. Under Obama, they shut down the government again, threatened to default on the national debt, and have taken the unprecedented step of opposing the president’s right to appoint any nominee at all to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. And leading Republican figures like Representative Mo Brooks, National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, talk-show host Steve Deace, Sean Hannity, and others have already called for Hillary Clinton’s impeachment. The vast majority of the Republican base finds Trump’s fascistic language normal because it has been conditioned over a generation to think about politics in similar terms.

Trump’s hysterical warnings that fraudulent voting by black people will steal the election have likewise gone beyond the Republican norm. But only a bit beyond. Republicans have spent years murmuring darkly of legions of fraudulent votes cast in cities swarming with minorities. “Democrats in the city of St. Louis are trying to steal this election!” screamed Republican senator Kit Bond in 2000. “We are, in some parts of the country, I’m afraid to say, beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses,” said Karl Rove in 2006. George W. Bush’s Justice Department pressured U.S. Attorneys to prosecute the widespread vote fraud they insisted must be happening and fired two of them when they reported none could be found. John ­McCain in 2008 accused ACORN, without credible evidence, of “maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Studies have found that Republican-controlled states have enacted voting restrictions in response to higher levels of minority turnout. In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers and staffers requested racial breakdowns of different voting methods, then crafted a bill that would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” a federal judge wrote. North Carolina stood out from other states only because its Republican officials made the mistake of putting their motives in writing. The other elements — the belief, against all evidence, that Democrats benefit from pervasive fraud; the support for measures designed to suppress minority voting — are points of party consensus. Mike Roman, the figure Trump has tapped to direct his “election security” operation, once whipped conservatives into a frenzy by promoting a misleading but scary video of New Black Panthers at a polling station in Philadelphia, then ran the Koch brothers’ intelligence agency. Trump’s policy of fomenting white panic and suppressing the nonwhite vote is best-practice behavior within his party.

This behavior will last beyond Trump. His birther ravings about Obama are of a piece with Rubio’s declaration that “Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America.” For all the fascination Trump has drawn with his ­performance-art display of incoherent rage, and the angst it has created among high-profile defectors, little of substance separates the nominee from the party elite, who object mostly to his flamboyant lack of discipline. “If Trump loses in November,” said the libertarian Grover Norquist, who has defended Trump as a loyal servant of the anti-tax, pro-business cause, “it will be the result of self-inflicted wounds of a decidedly personal nature.” Both the party’s libertarian business elite and its base fear the ballot box as a mechanism to enable the theft of resources from the few to the many. The elite see this many-versus-few struggle in economic terms, and the base sees it in racial terms. But since the wealth gap in the United States is also in large part a racial gap, the differences can be reconciled.

Trump’s campaign chairman, the Breitbart media chieftain Stephen Bannon, apparently has plans to build a cross-border movement of right-wing nationalist parties. (The editor of Breitbart UK is running to lead the UK Independence Party, under the slogan “Make UKIP Great Again.”) A recent Bloomberg Businessweek feature on these plans predicts Trump’s organization could evolve into “an American UK Independence Party that will wage war on the Republican Party.” But there is a crucial difference in design between the British political system, in which third parties win representation, and the American one. Trumpism (or Breitbartism) cannot win power without the Republican Party, just as the Republican Party can no longer win power without the extremists that define it. The overwhelming gravitational force of the American two-party system delivered to Trump an endorsement from a former rival he had once called “Liddle Marco,” taking care to spell out the insult to his jeering supporters. (“L-I-D-D-L-E. Liddle, Liddle, Liddle Marco.”) And it brought the endorsement of another whose wife he labeled ugly and whose father he insinuated may have conspired to assassinate JFK. A party that can contain, on the one hand, a presidential nominee who denounces shadowy global financiers and media elites and, on the other, Sheldon Adelson (who has donated millions toward his election) can withstand enormous internal tension.

Trump will probably lose. That loss will provide little more than a temporary reprieve. The Republican-controlled House will be as conservative as ever, perhaps even more so. All the nice-­sounding legislative programs Clinton offered up to soothe her restless base on the left — affordable child care and college, improvements to Obamacare, ­infrastructure — will be dead on arrival, making Clinton appear ineffectual. Or worse than ineffectual: Republicans will crank up the investigative machinery and produce endless media coverage of ­scandals, real or trumped up. (In fact, as the FBI melds its investigations into Clinton’s emails and Anthony Weiner’s sexting, we may be in for another Clinton administration defined by years of congressional sex investigations.) And then there is the likelihood that the current economic expansion, already one of the longest in American history, collapses into recession sometime during her term.

Just because the conservative movement will face long odds attracting a plurality of American voters doesn’t mean that those odds are zero. This year, Clinton has had the luxury of competing against a candidate who does not hide his grossness. In 2020, she will probably encounter a candidate who uses dog whistles rather than air horns and is trying to build a majority rather than a brand. Republicans won’t necessarily need to moderate their plans to beat her in 2020. To compete, they may only need Trumpism with a human face (and, perhaps, human hair as well).

And meanwhile, the version of the party that survives the likely wreckage of November will be a rage machine no less angry or united than the one that sustained eight years of unrelenting opposition to Obama. That rage will again shake the creaky scaffolding of the Madisonian system of government. Trumpism is the long historical denouement of a party that has come to see American democracy as rigged. And what one does to a rigged system is destroy it.

*This article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has Only Just Begun