Cato the Elder’s prescription for Rome’s greatest enemy was stringent. He concluded every speech with this singular imperative: Carthago delenda est—Carthage must be destroyed. Until, at last, it was.
Now American democracy has a more lethal antagonist. Regardless of ideology, our imperative must be the political destruction of today’s Republican party. Until then, all the rest—trying to reform the GOP; founding a third party; or imagining a sweet spot in the political center—are dangerous distractions.
The GOP’s pathologies run too deep to temporize. Their most glaring manifestation is but a symptom: the party’s enthrallment to a dangerous, unstable, bigoted, and nihilistic narcissist possessed by autocratic cravings, a contempt for law, and a poisonous disdain for all other human beings—epitomized by his murderous neglect of a deadly pandemic which needlessly killed over half a million Americans and, thereafter, by his incitement of, and pleasure in, a deadly attack on our Capitol by extremists inflamed by his lies and determined keep him in power.
Here’s the crux: All that is toxic in Trump, and more, defines the GOP’s essence—and would if he disappeared tomorrow.
Today’s Republican party is addicted to racism, sexism, nativism, cultural revanchism, fundamentalism, extremism, and authoritarianism. It scorns science; subverts governance; and reinvents reality. Its leaders traffic in ostentatious mendacity.
It reduces “conservatism” to a retrograde tribalism steeped in fear and anger. Its congressional wing exists to satisfy donors. It has no coherent policy or purpose save perpetuating its power through minority rule.
It is, in short, an existential threat to our survival as a pluralist democracy.
Other than that, I deeply admire it.
But, seriously, one need not be a center-left Democrat (as am I) to perceive that the GOP represents forces more fundamental, and therefore less transient, than focusing on Trump allows.
The whites who stormed the Capitol were possessed by primal rage widely shared within the base. A poll taken immediately after January 6 found that 45 percent of Republicans supported their assault—slightly more than those who opposed it. Subsequent polls showed less Republican support for the mob attack but a conveniently increased willingness to believe bizarre claims that left-wing provocateurs had instigated it.
The GOP’s ominous rejection of democratic norms—or objective responsibility—is rooted in racial and ethnic anxieties for which Trump served as avatar. After his survey of Republicans in 2020 revealed that most agreed with the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it,” political scientist Larry Bartels concluded: “Ethnic antagonism” is “the most powerful factor associated with willingness to resort to force in pursuit of political ends.”
This hostility toward “the other,” political scientist Robert Pape affirmed, motivated the insurrectionists. The New York Times summarized his findings: Most participants came from localities “awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture”—anxieties which may intensify “as the country continues moving toward becoming a majority-minority nation and right-wing media outlets continue to stoke fear about the Great Replacement.”
This symptomatizes the pervasive racial animus which has become a defining feature of the Republican electorate. After the 2016 election, three political scientists explored the 37 percent advantage Trump enjoyed among non-college whites. “Very little of this gap,” they concluded, “can be explained by the economic difficulties faced by less educated whites. Rather, most of the divide appears to be associated with sexism and denial of racism.”
That finding squares with a survey conducted last fall by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) of Republicans for whom Fox is the primary source of news: 91 percent opposed the Black Lives Matter movement; 90 percent believed that police killings of blacks are “isolated incidents”; and 58 percent that whites are victimized “a lot” by racial discrimination.
Racism’s first cousin, nativism, permeates another tributary of anti-democratic sentiment: the visceral opposition to immigration within a Republican base increasingly fearful of the “Great Replacement.” Before the 2018 midterms, Laura Ingraham of Fox warned viewers against a “House dominated by Democrats who want to replace you . . . with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants.”
In 2021, this zero-sum xenophobia metastasizes apace. Witness Fox’s Tucker Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate . . . with new people, more obedient voters, from the Third World. . . . Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.”
Rhetorically, Senator Ron Johnson asks whether Democrats “want to remake the demographics of America to ensure . . . that they stay in power forever?” Carlson brooks no doubt: “In order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country. . . . Their goal is to make you irrelevant.”
Carlson knows his audience: His business model prioritizes stoking its pre-existing anxieties. Many Republicans, GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson explains, “feel the way of life that they have known is changing rapidly”—creating “a real sense . . . that they are under siege.”
Such fears created—and transcend—Trump. As Thomas B. Edsall notes:
Trump’s strength lies in both the man . . . and in the agenda he represents: a return to the America that used to be, at least in the popular imagination, before the women’s and civil rights and gay rights revolutions, before diversity, sexual harassment and political correctness had been invented.
Thus the Republican officeholders consumed with Dr. Seuss and the neutering of Mr. Potato Head. Again, Carlson serves as Rorschach test. Displaying the photo of a flight suit for pregnant military personnel, he complained that it’s “a mockery of the U.S. military,” adding that our Armed Forces are becoming “more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore since men and women no longer exist.”
This doom loop of fear and loathing melds with political calculation to cement the GOP’s pathologies. As Max Boot writes:
The GOP highlights culture-war issues to shake down rank-and-file donors while cutting taxes to please wealthy donors. Republicans . . . can’t afford to broaden their appeal by embracing a more populist economic agenda or by toning down the divisive social messages because either move would jeopardize the flow of fundraising.
This political Petri dish redefines conservatism as extremism. The appallingly stupid and bigoted Marjorie Taylor Greene enjoys a plus-16 approval rating among Republicans; for the sin of denouncing Trump’s behaviors on January 6, the staunch conservative Liz Cheney is underwater by 32 percent. Recent panelists at CPAC included representatives Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, both tied to extremist groups; the gun-toting Lauren Boebert, who tweeted “I am the militia”; and the creepy far-right demagogue Matt Gaetz.
Like Trump himself, these figures exemplify a new model for rising Republicans: performative nihilism. And like the party writ large, they lack any real governing agenda or, increasingly, any commitment to governance as their primary responsibility. Their means of ascent is proliferating ignorance and anger.
In his new book, John Boehner describes the arrival in 2011 of congressmen consumed with “conspiracies and crusades” and “how to fundraise off of outrage or how they could get on Hannity that night.” As Gaetz boasts in his own book, “it’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel. . . . If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” That’s the governing ethos of Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
Equally inimical to reason is the GOP’s addiction to reactionary fundamentalism. Katherine Stewart aptly describes this as “a radical political ideology that is profoundly hostile to democracy and pluralism, and a certain political style that seeks to provoke moral panic, rewards the paranoid and views every partisan conflict as a conflagration, the end of the world.”
The head of the PRRI, Robert Jones, notes that evangelicals’ overwhelming devotion to Trump grew “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy” based on invoking “powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance.” Similarly, PRRI’s survey of “Fox News Republicans” found that 73 percent believe that Christians suffer “a lot of” societal discrimination in the United States today.
This paranoid religiosity swells the party’s increasing disdain for science, scientists, and secular expertise. The GOP is a haven for creationism, anti-vaxxism, climate denialism, and, most recently, hostility to public health measures to subdue COVID-19.
From the beginning, many evangelicals believed that public health measures to curb the pandemic—whether mask mandates or restrictions on in-person worship—constituted oppression. Here fundamentalism inflamed the GOP’s demented libertarianism and unreasoning hostility toward government.
Ever camera-ready, Gaetz donned a gas mask to mock mask-wearing. Within the base, refusing masks became an expression of patriotic resistance to an overweening authority which could not be trusted.
According to the Pew Research Center, as of late February 45 percent of white evangelicals opposed vaccination. Little wonder that red states and counties decisively trail their blue counterparts in vaccination rates—even as Ron Paul and Jim Jordan vilify Anthony Fauci.
Now Carlson is suggesting that the suspension of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine means that federal officials are concealing that COVID vaccines don’t work. Further, Republicans are repurposing the desire of businesses for government proof of vaccination to protect customer safety as tyrannical “vaccine passports”—which the historically illiterate congressman Madison Cawthorn said “smack of 1940s Nazi Germany” before evoking “Leninism.”
Similarly, elected Republicans respond to the sequence of mass shootings by opposing background checks as an assault on freedom and, impressively, the Almighty. Said Representative Burgess Owens (R-Utah), “[Gun] rights protect my life, liberty, and property. They were granted me by God; they cannot be taken away from me by D.C. bureaucrats.”
Guns may not kill people but, considering the partisan politicization of twin epidemics, Republicans surely do.
The GOP’s fusion of paranoia, extremism, libertarianism, and anti-intellectualism with racial, cultural, and religious antagonism feeds a seemingly contradictory but inexorable craving for minoritarian-authoritarianism. Simply put, most Republicans are okay with autocracy—but only if it subordinates their perceived political enemies.
Hence Trump. As political scientist Matthew MacWilliams summarizes his findings from 2016, “the single factor that predicted whether a Republican primary voter supported Trump over his rivals was an inclination to authoritarianism.” Writing last September, MacWilliams elaborated on this psychology:
When activated by fear, authoritarian-leaning Americans are predisposed to trade civil liberties for strongman solutions to secure law and order; and they are ready to strip civil liberties from those defined as the “other.” . . . They are more likely to agree that increasing racial, religious and ethnic diversity is a clear and present threat to national security. They are more fearful of people of other races, and agree with the statement that “sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.”
This sensibility is about far more than the January 6 insurrection—it explains why the principal mission of the GOP is perpetuating minority rule.
Substantively, the GOP is largely barren of coherent policies. The party which strove to repeal Obamacare with nothing to replace it was, by 2020, literally without a platform. Now, observes Ron Brownstein, “Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they’ve made for [Joe Biden’s] presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.”
Instead, the GOP is embracing the mythology which drives insurrection and voter suppression: the baseless claim that Democrats stole the election through massive voter fraud—principally in non-white urban areas.
A few hours after the riots, the great majority of Republican legislators voted to overturn Biden’s election, and the party’s congressional candidates for 2022 are zealously advancing “the big lie.” Indeed, the most visible proponents of reversing the Electoral College—Hawley, Cruz, and Greene—are leading the party in campaign contributions.
This sustained subversion is inherently destabilizing. As the former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens told Edsall: “For the first time since 1860, a major American political party doesn’t believe America is a democracy. No Republican will win a contested primary in 2022 or 2024 who will assert that Biden is a legal president.”
Concurrently, leading Republicans and their allies are rewriting the events of January 6—ignoring that they are indelibly captured on video. They began by asserting that the insurrectionists were terrorists from Antifa; more recently, confronted with indubitable fact the mob was composed of Trump supporters, they are recharacterizing it as peaceful and benign. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows, paradoxically, that majorities of Republicans agree with both of those descriptions of the riot.
In either case, the GOP is where reality, or any sense of accountability, goes to die. Portraying the rioters as “zero threat,” Trump asserted that some were “hugging and kissing the police.” Ron Johnson described the invaders as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, [and] would never do anything to break the law”—while adding that Black Lives Matter demonstrators would have concerned him.
This is utterly surreal—and it’s working. A February Harvard-Harris survey found that 78 percent of Republicans believe the events of January 6 are “being used as an excuse to silence political voices on the right.” Like an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, Republican propagandists are erasing a deadly attack on democracy from their followers’ collective memory, the better to inflame the sense of victimization which licenses the GOP’s accelerating assault on America’s electoral processes.
This hydra-headed sabotage includes a plethora of pretextual voter ID laws; restrictions on voting by mail; provisions to make voting in traditionally Democratic or non-white areas more difficult; and, most blatant, laws which permit Republican legislators to reverse the Electoral College.
All this will be buttressed by overt gerrymandering which enables a minority of Republican voters to elect majorities in the House of Representatives and, critically, the state legislatures which enact voting laws—which bodies, collectively, can overturn a presidential election. As the demographics of America change, popular support for the GOP diminishes, and nativist fury intensifies, the party grows ever more desperate to seize power by whatever antidemocratic means it can contrive.
This places a special burden on displaced Republicans. Last December, I disclaimed any standing to give advice to principled conservatives. But the intervening four months have brought us an insurrection, Republican efforts to overturn the election, a deeply sobering reinvention of those events, and protean labors by the GOP to rig our electoral processes.
Enough. Our first obligation must be to marginalize the GOP by the best available means.
So let’s name what that is not—a third party which places ideology above the deeper principle of preserving American democracy. In our history, third parties either accomplish little, or yield a result most opposed to their stated purpose—whether Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives in 1912; or the Green party of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016. Such is the poisoned fruit of ill-timed crusades.
Agree with his aims or not, Joe Biden is conducting the proper business of democratic governance—advancing a policy agenda unmarried to racial and cultural enmity. For the next four years, our common duty is to help him and his party, if they can, eliminate the GOP as a force which can reclaim the presidency, the House, or the Senate—including by enacting laws which curb gerrymandering and protect voting rights, voter access, and electoral integrity. Then, perhaps, the natural dynamics of politics will create demand for a center-right party worth supporting.
But not yet. The GOP delenda est.