In recent months, as Donald Trump has bullied and demagogued his way ever closer to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, there has been growing speculation that we are witnessing its demise.
I would submit that the Republican Party is already dead.
One need only consider the recent response of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the likelihood of the Senate’s taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. McConnell noted that he could not imagine a Republican majority in that body voting to confirm someone whom the National Rifle Association opposes. Only a leader of an already-dead party would so openly admit that it takes its marching orders from a notorious special interest.
This has been a tragedy in the making over the past half century.
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In 1964, the nomination of Barry Goldwater redefined the progressive party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower as radically conservative. Nelson Rockefeller, the favorite of its endangered progressive wing, warned his party at the convention — as he shouted above the angry crowd of proleptic Trumpites trying to drown him out — of the grave dangers that the extremists embracing Goldwater represented for the party and the nation.
Few heard or remembered the prophecy.
In the next four decades, Republicans became more and more extreme, as they became more and more homogeneous.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act began the exodus of southern whites into a Republican Party courting them with coded racial appeals. It marked the beginning of “dixie-fication,” with its membership and leadership shifting to the white South. This made for the perfect storm in 1980 when a celebrity candidate, Ronald Reagan, carried the radical right into the White House and established as party orthodoxy his anti-government, anti-labor, anti-tax and anti-welfare positions, as well as the financial industry as the lynchpin of the economy.
In 1986, conservative activist Grover Norquist introduced his dystopian mechanism for gutting the welfare state by depriving it of revenue. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge (no new taxes) was the prototype for paralyzing pledges that made the Republicans the “party of no,” effectively privileging special interests over the common good.
A further leap toward fatal extremism came a decade later. Newt Gingrich spearheaded a Republican capture of Congress by painting Democrats as corrupt career politicians in bed with forces threatening to destroy the country. His Contract with America became the party’s ultimate pledge to dysfunctional government through such means as term limits for officeholders and balanced budgets.
To Republicans, the “corrupt” Democrats forfeited their legitimacy, sanctioning any means that could be employed to deny them power or the exercise of it.
The Republican Party retains control of the House by the most egregious gerrymandering; it controls the Senate through making the filibuster the normal procedure in approving legislation; it tilts the playing field in presidential elections through voter suppression and a mind-numbing avalanche of duplicitous ads made possible by the Supreme Court’s ludicrous definition of money as speech.
When a party sustains itself in power through such undemocratic means, it is lethal to its long-term health.
Only a brain-dead party produces as its top presidential candidates such loathsome stokers of the politics of resentment and paranoia as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Only a brain-dead party engages in the obstructionism the Republicans have perfected since Barack Obama took office in 2009.
By their overall behavior over the last seven-plus years, Republicans have systematically been undermining the government. Only a zombie party could act this way.
It’s time to bury this once honorable institution. The hostile takeover it suffered in 1964 has reached its inevitable tragic end.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University.