After Its Populist Moment, The GOP Returns to Old Orthodoxies | Opinion

The Republican Party is emerging from its cocoon of populist rhetoric a changed animal—just not one that anyone needs or wants. It may sport fancy new wings, but the genetic instructions that compel the party to drone after old orthodoxy on behalf of entities at odds with its constituents remain in place.

Consider the looming gubernatorial race in California. Speaking to a crowd at the Women's March in Los Angeles last year, Caitlyn Jenner recanted support for then-president Donald Trump, saying it was a "mistake" to support him. "I cannot support anyone who is working against our community. I do not support Trump," Jenner said. "I must learn from my mistakes and move forward."

It was not the first time. "Sadly, I was wrong. The reality is that the trans community is being relentlessly attacked by this president," Jenner said in 2018. "He has ignored our humanity. He has insulted our dignity. He has made trans people into political pawns as he whips up animus against us in an attempt to energize the most right-wing segment of his party."

Nevertheless, in April of this year, when Jenner announced a plan to capture the California governor's mansion, Trump's former campaign manager Brad Parscale helped assemble a team. That entourage, Axios reported, includes Tony Fabrizio, the top pollster on Trump's 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and Steven Cheung, a former Trump White House and campaign communications aide. Donald Trump Jr. subsequently signaled support for Jenner over social media alongside Parscale. After Jenner's softball interview with Sean Hannity, former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she "found Caitlyn to be well-informed, sincere, and laser-focused on undoing the socialist, radical, a-scientific policies of Biden & the left."

Many viewers of the interview likely found that characterization odd. At one point, Jenner told Hannity, "I am pro-illegal immigration." Hannity tried to correct what he took as a verbal flub—"You're pro-legal immigration." But that slip looks pretty close to the truth. After the Hannity interview, Jenner announced to CNN's Dana Bash support for naturalizing millions of illegal aliens.

Apart from the gender identity politics, then, Jenner's agenda is virtually the same as that of former House speaker Paul Ryan, who along with GOP leader Mitch McConnell convinced Trump to abandon much of his populist mandate in favor of Republican orthodoxy. Indeed, even though the GOP insisted that ousting Trump nemesis Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) signaled its changing political valence, the party chose New Yorker Elise Stefanik to fill the leadership spot.

Stefanik is a Paul Ryan protégé. She has voted with Democrats and, ironically, against Trump on various immigration issues. NumbersUSA, an immigration reform group, rated her "D-" for her votes on immigration, a good sign for exploiters of cheap labor and a bad one for workers. Stefanik also voted for the Equality Act in 2019, which would help proliferate transgender ideology while increasing the size and invasiveness of the federal government. The GOP is quietly working with the Democratic Party to pass a compromise version of the Equality Act as it publicly pretends to take a principled stand and fundraises on the fears of its constituents.

Put simply, the GOP managed to replace Cheney with someone even more out of touch with voters. So who does the GOP think its real constituents are?

McConnell and McCarthy
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) address reporters outside the White House after their Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden on May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Congressional leadership on Wednesday, in an attempt to find common ground on issues. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Documents reviewed by The Intercept show that the Pentagon plans to surveil the social media of its troops for "extremist" material. Under current political conditions, that effort will invariably target GOP voters. As The Intercept reported, "although in the past the military has balked at surveilling service members for extremist political views due to First Amendment protections, the pilot program will rely on a private surveillance firm in order to circumvent First Amendment restrictions on government monitoring." This puts Republican voters at a double disadvantage because their party is wedded to both the Pentagon and the corporate cult.

Indeed, the GOP continues to fight for a bigger defense budget even as the Pentagon views its constituents with a hostile eye and defense contractors cooperate with our enemies. Among members of Congress, Republicans make up the bulk of politicians with stock in the defense contractor Honeywell, which was recently fined a paltry $13 million for sharing documents with China and other countries. If Republican voters are wondering why the GOP doesn't seem very serious about dealing with China and its domestic collaborators despite the occasional jeremiad, it's likely because the party has vested interests in the Middle Kingdom.

"A government watchdog has alleged that Elaine Chao, former transportation secretary and wife of Republican Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, abused her power while in office," Newsweek reported in March. "The watchdog said that she should be prosecuted for it." She should, but she has less chance of being prosecuted than the January 6 protestors, whose real crime was voting for the wrong candidate.

Ryan Samsel is one of several Trump supporters being held in a Washington, D.C. jail by the government for the events of that day. According to his lawyer, Samsel was "viciously and savagely" beaten by a guard. "He has definitely suffered serious injuries, including a shattered orbital floor, a broken orbital bone, his jaw was broken, his nose was broken," she said in an interview. He may lose sight in one eye due to his injuries.

Republicans won't hold their own accountable, won't rescue their supporters from politicized detention, won't stand up to China and don't seem to care all that much that the ground is shifting beneath their feet. The only time they use the term "red line" is to rebuff proposals to cut defense spending or raise taxes on corporations that are hostile to their supporters and more closely aligned than ever with the Democratic Party.

The problem that Republican voters face, then, is that their own party is the greatest obstacle to any hope for a better future. It offers only the illusion of opposition. It thrives when it is out of power, capitalizing on the frustrations and fears of its constituents because institutional memory is short in our politics. But when it returns to power, the GOP reliably drops all pretense of having fundamentally changed, masking old wine in new wineskins.

Republicans are so confident in this cycle of politics that they are now saying the quiet part aloud: if Democrats raise taxes on corporations—the same ones pressing boots into their constituents' necks—they will simply lower them upon returning to power. Kentucky senator Rand Paul promised that Republicans would not vote for any such increases, and that if and when his party regains control, "we would get rid of them." Paul is also sponsoring a bill alongside Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) that would exacerbate chain migration.

Nearly all of these Republicans have Trump's blessing and endorsement, which means that whoever wins the apparent struggle for power and privileges within the GOP, everyday Americans lose.

If Republican voters want to break the cycle, they're going to have to fight their party for it tooth and nail, or start something altogether new.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a contributor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.