Has the GOP Turned the Corner Toward Authoritarianism? | Opinion

In retrospect, it should not have been that surprising that a fringe lawsuit brought by a scandal-plagued Texas Attorney General asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate millions of legal ballots from four swing states and declare Donald Trump the winner of a presidential election that he had already lost, would attract support from 17 Republican State AGs and 126 Republicans, including their top two leaders, in the U.S. House. Important elements of the Republican Right had already turned the corner toward authoritarianism by ignoring or shrugging off several other Trump actions, including:

  • His conversations with his disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who has advocated imposing martial law as a prelude to rerunning the 2020 presidential election.
  • His numerous conversations and meetings with local and Republican state officials post-election advocating replacing Biden electors in key states duly elected by popular vote with Trump slates chosen by Republican state legislators,
  • His disregard for separation of powers by raiding the Defense Department budget to build a wall that he had previously promised Mexico would pay for.
  • His willingness to believe platitudes and empty promises of the likes of Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan of Turkey and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, capped last week by his denial that a Russian hack was responsible for a massive security breach in the U.S. government.

In the past four years, the Republican Party has increasingly come to resemble the right-wing parties in Europe and South America – authoritarian, nativist, and quasi-isolationist.

Western political parties trace their development to the 19th century breakup of European monarchies. Left wing parties gravitated to forms of collectivism, including socialism and later Marxism. There are traces of socialism in today's Democratic Party, though party regulars and President elect Biden have thus far remained dominant. By contrast, the parties of the right focused on a strong central government, stability, traditional institutions and law and order above all else.

American conservatism contained roots of this tradition, dating back to the 19th and early 20th century. Indeed, the Right was still decidedly isolationist right up until the eve of World War II. In the war's aftermath, American conservatism benefitted from two developments that separated it from its European cousins. The first was the influence of the Austrian school of economics, which preached freedom as a counterweight to tradition, limited government, free enterprise and development of open markets. The second was a political movement that blended law and tradition with freedom and opportunity for all, regardless of social status. This effort to unite cultural conservatives with economic libertarians was popularized by Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, George W Bush and every other Republican presidential nominee until 2016.

The intellectual underpinnings of modern conservatism included a three-legged intellectual stool that featured law and tradition, limited government and free markets, and American engagement in world affairs. This philosophy dominated the GOP for nearly 50 years, from Richard Nixon's election in 1968 through 2016. The staying power was remarkable, especially considering how many times the Democratic Party reinvented themselves in the same period.

But nothing lasts forever, and despite Donald Trump's two losses in the popular vote totals, the current Republican Party's demographic base and cultural outlook no longer supports the post-war conservative consensus. Republicans are not now competitive with suburban voters, young people, college educated women, or in the areas in America that are developing new technologies or fuelling economic growth. However, they are dominant in rural America and among older white voters who turned out in record numbers this year to allow Trump to remain competitive in the presidential race. In a word, right wing populism has replaced conservatism for many Republicans.

It is ironic that at precisely the time when these new and dynamic constituencies are open to ideas focusing on freedom, enterprise and a smaller more focused federal establishment, the GOP should turn inward by seeking to return to another time utilizing methods not consistent with our constitutional system.

Republicans will have another opportunity in 2024 to redefine their party, and hopefully move away from the authoritarianism it has flirted with during the Trump years and refocus its efforts on providing practical limited government solutions to mend our fraying economic strength and civic bonds.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

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