Was MAGA always the inevitable endpoint of conservatism?
I'm going to start with my Caveat: I was born approximately a week before the USSR began to really unravel. I never lived through any of conservativism's grand success. I grew up with Rocky IV and Red Dawn as cable TV staples. But I've never lived in a world where the US wasn't the global superpower.
Based on my limited life experience, I'm going with "it was all a lie". My childhood was defined my my parent's various failings and incompetence, and as a teen I desperately needed to believe I could pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I liked conservative principles. Work hard and succeed. A foreign policy that made the whole world safer (after all, I didn't want to live in my dumpy town forever!) Balanced budgets! I read Charles Krauthammer's column every Friday. He seemed smart. George Bush seemed to be authentically well-intentioned to me (PEPFAR, No Child Left Behind) and I bought into the Team America let's invade Iraq schtick. John McCain seemed like a good embodiment of teenage Maggie's value system.
In retrospect, I think my parents were motivated by entirely different things. Things weren't going well for them; they wanted people to blame. Rush Limbaugh offered that to my dad, in spades. Blame Dems, blame women, blame immigrants, Let's Go Buchanan, that was my dad. My mom was looking for validation that she had done the right things, and that her problems weren't her fault. I think the "moral majority" stuff really spoke to her. They were both looking for a bail out. McCain ticked their boxes, but he didn't excite them, at all. In 2016, Trump is basically the antithesis of everything I have ever believed in and the embodiment of everything I despise the most in America. He's a hard no for me and meanwhile they're lapping it up. All of it! (I then realize that I actually share no values with the people who raised me, have an existential crises, vote for Gary Johnson, and perm my hair.)
I'm sympathetic to the intellectual merit of the Cargo Cult theory and the demographic change theory (I studied abroad in France while Jean-Marie LePen was handing over the reigns of Le Font National to his daughter.) But for anyone my age, it's a hard sell that the Republican party has any real moral, philosophical, or policy underpinning.
"Was MAGA always the inevitable endpoint of conservatism?"
The answer is Yes.
But that requires us to properly understand just what "Conservatism" is. We need to distinguish it from Liberalism - which is the political philosophy of individual rights and limited government which dates back to the Age of Revolutions in the latter 18th century. The Liberal Revolution smashed the Ancien Regime, otherwise known as the Patriarchate, that throne-and-altar conception of society as organized in terms of vested hierarchy and privilege. The cardinal value of this Regime was ANTI-equality. They understood "freedom" in terms of knowing your place and fulfilling your God-given role in society. Liberalism was aimed like a dagger at this worldview and this anthropology.
Conservative values are the values of Patriarchy. The Patriarchate/the Ancien Regime was brought down by Liberalism, but Patriarchal *values* persist. And not for no reason - Patriarchal values were essential to keep civilization going, when zero-sum competition reigned, levels of economic productivity and technological innovation were in the basement, and life was nasty, brutish, and short.
Those values are less practical for us today, but they still have a tight grip on the minds of many. And one of the most enduring aspects of the Patriarchal worldview is the DENIAL of true universal political equality. The Conservative doesn't *really* believe that we're created equal.
Conservatives are not to be confused with Right-liberals, who really are very different from them. Right-liberals value political equality, but they value individual liberty and small government (which is not to be equated with limited government) more. One of the biggest differences is that Conservatives are permanently tempted by the attractions of authoritarian conservative populism (more succinctly referred to as Fascism), while Right-liberals are diametrically opposed to the Fascists.
The curious byways of American politics however have led the Right-liberals to go into political coalition with the Christian conservative populists; their interests are aligned to the extent that they are skeptical of the Left-liberal emphasis on egalitarianism and a robust measure of equality of outcomes.
We are seeing now however how that coalition is exploding, spectacularly - and in a manner which threatens to bring down the Founders' Experiment.
It was all a lie, but not the lie Stuart Stevens refers to, i.e. it was always about race. No, what it was about what was satisfying a wealthy donor class that wanted lower taxes and limiting non-security related spending, starting in the 60s and really coming to total domination by the 1990s and the Gingrich era. I say this because what Republicans in the modern era are not flexible on, the non-negotiable policy is lowering taxes, shrinking the non-security parts of government, or other economic policies that favor the very wealthy regardless of whether they benefit others (note, this does not include actually avoiding deficits). Republicans have demonstrated they are in fact flexible on racial issues, on cultural issues, on religious issues, on foreign policy, both rhetorically and substantively. They are quite willing to run up deficits. They are flexible rhetorically a la some tepid forays like TFG's or Rubio's into populist, working class rhetoric, but not substantively on taxes and spending, and that is the big clue as the real driving factor behind their behavior. That is, the one principle they do not violate. The specific path they took to where we are in 2023 is contingent on a number of factors, but the fundamental question of Republican politics has always been how to justify economic policies that are ruinous to the majority of the population, and probably in most cases the country as a whole, yet win national majorities.
Reagan was free to denounce racism, while other Republicans were free to cater to white grievance, as their political circumstances dictated. They could be hawkish or isolationist. Social conservative or libertarian, the tent was big enough. What they could not do is raise taxes.
Why is Reagan remembered so much more warmly than George HW Bush? HW actually successfully oversaw the far more difficult process of winning the Cold War by helping manage the actual collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in a peaceful manner. He won the Iraq War and managed a vast international alliance to do so. His cardinal sin was denouncing supply-side economics as voodoo and supporting a tax hike, resulting in a third-party challenge by a plutocrat who was forced to pay higher taxes, Perot's actual reasons for running being incidental. Even if he was personally sincere, how many other angry plutocrats were whispering in his ear and why?
It was pretty clear by '09 that Republicans didn't actually care much about deficits or shrinking govt. spending as a whole, and it was pretty clear the economic system wasn't doing much for the little guy. Wages were stagnant, increases in GDP were almost all being captured by the wealthiest, and public services and infrastructure were declining, from schools, to roads, to water. It had become ever more clear since the 1980s than supply-side economics didn't work and increased deficits, and Republicans had overseen massive deficit increases without much complaint, up to and including Cheney's comment that Reagan proved deficits don't matter (politically). It was getting harder and harder to argue the economic plans were helping the little guy, but the economic plans couldn't be changed or disavowed. The Iraq War blunders had left foreign policy not exactly a strength, and foreign policy wasn't really an election winner in any case. What to do?
Well, with a black president and changing demographics, racial grievances became a lot more useful in distracting people from the economic reality. They were so emotionally committed to the grievance they would happily swallow alternative facts on everything else. And consider the outrageous, the over-the-top lies and distortions about Obamacare, the death panels. Every other developed country has some form of national health care or or national health insurance plan. Their per capita medical costs are substantially lower than the US with on average better outcomes. If you've got the money, you're free to buy the best care money can buy at home or abroad. It would help many of your constituents. Rectify inefficient and wasteful medical spending. Lower medical costs for the nation as a whole. Why was this the hill to die on?
It broke their one rule.
Even then, post-Romney, the autopsy calling for greater outreach to new groups of voters, not increased focus on racial grievance, because that hadn't worked. And that was fine, just fine. But TFG came out of nowhere and demonstrated that with the right mix of racial and cultural grievance, that was the winning combination. Why, you could even preach a populist economic message, you could denounce business, you could promise to spend on infrastructure, you could even play protectionist. The rubes would, in fact, fall for it. And as a demonstrated winning formula, that's the road they chose. As long as Putin wasn't preaching communism, let him have Ukraine. Why, as long as he doesn't actually practice communism, a reconciliation with Xi and China is in the cards if that's politically expedient. As long as no one breaks the one rule.
As a second generation Mexican-American who grew up in Los Angeles in the 90s, my choice is, and always will be, “it was all a lie.”
I’m a moderate D, and I will never even consider voting R because as I was becoming politically aware, my view of the Republican Party was Gov. Wilson and prop 187 here in CA. I’m sure the other elements played a part in all this, but I’ve always been sensitive to the overt racism spewed by the party.
It’s easy to overlook when your appearance codes WASP, but it’s super obvious if you don’t.
i only have a moment, so let me just say that your discussion of point #1 is why so many of us think that you are the best working political analyst in america today.
My view: I believe it is a combination of all three, with #2 being the driving factor. There is no question in my mind that the racists and neo-fascists have long been a part of the Republican party, but I believe they were relegated more towards the fringe of the party (in the same way that anarchists and other fellow travelers have been on the fringe of the left). In a two party system, most people are going to associate with one of the two parties, even if neither party is a perfect fit, and there is no effective way (in my opinion) to exclude these undesirables from your party. You can only hope to keep them sidelined. Over the past twenty years, though, our society has become more and more tribal, so that it really does not matter what your party does or stands for anymore, because they're your tribe. The other party is and always will be the enemy (i.e., I have friends in both parties who would rather eat nails than admit Presidents Bush or Obama, respectively, did anything right). If the illiberal left were to take over the Democratic Party, would we be conducting this same analysis for them? I suspect so. Sometimes, it feels like we are heading towards the same place Europe was in the 30's, where your choice was either Hitler's fascism or Stalin's communism. But this may just be my anxiety talking. My hope is that if the nutcases currently ruling the Republican roost continue to lose at the polls, the voters will push them out in favor of the traditional conservatives that can win elections (this is where the cargo cult option comes into play).
Why I may be wrong: It's possible that the Republican party has always been a lie, and I just do not want to confront that truth. I grew up in a Democratic household (my dad and brother are both rabid supporters of labor unions), but I decided that the Republican party was the party for me when I was in college (for reference, this would have been in 1998). While I believed in the stated ideals of the Republican Party (i.e. meritocracy and individual freedoms), frankly it was mainly because I believed that the Republican Party was the more realistic and common sense party. That is clearly no longer the case, though, if it ever was.
I reckon the first explanation has the majority of the explanation, however I (or it) could be incorrect or missing a key element that's related to white grievance, but also different. That aspect is something I'll call "general resentment" (for which white grievance falls under).
I'm from small town, rural Iowa. I got out, got an education, and now live in the Des Moines metro. There are a lot of people within my own family back there who will say they're happy for me, but in reality, they resent (and even kind of hate) me. They know damn well I had their exact same political sentiments once upon a time, but those sentiments changed once I got an education, saw other parts of the country, and ultimately settled down away from them. Living a life that's different and more convenient than there's is seen as an act of betrayal and goddammit, that's unacceptable. So you bet your ass they're going to vote for the guy/party that promises to stick it to those educated comfortable assholes. We're the REAL Americans, not those "pussified" city dwellers with their Starbucks and Priuses.
Personally, I don't think any of these answers are entirely correct, so I'll mostly reiterate what I said the other day, which boils down to 'tribalism uber alles.' There's more to it of course, but let's start there.
My belief is that at one point, the GOP was in fact some kind of big tent, or at least contained several different groups who all mostly wanted to go in the same direction. You had your nationalists, you had your racists who were fleeing the democratic party, you had your fiscal conservative types, you had your gung-ho MURICA types, and all of these existed in some kind of harmony because in general, everyone had the same end goal, which was to win.
Culturally speaking, there is always some kind of belief around what is and is not acceptable in 'polite' society. These things move around of course, but they exist, and they were stronger in the past than they are now. Which meant that your white grievance types and nativist types couldn't simply sit on top of the ticket and speak openly, they needed someone like a Reagan or a Bush to carry the torch and protect them from the slings and arrows of their enemies. Which they did.
As a result, two groups formed. You had the voters, who in general aren't particularly well informed no matter what party they vote for, and you had 'Conservatism Inc' which put gloss on the ideas so that voters would go for them. What this meant was dressing up the ideas on top for the people on the bottom. Reagan spoke out against 'welfare queens' despite his cuts to the poor hurting white people just as much. Bush wanted his wars, and it was rural military families that were pushed into the fray by their communities. But you can't sell cutting things people like without making it seem like you're not doing it.
My favorite point on this is that conservative voters overwhelming want to repeal 'obamacare' while also favoring the 'Affordable Care Act' by a wide margin, despite these two things being the same. This is basically how it is for the entirety of the conservative movement writ large.
So there's some truth to that idea that white grievance was behind it all, because voters would accept anything so long as it hurt the right people. But it's also wrong because the voters did in fact believe in things like cutting entitlements... just not for them.
And here is where we get a bit theoretical, but bear with me for a moment. The Conservative view of the world is that everyone is an individual, and any force that exists to push you in a direction is violating your autonomy. Ergo, if the state is trying to make you do something, it's wrong, even if it's good for you. Reagan's idea that 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help' boils down to an idea that the government can only hurt you, it can't benefit you.
But that's just a bud of an idea. Consider that most ideas are not used and abused by their creators, but by the generations that came after them. Now let's infuse a little Gingrich and Limbaugh inspired hatred, and some 9/11 inspired xenophobia, and let it percolate for about a decade or so, before throwing in a financial crisis. What do we have?
We have an electorate that has been trained for almost twenty years on the idea that government is bad, mixing with the idea that government only helps 'those' people. Government is against you, the conservative voter. Of course, the elected class picked up on this; that's how you get guys like Ted Cruz claiming to be salt of the earth tea party people. The point is that slowly, the people who got elected were willing to speak a lot more crassly about things like the government, and who it helped.
When things fail, it's usually slowly, then suddenly, and that's how it went with the GOP in terms of falling to Trumpism. See, there's a limit to how far that Rand Paul's of the world are willing to go. Oh, they want to cut government, but not so much that they might lose money. They want to remove waste, and they want to run government like a business, but they'd never actually think of themselves as part of that. Or every just come out and say that those 'other' people are the problem.
Until Trump. Trump said everything out loud. Trump revealed the great lie, which wasn't that voters didn't care about things like shrinking the government, they just wanted it shrunk for other people. They'd happily accept a police state so long as that state attacked the right people. Trump didn't change the nature of the GOP, it simply revealed that the GOP voter had become openly distrustful of the GOP elected class, who no longer resembled them. You can't wean a generation on the idea that government is bad and that everyone is against you, and then just not do anything you said you wanted.
The thing about the Trump years, and now really, is that they've moved many conservative priorities along far more than they ever did before. Want to control immigration? We'll build concentration camps at the border and ban muslims. Want to deal with abortion? Roe V Wade is gone. Guys like DeSantis are showing that yeah, the GOP could have done all the things the voters wanted years ago, they just chose not to.
Now, that's because they're bad ideas. But that's not the point. The point is the voters got fed up of the lie that the GOP elected class was actually doing what they said they wanted to do, and put in people who actually wanted the same things. So far as there has been a 'transformation' it's been that the people who used to be considered 'electable' have all been shown to be the minority in their own party.
Thus, the 'lie' is the one that GOP elected officials told their own voters, who believed in what they said, having been raised on a diet of paranoia and delusions.
Now of course, I could be completely wrong. I must admit that it's entirely possible that it's racism all the way down. It's also possible where it's a cargo cult, where the people in charge are hapless fools who can't decide who or what their party actually believes, and they'll go with whoever wins.
But I think the simpler answer is what JVL said earlier about the id theory of politics; the GOP voters want to feel good and validated about their choices, and they'll vote for whoever makes them feel that. Reagan made them feel good, claiming it was morning in America while turning out the asylums and putting the mentally ill onto our streets. Bush made them feel good about killing terrorists while he tried, and ultimately failed, to privatize social security. Trump scratches that itch for them even more. No more do you need to feel ashamed, he says, 'I am your voice!' and then later 'I am your retribution.'
The lie that GOP office holders told themselves was that they could ride that beast, feed it Glenn Beck's paranoid delusions and Bill O'Reilly's rants against minorities, stomach his belief that 'traditional america didn't exist anymore' when Obama was elected, and not actually do anything that would cost them membership in the polite society they wanted to be a part of. To put it another way, the base wanted blood, it wanted circuses, and the GOP elected kept cheaping out on them.
Part of it is racism, part of it is xenophobia, but I believe that had the party not been so open in accepting the George Wallace voters, that this still would have happened. They'd just have changed who they considered the 'other.' After all, plenty of white people got AIDS, and you didn't see them lifting a finger to help them. They created their monolith, fed it red meat, and then were surprised when their monster ate them too. That's what I think.
I am a lifelong Democrat, but in the fall of 2015 I assumed that Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee and Hillary the Democratic nominee. I planned to vote for her (and did), but was not particularly bothered at the thought that Bush might win, indeed, I expected that he would. I long for those days, when a certain modicum of intelligence, character and integrity was expected and demonstrated in the Presidential nominees of both parties.
I'll choose #1, since I just quoted Stuart Stevens in a comment on Charlie Sykes piece earlier today. The GOP had nothing appealing to offer most Americans EXCEPT culture and racial grievances. As this reality became clearer and clearer (and I think Obamacare was a key turning point here), Republicans had to go harder and harder on absurd cultural attacks - no restriction gun laws, heavy restrictions on abortion rights, send in the troops to the cities, etc. etc. Now they have turned to the Apocalypse - Democrats are actual demons, Hillary is an actual devil, it's the Last Struggle, and even Putin is better.
Why I might be wrong - JVL, where does Big Business, the big bugaboo of my youthful years, fit in all this? I am used to thinking that Republicans basically represented corporations, and their agenda was mostly to weaken environmental laws and workers' rights. (And yes, I recognize that Democrats were somewhat feeding from the same source). While I don't SEE that any realignment here has taken place, I also don't see big corporations as the kingmakers right now. I don't understand what is going on here.
I would like to add a fourth cause of the inevitable endpoint of conservatism. It's not to say those other three are wrong. As you suggest, they are all part of the story. (Though I am most doubtful of the "cargo cult" explanation.)
I would propose that conservatism was always a euphemism for a selfish point of view. It's not so much that the people who vote "conservative" don't like change. What they really like is government that favors their point of view and lines their pockets. It is government for me and not thee. One constant is the GOP offering to lower your taxes.
On the other hand, Democrats believe government is for all citizens. They are still human, of course, so they have a bit of selfishness too but they are generally willing to vote for policies that help their fellow man even if they don't benefit directly and they pay more in taxes. They are also willing to compromise with well-meaning and good-faithed conservatives.
The GOP have gradually learned how to take advantage of this selfishness differential. I'd like to think this started with Reagan but acknowledge that this might just be because I started being aware of politics at that time. Trump's election represents an almost complete removing of any restraints on selfishness. Now it's me, me, me all the time from GOP politicians and voters. Racism comes along for the ride.
So appreciate the analysis, but we should remember Trump of 2015, did not have a sophisticated team and developed strategy to make the run.
As a misogynist, he thought he'd have a chance against a much hated Hillary. He had no idea who the dozen GOP wannabes were, so he figured since he's the smartest person in the world he could handle them.
Trump's intent was to polish his brand for 18 months, since he was off cable.
Then the underbelly of the. GOP emerged...the right-wing victim class came out of the shadows. His first demeaning words about Mexican immigrants was their rallying cry. Trump's ego was pumped up to 11 on the deafening cheers of his co-racist, snowflakes, appreciators of junior high school put down nicknames, and he barnstormed on their fabricated issues. His adrenaline rush was a akin to all authoritarian demi-gods, his head swimming in delusions of grandeur.
The two-thirds normie Repubs saw an opportunity to ride the tiger that is the Victim-In-Chief. They held their collective noses and voted less for Trump and more against Hillary, the scourge of politics.
And Trump won and rode high in his Ego-Parade for the next fours to a loss and now into his attempted come back.
America had lost in so many ways, but perhaps there is a sad lesson.
The curtain was pulled back from the sentiment of too many citizens believing that America is the greatest country off all time. No warts, no issues, no downside for its freedom, opportunity, and economic opportunities.
In reality, we are a country of opportunity for most, but not all; personal wealth in not equitable; service to the country/community is not equitable; and paranoia and fear of outsiders is embedded among a too large contingent of citizens.
I have been reading these comments all day- I am fascinated and cannot look away. I feel like I have a done a crash course in history, philosophy, various social sciences, some religion, and a great deal of political science. My brain hurts. I found myself liking some contradictory comments, and now have to think even harder. I love this place! Thank you all for some very thoughtful, well-written, and brilliant thinking. As always, there were some funny comments as well, and I am always deeply appreciative of things that make me laugh. Again, thanks to JVL and the commenters. Well done, all of you!
In my 80s, grew up with Bombing drills in school (get under the desks!), the Cuban Missile confrontation as I was getting married, Viet Nam, lots of international turmoil.
Then it all disappeared as the USSR imploded, happy times were here! Politically we didn’t know what to do with our new world status, but just flexed our muscles, thought we could introduce democracy and freedom to cultures barely out of the Middle Ages. Iraq 1 & 2 followed, and Afghanistan, millions of dollars, thousands of American lives wasted. The NEOCONS got it wrong, the ancient cultures weren’t ready for the Enlightenment.
So, as I look back, it seems like both parties got many international issues wrong. But the basics of Democracy and Freedom have clearly been on the Liberal Agenda, not the Conservative. My political choices evolved from a comment made to me by my Grandfather, the son of Irish Immigrants who grew up prior to WWl.
I was speaking with him about JFK’s candidacy in ‘59, commenting about some of the articles I had read in the National Review and asked him how he would vote? He looked at me quizzically, then said, “The Republicans have had their feet on the necks of immigrants and their families since I was born, the Irish, Italians, Poles, you name it. Now it’s the Negros they hold down in the South. I’ll never vote Republican, never!”. For a man who was a self-made wealthy businessman who never finished High School it was as strong a political statement as I ever heard him speak.
And it summarized for me how I’ve voted for the most part ever since, for free voting, not suppressed, for equal opportunity undefined by skin color, ethnicity,or gender, and for international peace efforts such as support for the Ukraine, but no mindless efforts to change cultures we don’t understand.
Republicans don’t seem to accept those values, they seem to have become increasingly supportive of anti-American values in my lifetime.
God Bless America, and keep us a free Democracy!
I'm sure all three are in the mix, but I tend to favor the "It was all a lie" argument. I look at the Reagan speech you linked to, but then I remember "Welfare Queens," and I remember him launching his campaign in the town where Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were murdered. Which was the "real" Reagan? I think probably the man who spoke to the NAACP. I think the old guard really believed in the principles and policies they advanced--but I suspect they didn't trust their own voters to understand, to agree, or to care, any more than modern Republicans do (most of whom seem NOT to believe in those principles anymore, or anything, at all, except gaining and holding power). I think the decades of believing in something complex, but not strongly enough or with enough faith in their own followers to do the hard work of persuasion, has led too many people to take the easy road of grievance-pandering, until there is now nothing left BUT grievance. The people who pandered to grievance because they felt they had to, have now given way to the people who pander to grievance because they love it.
How and why might I be wrong? Because I'm looking in from the outside--because I wasn't raised among Republicans or Conservatives--because while I do my best to make and hold onto friends whose views aren't exactly like mine, there's a difference between a conversation here and there and a deeply embedded community.
Really impressed, and somewhat intimidated, by the quality of this conversation. Having lived in Rush Limbaugh’s hometown for some time before I retired, I continue to be curious about his part in this “transformation” of the Republican Party. When we look to social media as a contributing cause, we should also recall that the ‘ditto heads’, who were abundant in Cape Girardeau early in his rise followed him on AM radio. One of Rush’s first pejoratives was “feminazis” and they loved it. In any case, I would recommend reading the text of his 2019 address to CPAC shortly following the election of Obama for further insight into the id of the Republican Party. Most of the current tropes of the Republican Party can be found there, including the profoundly ignorant but often repeated claim by the likes of MTG that the Preamble to the U.S Constitution states that all men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He was still angry about the War on Poverty because it sought to distribute the wealth of hard working Americans to the undeserving poor. He also sees the future of success or conservatism in better appealing to Walmart Republicans. The speech seethes with resentment/animosity towards liberal intellectuals and what he calls “drive by media.” And he repeatedly attacks any concession to bi-partisanship as a form of weakness. If you’re in the mood to torture yourself, I recommend you read it. Here’s the link: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rushlimbaughcpac2009.htm