The modern Republican Party has devolved into a radical party that endorses an extreme and fringe ideology. It no longer pretends to stand for traditional conservative values such as small government, rule of law, the free market, and wholesome Christian values. We saw this indifference to conservative ideals throughout the Trump presidency. The Republican Party supported former President Trump’s disregard for states’ rights and the independence of the judiciary, and turned a blind eye to his crimes, his faux Christianity, and his excessive use of taxpayer money. Today, elected Republicans seem more interested in exercising raw political power than preserving traditional conservatism. Those few elected officials who have defended conservative principles and democratic values are being pushed out of the party, or choosing to leave, and are being replaced with people more loyal to Donald Trump. Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, in addition to Congressmen Justin Amash and Will Hurd, are just some of those who’ve left the party. Representative Adam Kinzinger and Senator Lisa Murkowski are both facing primary challenges. Liz Cheney was ousted from her position as Conference Chair in the House of Representatives and replaced by someone with far fewer conservative bona fides. Former presidential candidate and current Senator Mitt Romney was booed and denounced as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘communist’ during an April GOP event in Utah. The McCain family, whose late patriarch was also the 2008 Republican nominee for President, endorsed Joe Biden at the onset of his 2020 presidential campaign. If the Republican Party is no longer interested in holding conservative values, then what do they represent?
In an interview for the Today Show, the party’s former standard bearer, President George W. Bush, was troubled when he described the party as ‘isolationist’ and ‘nativist’. Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has suggested the current ideologues of the party don’t stand for anything and even likened some members to political terrorists. Tom Nichols, former Republican and political scientist, went a step further when he described them as the party of “American carnage” in a September essay for The Atlantic. Indeed, our modern Republican Party is far from the party of Reagan who viewed America as a force for good in the world and described our country as ‘a shining city on a hill’. While many on the right may view this shift away from traditional conservative values as a victory, political scientists and historians are sounding the alarm on what this new iteration of the GOP could mean for the future of our democracy.
A 2016 study as part of the Manifesto Project showed that while both major US parties have been diverging over that last two decades, the Democrats moved closer to the global political center and the Republicans became a more radical, fringe party. According to this project, which reviews and categorizes a party’s platform or manifesto, the GOP has very little in common with the mainstream Conservative Party of Britain and is more in line with the far-right Alternative Party in Germany, for example, whose platform explicitly contains xenophobic and anti-Muslim statements. The problem, political scientists say, is that while in Europe these far-right parties are often an alternative to the mainstream and hold very little power in national governments, in the United States, this far-right party is the mainstream.
As a result of the Republican Party’s extremism, its membership is shrinking. A 2021 Gallup poll showed that Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters account for 49% of the American electorate while Republicans and Republican-leaning voters account for just 40%, a deficit that hasn’t been seen in nearly a decade. Despite its growing unpopularity, though, the GOP continues to be a competitive party nationally, winning 4 of the 9 presidential elections since 1988. However, they’ve only won the popular vote twice in that same time period and not since 2004. It’s a question that our nation will have to wrestle with at some point: What happens to a democracy when one political party continues to win elections and hold power while repeatedly losing the popular vote by millions? Additionally, with an electorate that is growing evermore diverse with each election, the GOP has failed to attract young voters and voters of color, and that is unlikely to change. According to a May CBS News poll, 47% of Republican voters want the party to prioritize voting restrictions and rule changes over developing popular policies and ideas in order to win elections. Republican politicians have been all too happy to oblige. Rather than conduct an autopsy of the party’s weak points or shift towards a more broadly popular platform, the party’s elected officials have instead chosen to double down on their unpopular policies and entrench themselves in minority rule via gerrymandering and restrictions on voting and ballot initiatives. In doing so, the Republican Party has given up on a key pillar of democracy: that you earn the right to govern by proposing ideas that appeal to a majority of the public.
Many on the right already view Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters as illegitimate or un-American. Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute confessed as much when he wrote in the American Mind, “…most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term… They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people.” He went on to explain that he’s referring to the 81 million people who voted to elect Joe Biden as our President. But Ellmers isn’t alone in sharing this view. Two-thirds of Republican voters believe Joe Biden is an illegitimate President, and 147 Congressional Republicans voted against certifying his electoral win. Some Republicans, like the National Review’s Kevin Williamson or Arizona state representative John Kavanagh, have even gone so far as to suggest adding requirements to improve the “quality” of voters. The implicit suggestion here is that votes should only count when they are in line with Republican values.
These incidents are not the only indication of the GOP’s shift away from democratic norms. A recent study by the nonpartisan V-Dem Institute in Sweden concluded that the “Republican Party in the US has retreated from upholding democratic norms,” and that its rhetoric more closely resembles that of authoritarian parties like Fidesz in Hungary or the AKP in Turkey. Comparatively, the Democratic Party has not moved much on the institute’s “Illiberalism Index” and still maintains democratic values. Another grim finding in V-Dem’s research into authoritarianism is that, historically, only 1 in 5 democracies that start down this path are able to reverse the damage before succumbing to full-blown autocracy. How can a nation maintain a functioning democracy when one of its two major parties rejects the very notion of democratic values? The obvious answer is, “It can’t.”
The right’s march towards authoritarianism and its adoption of authoritarian values is well-documented and pre-dates former President Trump’s time in office. However, Donald Trump’s obvious autocratic tendencies showed the Republican Party there was no political downside to employing illiberal tenets. As a result, the GOP has shifted to a more anti-democratic version of itself. Though the 45th President is no longer in office, his party has continued down its path of anti-democratic governance. Republican-led state legislatures all over the country have used their self-inflicted distrust in election security to usher in a new wave of voter suppression laws. As of March 24, the Brennan Center for Justice has recorded that 361 voting bills with restrictive provisions had been introduced in 47 state legislatures. To date, 25 of these restrictive voting bills have passed. Dubbed “election integrity” bills, these laws would disrupt the voting process for millions of voters and make it easier for some state governments to deny their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins their state. In Georgia, for example, the state’s recently passed voting law removed the secretary of state from the State Election Board and gave the GOP-controlled state legislature control over appointing the board’s chair. Additionally, the law also allows the legislature to suspend local election officials and appoint temporary replacements. It is these types of provisions that will make voting more susceptible to partisan interference. Moreover, these changes to voting rules fit broadly into the sort of approaches used in authoritarian regimes around the world, according to democratic researchers. Most recently, over 100 political scientists signed a statement of concernhighlighting what they view as the dangers faced by a Republican party intent on impeding our electoral process.
Additionally, some Republican legislatures have begun pushing bills that would essentially criminalize protesting and outlaw dissent — a right guaranteed under the First Amendment. Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed an “anti-rioting” bill that would make it legally hazardous to engage in mass public protests of any kind. The law makes “participation” in a “riot” a felony and establishes a new criminal offense called “mob intimidation”. The law is vague enough that it has civil rights groups concerned. Could nonviolent protesters be charged with “assisting” looters by commandeering police attention during a demonstration? Does the chant, “no justice, no peace” constitute an attempt to change views through a threat of violence? Both DeSantis and Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt also signed into law bills that insulate drivers from civil liability if they injure or kill protestors on the road. These laws appear to be a solution in search of a problem given that police and prosecutors are already well-equipped to handle rioting. Punishing free speech and criminalizing violence against dissenters — if we saw these kinds of laws being passed in other countries, wouldn’t there be public outcry?
Misled by partisan officials and indulged by an indomitable propagandist media engine, much of the Republican base has begun endorsing violent and fringe ideologies. Analysts warn that the line between mainstream and extremist right-wingers is vanishing. In a January 2020 survey, more than 40% of Republicans agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” This ‘mass radicalization’, as security experts and terrorism researchers call it, has already led to an increase in domestic terror incidents. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities since 2015. This staggering figure greatly eclipses that of far-left extremists who have been involved in 66 incidents and 19 fatalities. It’s the highest number of domestic terror plots the US has seen in decades. In 2020, there were 73 far-right incidents alone, an all-time annual high in the CSIS database. Over the last decade, right-wing extremists have made up 70 percent of domestic terror-related killings.
The lies about the 2020 election have intensified the violence on the right. Since November, many election workers have dealt with death threats, racist harassment, and even armed protesters. For example, the Elections Director of Fulton County, Georgia reported receiving a caller stating that the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville “was a practice run for what was coming to our polling places.” Others throughout the nation have been sent images of nooses and received other various online threats. In December, dozens of armed protesters showed up at the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and shouted obscenities into bullhorns while she and her four-year old son were preparing to watch a Christmas movie. It should have surprised no one when these events, in addition to repeated and insistent lies by Republican party leaders, culminated in the deadly January 6th Insurrection in which hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in a violent coup attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory. This failed attempt to undo the will of the people was one of the single worst days for police injuries since 9/11 and has, so far, resulted in over 460 arrests with at least some of the perpetrators facing likely sedition charges.
The violent tendency within the GOP isn’t limited to its voting base — it extends to party officials as well. During his time in office, former President Trump stoked violence with his often-dehumanizing rhetoric towards immigrants, people of color, and journalists. At the start of his 2016 presidential candidacy, he likened Mexican immigrants to criminals and rapists. He endorsed physically attacking protestors at his rally and was quoted saying such attacks were “very, very appropriate” and something “we need a little bit more of.” His language has been cited by several terrorists and mass shooters as the impetus for their attacks. Perhaps most notable among them are Cesar Sayoc, who mailed pipe bombs to several prominent Democrats and media figures, and the El Paso shooter, who drove more than 10 hours to a Wal-Mart before opening fire and killing 23 people in an attempt to stop a mythical “Hispanic invasion.” On January 6, Donald Trump told supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and “You will never take back our country with weakness.”
Other Republican officials have adopted Trump’s use of violence for political gain. In 2017, then-Congressman Greg Gianforte of Montana was charged with assault after body-slamming a reporter for asking a question regarding healthcare legislation. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner was quoted saying, “Governor Wolf…I’m gonna stomp all over your face with golf spikes…” during a Facebook Live event as part of his 2018 campaign. In a January 2, 2021 interview with Newsmax, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas said in response to courts ruling against the Trump campaign’s false claims of voter fraud, “… you gotta go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM.” At the Save America rally on January 6, Rudy Guiliani suggested having a trial by combat against the public servants who refused to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In a December podcast interview with Sean Hannity, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks likened the election of Joe Biden to the beginning of the Civil War. Later, at the Save America rally, Congressman Brooks gave a speech in which he said, “Our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes, and sometimes their lives to give us, their descendants, an America that is the greatest nation in world history. So, I have a question for you: Are you willing to do the same?” At a May rally in Dalton, Georgia, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida proudly proclaimed this in response to dubious claims of ‘cancel culture’: “We have a 2nd Amendment in this country, and I think we have an obligation to use it!” It’s about as close as you can get to calling for violence without actually saying the word. Later that month, at a far-right conference, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn endorsed the idea of a military coup saying there was “no reason” it shouldn’t happen here.
None of this is to say that all Republicans are violent or anti-democratic. However, the future of American democracy is currently bound to that of the Republican Party. To continue treating it as a normal political movement jeopardizes our country. If you are a Republican who values traditional conservatism and the importance of our democratic institutions, you have a responsibility to speak up and speak out loudly against the inherent and growing extremism of today’s GOP.