The historian Joseph J. Ellis defines a political faction succinctly as “an organized minority whose very purpose [is] to undercut the public will, usually by devious and corrupt means.” That is as precise a description as one could wish of the present-day Republican Party, so-called. What it means is that the coming November elections, if they are held, will be a contest between the one surviving political party in the country — deeply flawed, compromised and beholden to corporate interests as it is — and a cabal, now an accomplice of death itself, whose continued control of the country would threaten anything we could remotely call a democracy.
The Democrats are another matter. But the cynical marriage between political functionaries and a ruthless demagogue is a tale not told until now in our history. There was a previous near-example some 70 years ago when a junior Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, rode the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s and unleashed a four-year reign of terror that silenced dissent, destroyed lives and undermined critical American institutions. The McCarthy period kept even the war hero president Dwight Eisenhower in thrall until McCarthy finally overreached by attacking our ultimate inner sanctum, the military and sealing his fate. Then, at last, Republican senators joined Democratic ones in a vote of censure. Three years later, a broken McCarthy was dead.
The Republican Party of the 1950s was a far cry from the one that had dominated American politics from 1860 to the early 1930s. That party, epitomized by Calvin Coolidge’s famous remark that “The business of America is business,” had long been in fealty to corporate interests, until the Great Depression brought a long and seemingly permanent generation of liberal politics to power in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Between 1933 and 1969, Republicans occupied the White House for a mere eight years, and those only by courtesy of Eisenhower choosing to run as a Republican when the Democrats had themselves courted him.
As for Congress, Republicans would control it for only four years until 1994. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, partly under political pressure, would tilt in a liberal direction as well during the middle third of the century. New Deal policies thus structured all three branches of the federal government, and Republicans (with a newly-minted liberal wing of their own) were obliged to accommodate themselves to the prevailing dispensation. When they ran unabashedly conservative Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, he lost by 16 million votes. The party of Big Business, it seemed, was history.
Of course, that last conclusion would be true only if big business itself was going somewhere. Corporate oligarchies still dominated the American economy, and their interests still dictated a party devoted if not subservient to them. The New Deal had actually rescued American capitalism in the 1930s; World War II and the Cold War had kept it busy creating what Eisenhower would dub the military-industrial complex. Together with America’s economic hegemony on the world stage, class conflict was relatively abated in the postwar years. This could not last indefinitely, however. Other nations became competitive with us, and the twin crises of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War had torn the country apart by the end of the 1960s. With the skills of an (evil) political genius, Richard Nixon, Republicans regained the White House in 1969. Nixon’s appointments turned the Supreme Court back to its usual position on the right. Congress would remain in Democratic hands till the mid-1990s, but six people — the president, and a five-member majority on the High Court — could give Republicans control of two of the three branches of government. Between them, they could marginalize Congress and even render it impotent.
That, in a nutshell, has been the story of the past 50 years of American history.
Beginning in the 1970s, corporations funded conservative think tanks, advocacy groups and academic institutes to undermine the New Deal consensus, which (with the prolonged economic recession of the 1970s) rebranded big business as “job creators,” scuttled labor unions, eroded support for minority groups and made racism respectable again. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty became a war on the poor as a declining middle and working class — the so-called Reagan Democrats — were coached to take their frustrations out on a service-worker underclass while what had been well-paying manufacturing jobs were exported abroad to pad corporate profits. The Democratic Party, reading from the same script, abandoned what was left of the New Deal and began to love big business, big banks and high tech.
The most significant shift for the Republicans was a new-found glorification of the presidency, which has now assumed virtually monarchical powers. The story of the Republic from its inception has been the growth of executive power, but the essential principle of conservatism, in theory at least, has been its restraint. That went definitively by the boards with Nixon’s declaration that “If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” and every Republican presidency since has essentially affirmed this nakedly despotic thesis. It was given ideological gloss a few years later in the notion of the “unitary presidency,” which proclaims that the president in himself is the Executive Branch, and most recently by Alan Dershowitz, who in his ‘testimony’ at Trump’s impeachment trial opined that if a president thinks he’s doing the right thing then what he does is beyond question. George III couldn’t have put it any better.
Which brings us to the Republicans and Trump. The reigning view, is that the Republicans have been taken captive by Trump and view him with horror. This had some initial truth. The Republicans were appalled by Trump when he ran for their nomination, not because of his manifest unfitness but because of a populist platform that called for tax increases on the rich, economic protectionism and an end to lost wars well into their second decade. Republicans had wooed workers in the 1980s with what Ronald Reagan’s vice president George H. W. Bush called “voodoo economics,” but by 2016, the scam had worn thin, and Trump was able to coopt the motley crew of angry labor, disillusioned Evangelicals, gun nuts and racists that constituted the Republican electoral base and make it his own.
Aside from protectionism, Trump seriously intended none of this but gave Republicans instead a major tax cut for the rich, a wholesale demolition of business regulations and environmental protections and an assembly-line rush of reactionary judges vetted by the Federalist Society to stack the courts for another generation. In other words, he had kept an electoral base that was crumbling in their hands safe while gratifying the corporate barons who kept them in business in all that truly mattered. Trump had used the Republicans, but they, equally, had found use in him. His cynicism and theirs had found a common home.
There’s a bloodline stretching between McCarthy and Trump in the person of Roy Cohn, the counsel for McCarthy’s Senate investigating committee who in later life serviced the Trump business empire. More recently, a nostalgic Donald Trump had often been heard to ask, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”, although he has now found him in William Barr. The Republicans of McCarthy’s time were willing to put up with him and take what profit it offered them. Those of Trump’s today are, up till now, happy to do the same. The Democrats, a poor alternative, have thus far put up a miserable show. The coronavirus is a stiff cure, but maybe nothing less will do.