We keep hearing about splits in the Republican ranks between those who have sold their souls to the extremist arm of the party loyal to Trumpism, embodying white supremacist and anti-democratic values, and those more traditional Republicans who insist on sharply differentiating the ideology of conservativism from Trumpism.
The founders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project hold fast to this distinction, writing in their inaugurating statement, “We have been, and remain, broadly conservative (or classically liberal) in our politics and outlooks. Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain, but our shared fidelity to the Constitution dictates a common effort.”
New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman has similarly clung to this fantasy that there exist two distinct Republican animals, as when he wrote last December:
If Trump keeps delegitimizing Joe Biden’s presidency and demanding loyalty for his extreme behavior, the G.O.P. could fully fracture — splitting between principled Republicans and unprincipled Republicans. Trump then might have done America the greatest favor possible: stimulating the birth of a new principled conservative party.
Senator Rob Portman’s recent announcement that he will not be seeking re-election, however, explodes the efficacy of any such distinction and thus also exposes this invented figure of the “principled Republican” as just that: an invention, a myth, a kind of Big Foot.
Let’s just look at the rationale Portman offered for his decision. He told us in rather boilerplate fashion that “it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision.”
And he offered this distorted version of political history:
“We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but a problem that has gotten worse over the past few decades. This is a tough time to be in public service.”
As the kids say these days when they text: OMG!
Just as Lee Atwater’s infamous Southern Strategy created an argot for Republican, or conservative, ideology so they could stop using the n-word and encode their racism in dog-whistle terms such as “states’ rights” and “tax cuts,” Portman here is speaking in a similar code.
What he is saying here is no less repugnant and disgusting than when Donald Trump declared that there were “fine people on both sides” after torch-carrying white supremacists marched on Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Saying both sides are responsible for the gridlock underscores Portman’s own lack of accountability for the Republican extremism we see today and which, quite arguably, is not all that new.
Remember how virtually the moment Barack Obama was elected John Boehner and Mitch McConnell declared a strategy of non-compromise? Mitch McConnell openly declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Obama, in fact, was routinely and roundly criticized by those in the progressive camp for bending over backwards to cultivate a culture of bi-partisanship at the expense of pushing through important legislation.
I don’t recall Senator Portman taking a strong vocal stand against the Republican pledge to obstruct the Obama presidency or speaking in favor of or taking action to promote the bi-partisan culture Obama sought.
Recent events put an even greater emphasis on Portman’s bad faith. He was not among the five Republican senators who joined the 50 Democratic senators in declaring the impeachment proceedings against Trump constitutional. Nor, to my knowledge, did we hear Portman loudly announce the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as presidency.
In short, this “principled Republican” has not differentiated himself through word or deed from Trump.
And this because Republican or conservative principles are really not that different from Trump’s.
Both Mitt Romney, usually named and numbered among “principled Republicans,” as well as McConnell, a long-serving traditional if not principled Republican, have declared that they do not see Americans in need and thus don’t see the need for a substantial relief package. Their resistance to supporting relief packages, particularly those that including funding to states, is precisely that is presenting obstacles to getting Americans vaccinated so we can fully open the economy and return to normalcy.
In short, Republican principles won’t help to pass legislation to help suffering Americans or address our multiple crises at the moment.
Conservatives believe in small government, and that’s exactly what Trump has given us in gutting vital government agencies, including the Center for Disease control, a move that has hobbled the nation’s ability to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
And of course principled Republicans loved Trump’s tax cuts. Re-distributing wealth to the richest is a key Republican principle.
Portman wants to blame both sides for drifting to extremes.
It’s hard to see. In my lifetime, I have seen the spectrum of political discourse move increasingly to the right, such that what is now called “the left” was once considered the center, and the “right” is practically off the radar to the extreme right. “Principled” Republicans don’t want to speak out against Nazi and Confederate flags being waved at the Capitol. They want to move on from the events of January 6 and not hold Nazi and white supremacist seditionists accountable.
I don’t recall Rob Portman speaking loudly against this position.
The gridlock is a result of the extremist “principles” of Republicanism. They simply want power and control, not democracy.
There was a time when Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower advocated for the existence of unions as a necessary element of any democracy. He warned against the rise of the military industrial complex.
Now Republicans are stridently anti-union and anti-worker as a matter of principle, and they worship the military industrial complex.
Those Republicans trying to distance themselves from Trump are trying to save themselves and their party so they can find a new way to consolidate power, disarm democracy, and work against the American people.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.