The GOP Has Grown Dangerously Extreme. What’s Driving That, and How Do We Respond?
By every measure, the GOP has become more radicalized, particularly in the past two years. On social issues from abortion to vaccine mandates to guns, states controlled by the GOP have passed laws that the vast majority of residents oppose. On the political front, they have embraced brazen voter suppression, grossly gerrymandered political maps, election fraud lies, and conspiracy theories about cabals of satanic, pedophilic Democrats. (I never imagined I would type such a sentence, but here we are.) And on economic issues, they are threatening to destroy the economy by refusing to raise the debt limit to pay for their own largess, and they label every program they don’t like as “socialism” while radicals rail against “corporate communism” with zero irony.
The tidal forces that appear to be washing away all sense of sanity and moderation from the GOP are myriad and varied, but there are some clear, worrisome causes that bear noting and exploring.
The GOP Redistricted Its Way Into This
In 2010, in the wake of the blowback to the election of our first African American president, GOP-controlled state houses went all-in on gerrymandering, creating safe GOP seats for many of the Tea Party members who had just been elected to Congress. This not only ensconced the hard right more-or-less permanently in the House, it took away any incentive for political candidates in those districts to appeal to the center. After all, the winner of the Republican primary was going to win the general election because of the way the new lines were drawn, and primaries are won by appealing to the motivated, extremist base. That political calculus encouraged far-right politicians to emerge to challenge the old Republican guard, forcing everyone even further to the right.
After the 2020 census, it is already clear that the GOP is again interested in protecting GOP incumbents, even at the expense of handing Democrats more safe seats of their own. In Texas’ redistricting plan, for example, the new maps that are likely to be approved reduce the number of truly competitive seats in the state from 12 down to just one. In those newly safe seats, extremists will win the primaries—and then likely prevail in the general election unless unprecedented numbers of GOP voters stay home or defect.
Extremist Positions Are Being Rewarded
With the rise of both cable news and social media over the past decade and a half, extreme voices not only have found platforms for their rhetoric but amplification of their messaging by companies willing to profit off the higher ratings and longer engagement times on site. Fox News, like a GOP candidate sensing a challenge from the right, has tilted further right over the past year to keep viewers from migrating to OAN or Newsmax. And for years, platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter tweaked their algorithms to reward users who created the most emotionally charged posts with greater reach, engagement and audience. The reckoning for these companies—through defamation lawsuits, deletion of big accounts like the former president’s, and damning whistleblower testimony that could lead to oversight and regulation—is only now tamping back some of their most extreme actions.
The hardest of the hard right within the GOP also understand that by making outrageous statements and taking extreme action to “own the libs,” even at the expense of common sense or sanity around the pandemic, they can fill their own coffers with donations. The Trump campaign knows this too: By perpetuating the Big Lie about a stolen election, it raised and continues to raise eye-popping amounts of money by bilking gullible MAGA voters who falsely believe their guy was robbed.
Everyone Wants Trump’s Blessing
Another sad yet dangerous state of affairs for the current GOP is the Trump effect. Even though a recent poll showed that a majority of Republicans do not want Trump to run for office again, his base of support is so strong that an endorsement by him can tip a primary race. As a result, GOP candidates are making regular pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to seek his support, and they fall over themselves to prove to the base that they are the most Trumpy of the Trumpistas. Even those GOP leaders who criticized Trump over his role in the deadly insurrection of January 6 are busy realigning to their Dear Leader.
For example, as reported by The Hill, the senior senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley, who is good friends with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, once criticized Trump for refusing to accept defeat in the 2020 election, blasting him for his “poor leadership” and “extreme, aggressive and irresponsible” language. He noted that Trump bullied and harassed elected officials “to get his way” and even encouraged the Vice President “to take extraordinary and unconstitutional actions” to interfere with the Congressional Electoral College count. But yesterday, Grassley appeared beside Trump at a rally in Iowa, accepting his endorsement and signaling to all that he believes (correctly, it appears) that Trump is still the head of the Republican Party.
When a political party veers too far to an extreme, they risk alienating centrist voters and motivating the opposing party’s voters to turn out. Democrats learned this when they ran a very progressive George McGovern in 1972. The GOP also appears to understand this today, yet has chosen not to moderate but instead to double down, fighting to hold on to power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and tools of minority rule such as the filibuster. It is a dangerous gambit that puts the whole American project at risk.
So how do we stop them? The GOP uses fear, loathing and division to juice their base. Democrats by contrast often point to their good works like the American Rescue Plan and the proposed twin infrastructure bills. But this is bare-knuckles politics now. Democrats can and must deploy visceral and emotional tools to motivate turnout of their own voters. These emotions were evident in the protest vote of 2018 and the Trump eviction vote of 2020. If Democrats can be convinced that the extremists are a real threat to the very nation, as they most assuredly are, this could energize millions to the polls in 2022. It can’t just be a vote for Democrats, it must also be a vote against GOP radicalism and Trumpism.
To get to this level of outrage and alarm, every GOP extremist must be tied squarely to Trump. The death toll from the GOP’s criminal mishandling of the pandemic must always be front and center. And the threat that Trump will be president again if we don’t stop him now must be repeated ad nauseam. While none of this will be easy and a lot of it will be traumatizing, there is no other choice: Simply put, the alternative is unthinkable.
I believe you are spot on in your analysis as to what the GOP intends to do. I feel hopeless that the Dems have the stomach to do what they must to insure our continued Democracy. I truly feel I am watching the end of something beautiful, and the rise of the F****ing Hunger Games. I wish there was more we could do; pushing people to vote will NOT matter given Gerrymandering and Repub laws giving the ability to flip elections. What do we REALLY do???? - Feeling hopeless
Jay, I love to read your commentary, your thoughts, summarizations, and your explanations for the goings-on in this country politically. You write as though you're speaking to me, you're not talking over my head so to speak (I have learning disabilities that sometimes prevent me from grasping other outlets for this information) but I understand-most of the time-what you're saying.
That all being said, I have to say that unless I'm misunderstanding your summaries, I'm not optimistic about our democracy, our future, and the true meaning of the Forefathers' vision of 'Freedom.' It seems like tRump and his base, and all who support him, follow him, finance him, forgive his transgressions, have more power--though fewer numbers--than the reasonable people of this country. Like you, I have elderly parents about whom I worry for their future, as well as my own. If tRump gets back into the White House, I can guarantee the border will close. In OR out. We'll be trapped here like rats, and there'll be no escape. Other countries have a dim view of 'Americans' due to the image that tRump projected on the world stage.
So, what will become of us? When our Social Security is ceased, healthcare, safety net programs, etc. Then what? Only the strong survive to serve and protect those with the money? I see a dystopian (not too distant) future. Okay, maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but what are the alternatives? I see none. There is too much going on behind the scenes, sneaky $#!t that we seemingly have no control over, things that destroy us and it all comes to light after the fact, without any way of preventing it from destroying our good country. What do you say to someone who feels so hopeless and afraid?