Even after Gingrich was driven from power, the victim of his own guillotine, he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.
Tom Nichols: Why I’m leaving the Republican party
The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative—from Goldwater (who, in 1996, joked that he had become a Republican liberal) to Ted Cruz, from Buckley to Dinesh D’Souza. Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona (whose conservative views come with a democratic temperament), describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.
The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory, an insurgency within the party itself—because revolutions tend to be self-devouring (“I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,” Gingrich declared in 1998 when he quit the House). In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals failed to see it coming and couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.
The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
As Bertolt Brecht wrote of East Germany’s ruling party:
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
* This article originally stated that Duncan Hunter was defeated in his bid for reelection.