The GOP Now Stands for Nothing

A party that doesn’t believe in anything ends up believing only in its right to rule.

Elephant in armadillo armor
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy.

The Republicans in Congress are blocking a bipartisan investigation into the January 6 insurrection. Their spines crushed by years of obedience to Donald Trump, the members of the GOP have once again retreated from civic responsibility, with one more humiliation of those last few in the party who thought that the Senate Republicans might mimic something like statesmanship.

However, this effort is more than the usual cynical mendacity and crass careerism (or, as one might say, “Elise Stefanik”) that characterize the current Republican Party. This latest insult to the rule of law and the Constitution was possible only because the Republicans have already lost confidence in their own principles. The GOP now stands for nothing. The party of Lincoln has become, in every way, a political and moral nullity.

American conservatism once meant something definite and tangible. You could fight those beliefs and policies; you could argue with them, admire them, or hate them. But they existed. Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, Howard Baker, and Edward Brooke were not necessarily deep thinkers, and they didn’t all agree on everything. But the GOP held clear lines of thought that stood as alternatives to liberalism.

Most of those ideas were predicated on some basic beliefs about human beings themselves, including the conviction that human nature is fixed rather than malleable, that intellect is a better guide to action than emotion, that tradition is valuable, and that religious faith is a cornerstone of a healthy society. On policy, too, the conservatives moved along broad but common lines. They believed that incrementalism is better than sudden change, that America is exceptional, that patriotism is honorable, and perhaps most important, that government is a necessity to be controlled, rather than a teacher to be revered.

These principles gave the Republican Party several decades of an almost preternatural self-confidence in the eventual triumph of their ideas. After all, if human nature is eternal and rationality is unassailable, then emotional schemes and government overreach that deny these realities are bound to fail. America is exceptional, and therefore America can do what its citizens believe they can do—especially if they treat government as an instrument rather than a master.

This confidence once attracted young voters (such as me, back in the late 1970s) to the party. The country then seemed to be falling apart—faced with riots, political assassinations, bombings overseas and at home. My colleague David Frum has called the ’70s “strange, feverish years,” a time of “unease and despair, punctuated by disaster.” The liberal Columbia University professor Mark Lilla would later write about how difficult it is “to convey to anyone who wasn’t alive and politically aware at the time what a dreary place America seemed in the late 1970s, how lacking in direction and confidence.”

The Republicans stepped forward in 1980 as optimistic warriors. Joined by some disaffected Democrats, they were certain that they had the intellectual and moral strength to claim victory over domestic chaos and foreign challenges. Reagan and the resurgent Republicans fought the narrative of an America in decline after years of “stagflation,” urban decay, and rampant Soviet aggression. (The Cold War was still raging then.) Republican solutions—including laissez-faire economics at home and a confrontational foreign policy abroad—were born from an ideological conviction that led a prominent liberal Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, to warn his colleagues in 1981 that the GOP “has become a party of ideas.”

The self-assurance of the Republicans who emerged from the post-Watergate wilderness might seem impossible to comprehend now that the modern GOP is rife with know-nothings and apocalyptic hysterics. But their confidence in their own ideas was unassailable—indeed, often to an unhealthy degree.

All of that is gone. Today’s Republicans exist only to stay in power, not least so that their elected officials can avoid what they dread most: being sent home to live among their constituents. The conservative writer George Will is right that the Republican Party in 2021 has become “something new in American history,” a “political party defined by the terror it feels for its own voters.”

Republican legislators should be scared. Their base is an angry white minority that cares nothing about government; its members want their elected officials to rule by hook or by crook, the Constitution and democracy itself be damned, and they don’t want any guff about namby-pamby ideas or policies. They want the elections controlled, the institutions captured, and the libs owned. The rest, to them, is just noise.

The survival instinct that this white-minority rage has triggered in craven Republican politicians is how the GOP mutated from a party championing individual liberty into a movement pushing monstrously statist authoritarianism. It is how the party of limited government began agitating for government truth ministries. It is how the party of exuberant free marketeers became a cabal of crony capitalists and knee-jerk protectionists. It is how the party that once fought Kremlin expansionism provided top cover for Russian intelligence attacks against U.S. institutions.

Republicans have tried to argue that if they are not in power, the Democrats and their ultraliberal allies will destroy our system of government and create a majoritarian nightmare. We must stay in power, they mewl, so that democracy itself will survive long enough to outlive the encroaching authoritarianism of the left.

These defenses are risible nonsense in the wake of Trump’s constitutional mayhem and the GOP’s descent into conspiratorial lunacy. But even on their own terms, Republican excuses are little more than lightly veiled defenses of minority rule. The GOP long ago abandoned any effort to convince women, people of color, immigrants, and others that the party had a place for them. Instead, Republicans in Congress have surrendered to the ignorance and racism of their most extreme voters in exchange for a continued life of privilege inside the comforting embrace of the Capital Beltway.

The Republicans, facing an investigation into an insurrection provoked by their own leader, have armored up and gone into armadillo mode. They will protect their own—rather than their nation and the Constitution they swore to defend. This behavior should serve as a warning: A party that doesn’t believe in anything ends up believing only in its right to rule. And a movement that believes only in its own power is a deadly enemy of constitutional democracy.