POLITICS

A Very Republican Riot

The MAGA forces that descended on the Capitol were the product of decades of GOP strategy and miscalculation.
The authoritarian strain in the Republican Party is not merely a product of its unwashed fringe. 
The authoritarian strain in the Republican Party is not merely a product of its unwashed fringe. 

The Republican Party is toxic and poisons every institution it touches. There can be no separating Wednesday’s horrifying pro-Trump raid on the U.S. Capitol from the political organization that reared these self-described “revolutionaries.”

We have more than four years of evidence revealing what Trump is and who is attracted to his ideas. Nobody in American politics is confused about the danger he represents to democracy. The accumulated evidence includes a murderous Charlottesville, Virginia neo-Nazi riot in 2017 and a shoutout to a fascist street gang from a presidential debate stage last fall. 

Most Republicans, we know, are not torch-bearing fascists. GOP leaders have been especially keen to draw a distinction between respectable business-class conservatism and the MAGA mob. And yet they have bet their careers and the country on an alliance with Trump’s authoritarianism.

Wednesday’s attempted coup is the price Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), tea party darlings Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), nouveau nationalist Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and arch-militarist Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) were willing to pay to advance their policy priorities under Trump’s banner.

Nor were the standard-bearers of the conservative movement ever confused about what they were doing. Explaining his decision to vote for Donald Trump in 2020, conservative debate-me icon Ben Shapiro ― once a Trump critic in the far-gone days of 2016 ― declared that he had been “wrong” to think Trump would stand in the way of right-wing policy priorities.

As for the rest, well, how bad could it get? “I wasn’t really wrong about Donald Trump on character, but whatever damage he was going to do, he’s already done, and it’s not going to help if I don’t vote for him,” Shapiro said. 

The alliance between these cufflinkers and the catastrophists has proved overwhelmingly successful for the conservative elite. McConnell has reshaped the federal judiciary, with three Supreme Court Justices and well over 200 other lifetime appointments. Ryan was so satisfied with the Trump tax bill’s offerings for the rich that he retired in glory, his life’s work at last accomplished. Former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland in ostensible protest Wednesday night, having taken advantage of his previous post to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cotton has been correctly denouncing Republicans who bought into Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, but only after he got Trump to rip up President Barack Obama’s diplomatic detente with Iran and move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,  a longstanding goal of both the ultranationalist right in Israel and the apocalyptic evangelical Christian fringe in the United States. 

Cruz even got Trump to stop mocking his wife in public. Which leads us, as all pathetic roads eventually do, to Rubio. After tweeting his frustration with “3rd world style anti-American anarchy,” Rubio gave a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night comparing the events of the day to the activities of mid-century Marxist revolutionaries in Cuba.

“My entire life I have lived with and next to people who came to America because their country was chaotic and their country was unsafe,” Rubio said. “What I saw today, what we have seen, looks more like those countries than the extraordinary nation that it is my privilege to call home … I think politics has made us crazy. Everybody in this country has lost their minds.”

O Politics, what hath thou wrought ― be there no agency nor accountability to thine abstract malevolence! 

Of course there is. Rubio, like nearly all of his colleagues, got in bed with Trump because he recognized, correctly, that Trump was the best way to achieve his near-term political goals. Now that the alliance has blown up in his face, Rubio hopes to concoct some weird formula in which the whole thing is really the fault of the radical left ― Cuban Marxists and American anarchists.

GOP leaders have been especially keen to draw a distinction between respectable business-class conservatism and the MAGA mob. And yet they have bet their careers and the country on an alliance with Trump’s authoritarianism.

Wednesday’s MAGA riot was the work of the Republican Party, not of the left or “politics.” There have always been politics and there always will be, but not all of it leads to QAnon lunatics storming the Capitol at the behest of a Republican president hoping to overturn the result of an election that didn’t go in his favor. Most Americans are not, in fact, bloodthirsty authoritarians.

The authoritarian strain in the Republican Party, however, is not merely a product of its unwashed fringe. Take, for example, Trump’s most aggressive attorney general, William Barr, who did not rise to power through Breitbart or Facebook paranoia. He has a long and illustrious career serving on corporate boards and as AG for George H.W. Bush in the long, long-ago days when Republicans were supposedly so much more refined and sensible. But as Tom Hamburger and others have detailed, Barr has long championed the “unitary executive” ― a fancy name for a theory of monarchical presidential power embraced by, among others, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Though its adherents embrace different definitions and engage in various micro-doctrinal disputes, the basic idea is, as Richard Nixon once put it, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Nor is Barr the only ghost of Fancy Republicanism Past to make his way into the Trump administration. Trump’s Supreme Court nominees have all been members of the ultra-elite conservative Federalist Society. His labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is a Goldman Sachs alum. His former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, Jay Clayton, was a Goldman lawyer. His commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was a private equity kingpin. His CIA director turned secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is a former businessman whose enterprise was backed by an investment from the Koch Brothers. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is the billionaire ex-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and his vice president, Mike Pence, is a career conservative movement man who eventually became governor of Indiana before joining the Trump administration.

Every one of these people knew what they were doing when they signed up to work with Trump.

The Republican rot, in short, did not arise in January 2021 or even 2016. Party power brokers have been advocating various strains of authoritarianism for decades because they are the surest way to ensure that the unpopular policy agenda of the American elite remains politically viable. 

CORRECTION: This article previously mischaracterized Mick Mulvaney as Trump’s chief of staff, a role he left in March 2020, and Mike Pompeo as CIA director, a role he left in 2018.


Zachary D. Carter is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Economist, TechCrunch, Publishers Weekly and others.