The story of the 2016 presidential election is not strictly one of failed gate-keeping. It is undoubtedly true that Republicans ignored their responsibilities, however gate-keeping, the responsibility of mainstream politicians and parties to protect our democracy by keeping would be authoritarians out of office, is only effective if a party is fully committed to upholding democratic institutions. The election of Donald Trump highlighted serious problems with the modern Republican party. Those problems are not new but rather deeply embedded in its foundation. It is apparent to anyone paying attention that Trump is a threat to democracy, however, it is now time to seriously consider that the party behind him poses an equal threat.
Examples of successful gate-keeping can be found throughout American democracy’s history. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide three such cases. When extremist individuals such as Henry Ford, Huey Long, and George Wallace gained public popularity, party leaders used their power and influence to effectively contain those demagogues at the fringes. Neither Ford nor Long made it to the Democratic National Convention and Wallace recognized that he lacked the necessary backing from the Democratic establishment to win the Party’s nomination and subsequently ran as an Independent, a move that ultimately doomed him. The three examples share a common thread: Democratic Party leadership effectively kept these dangerous candidates out of the White House. The Democratic Party has never abdicated their gate-keeping responsibilities whereas, in the face of a wannabe authoritarian (Donald Trump), Republicans grossly ignored their duties. However, the concern here is not the Republican Party’s failure in gate-keeping, but its very essence as a political party.
Kevin Kruse comprehensively maps out the transformation of the Republican Party’s ideology after the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the Republican Party was still controlled by center-right moderates, as a result of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater voting against the CRA, staunch conservatism disseminated quickly throughout the Party. This was the turning point. In his speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention, Goldwater stated, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His alarming anti-system rhetoric attracted a huge segment of the electorate. It is important to note here that segregationists in the Deep South were coveted votes. Candidates from both parties tried to appeal to this sizable and passionate demographic because historically, in order to win a presidential election, they needed to win the South. Luckily for the Republican Party, voters in the South (Democrats) were enraged by their party’s progressive embrace of civil rights. As a result, Southerners then became Republicans.
Nelson Rockefeller spoke at the RNC that same year; he called out extremism and urged conservatives to disavow the ultra-conservative figures trying to take over the party; his speech was met with boisterous disapproval. The racial divide between the two parties had been cemented. Rockefeller recognized the danger of accepting extremist ideology that prioritized hate and fear over inclusion and tolerance, rightly warning that the embrace was inconsistent with Americanism and American values. As Max Boot noted, “Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism.” The core of American democracy centers around values like inclusion, equality, opportunity, cooperation, acceptance, etc.; the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are carved into the Statue of Liberty, an iconic symbol of freedom and democracy. The modern Republican Party was built on a foundation of exclusion and intolerance; it is consumed with anti-system extremism and demagoguery; it has always been semi-loyal and poses a significant threat to our democracy.
As Juan Linz describes it, a semi-loyal party is characterized as one with an ambiguous commitment to the legal means of gaining power and rejecting the arbitrary use of force. Put another way, semi-loyal parties have a questionable devotion to basic democratic political norms. Consider the Supreme Court vacancy back in early 2016 resulting from the death of Antonin Scalia. President Obama, with eleven months remaining in office, obeying his constitutionally mandated duty, appointed Merrick Garland, an acclaimed Judge revered by both parties. At the time of the appointment, Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, had control of the Senate. In an unprecedented move, McConnell scrapped the filibuster for Supreme Court Justices allowing him to block Garland’s confirmation. McConnell’s disrespect for procedural norms was met not with outrage or condemnation from his party, but praise and approval.
Semi-loyalty is also marked by a mainstream party’s allegiance with extremist individuals or groups most closely resembling its own ideological and policy positions. What motivates mainstream parties to form such alliances? The question can be reduced down to a single driving factor: gaining power.
Democracies are most threatened and susceptible to breakdown in times of crisis. The heightened polarization of parties and persistent gridlock in a Congress our country has experienced recently has left many voters increasingly dissatisfied with the stagnant government they perceived as corrupt and ineffective. Republicans again touted anti-system rhetoric, demonizing and antagonizing the Democratic Party, undermining its legitimacy, and painting them as narrow focused and uninterested in the concerns and welfare of the majority of Americans. And when the massively popular candidate, Trump, claimed to be the single solution to every problem our country faced, those same disillusioned Americans found in him a strong, deal-maker willing break up the Washington insider establishment and fight for the everyday working people. Given his massive cult-like following, the Republican Party was all too willing to align with him in order to regain power and push their agenda, even if it meant electing a wannabe authoritarian at the expense of our democracy.
It is not unrealistic to say that the Republican Party has a Hobbesian conception of governance in the sense that any action taken to expand/consolidate power and maintain order is justified. Built on the foundations of exclusion, intolerance, vilification, and domination, the Republican Party has always been ambivalent to the American democratic ideal. But that is not how a democracy functions. Day in and day out, Republicans illustrate that their only interest is winning elections and pursuing unpopular, ultraconservative policies that, more often than not, hurt the very people who elected them. The consequences of the Republican Party’s continual movement to the extreme right and looser commitment to democratic ideals will last far longer than Trump’s presidency. Worse still, there is no sign that the Republican Party will change course anytime soon.