Point Austin: Those Who Sow the Wind
Republican campaign next stage of a reckless political project
Thus far, I've been resisting the impulse to comment on the presidential campaigns. The Chronicle is studiously local in our focus, and in any case the national media and the state dailies have been beating the celebrity popularity contest to death. There will be ample time to comment on the Democratic candidates – a race now more interesting than seemed likely a few months ago – and there the issues, among Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and a handful of others, are at least truly political in nature. They can wait for another day.
The same is not true of the Republicans, where the Grand Old Party (an increasingly ironic nickname) has been effectively hijacked by a group of billionaire-financed extremists currently attempting to outdo each other in xenophobia, misogyny, saber-rattling, and willful ignorance. Led by a buffoonish tycoon who got his money the old-fashioned way – he inherited it – the odd lot of remaining wannabes have been shamelessly lying and pandering, in hopes of shaving their percentage points of support from that quarter of Americans fearful of strangers, terrified of change, and yearning for pacification at home and abroad. Donald Trump, with his racist tirades, imaginary border walls, and all-purpose braggadocio, speaks to them, certainly – but Trump's opponents have been distinguished by their attempts to out-Trump each other, a futile but revealing effort. This is the party they have created and led, and Trump's triumph is their shame.
More generally, we are shackled to a "two-party system" that leaves no structural breathing room for a range of political expression – we can have any politics we want, from A to B. That also means it's impossible to celebrate the GOP's self-destruction, for they have simultaneously succeeded in dragging the entire political conversation to the right, and gridlocking competent government in the process. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein described in their 2012 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, the Republican party "has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country's most pressing challenges."
Neither Faith Nor Science
That's where we are: ruled in part by a radical insurgency that, for purely ideological reasons, prefers ignorance to knowledge, power to governance, war to peace. This week's spectacle of Catholic Republicans lecturing Pope Francis on minding his own business is a comic version of the deeper problem, while the Congressional intransigence against any nuclear arms deal – indeed, any negotiation at all – with Iran, is a darker portent, of unilateral militarism without end. And it's been accompanied by an indiscriminate racial hysteria, at home currently directed at all immigrants but especially Hispanics, abroad at all Muslims but especially Arabs. Having sown the winds of war throughout the Middle East, we're now blaming the victims for fleeing the whirlwind.
The adamant refusal to acknowledge climate change – that is, man-made global warming – is a symptom of the same ideological rejection of any politically awkward science, originally in defense of the fossil fuel industry but by now largely detached from any practical foundation. As with "gun rights," the GOP as a whole has not simply abandoned traditional conservatism, for which "conservation" was a root principle, but taken a pass on self-preservation. Captured by their own apocalyptic rhetoric, the party's candidates are now making friends with the apocalypse.
Means to an End
Finally – not really, but space is limited – is the maliciously dishonest, venomous GOP campaign against Planned Parenthood, culminating in the current attempt to end any federal funding for what is in fact basic, necessary, indispensable health care (and not exclusively for women). Once again, the party and its presidential candidates are pandering to the most extreme elements of its base voters, brazenly lying about PP's work and funding (the ongoing mendacity by Carly Fiorina has been particularly shameless), and using extremists' anti-abortion fantasies as a handy weapon against the idea of government (with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, desperate to out-demagogue Trump, leading the charge).
In the short term, because there are still some redoubts of reason in Congress and the White House, Cruz and his allies likely will not succeed either in defunding Planned Parenthood altogether, or shutting down the government. But then, neither limited goal is really the object of all this recklessness. The national GOP and many of its state parties have established a permanent culture of extremism, intentionally delegitimizing the very notions of representative democracy and of government, and turning the entire political process into a circus of polarized ideology and winner-take-all domination. The presidential field simply represents the national portrait of that larger project, one that will not end in next spring's primaries – no matter who "wins" – or November of 2016.