Can extremism's rise in the Republican Party be stopped?

Dangerous ideas have taken root, and they are spinning out of control

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has struggled to control the rise of extremism in his party. Reuters
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The US Republican Party is drifting towards ever-greater levels of extremism and, at multiple registers, could pose a significant threat to the way the Unites States has conceptualised and governed itself historically, at least since the Second World War.

This rising extremism is particularly noteworthy given that former president Donald Trump is effectively nowhere to be seen. He occasionally issues bitter missives from his Florida redoubt. One, published on his website on September 17, yet again calls on officials in the state of Georgia to "decertify" the last election. While many Republican voters remain enthralled by him, the only issue Mr Trump appears interested in is re-litigating his defeat last November.

Yet any hope that Republicans might moderate themselves as he fades into the background has been upended. Even without Mr Trump, or with, at most, his shadow looming over the party, Republicans appear to be drifting much further into the radical terrains he mapped out.

Probably most shocking is the increasing embrace and promotion in mainstream Republican discourse of "the great replacement theory" – the openly racist idea that white populations and majorities in Europe and the new world are being systematically and maliciously "replaced" through migration with "non-white" people from Latin America, the Middle East and so on.

This idea is being pushed heavily by Fox News Hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram, and was amplified by Texas Lt Gov Dan Patrick, and the once moderate Rep Elise Stefanik of New York, the third ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.

The overall theme of their arguments is not that non-white people are simply unwelcome, but that migration is a nefarious plot by Democrats to introduce "them" into "our" voting population and that therefore migration is simultaneously a racial and political conspiracy.

Anti-immigration and racist xenophobia is thereby repackaged as a defence of the alleged “right” of the existing ethnic majority to remain a majority, no matter what.

There are several insidious assumptions at work.

First, there is the disturbing notion that only certain Americans (white, Christian and non-urban) are "real Americans" with a legitimate claim to full representation.

Second, there is the assumption that non-white Americans will automatically vote for Democrats, which could only be true if Republicans were simply the party of white ethnic grievance.

Third, there is no acknowledgment that immigration is the norm in American history and a bedrock of US culture, or that regulating migration is a core prerogative of democratic governance. Casting all of it as an "invasion" disregards both US history and the right of the democratically-elected government to legitimately choose to allow immigration and naturalisation, in the national interest.

Racial tensions have grown in the US since the Trump presidency, resulting in frequent protests and counter-protests. Reuters
The overall theme is not just that non-white people are unwelcome, but that migration is a nefarious plot

Another alarming symptom of growing Republican radicalism is the spread of violent rhetoric, and imagery in campaign advertisements that features Republican candidates shooting guns, blowing up objects and threatening mayhem.

Rep Marjorie Taylor Green just released an advert depicting her blowing up a car marked "socialism" with a single bullet. Rep Madison Cawthorn warned of "bloodshed" if there were more "rigged" and "stolen" elections, even though there have been none.

Forty per cent of Republicans say political violence may be necessary, according to a February study by the Survey Centre on American Life. And a large majority believe, with no evidence, that Joe Biden was elected only because of massive election fraud. The party is increasingly steeped in, centred on and geared to reward the rhetoric, imagery and valorisation of political violence.

Eventually, as on January 6, some consumers of such angry discourse – often unaware they are not supposed to take any of it seriously, let alone literally – may act on it. If any spirited patriot really believed any of this, what should they do?

The third, and arguably over the long run, most dangerous form of growing Republican extremism is its Supreme Court majority.

Not only does the new five-vote majority of religious ultra-conservatives appear poised to eliminate more than half a century of constitutional protection for reproductive freedom, but they seem poised even to go far beyond abortion.

These judicial zealots may well also be preparing to strike down marriage equality, federal protection for rights associated with sexual orientation and a whole range of other safeguards based on a notion of constitutionally protected privacy they appear to dismiss.

Finally, even the most staid and mainstream remnant of the old Republican Party appears poised for an exceptionally radical action. The Republican Senate leadership under Mitch McConnell has declared it is prepared to allow the US government to default on its debt in the next few weeks.

This not only would create another government shutdown, it would precipitate a colossal national and global crisis. Indeed, Mr McConnell said it is imperative for the US never to default, and, during the Trump presidency, insisted Democrats must vote to prevent that, which they did.

Now, however, he is maintaining that only the party in power is responsible for avoiding the catastrophe that he himself is, he says, preparing to engineer.

He may be bluffing, but it is hardly impossible to imagine someone as cynical as Mr McConnell engineering a national and global US government default catastrophe simply in order to sabotage and sink the other party.

That's got nothing to do with race, religion or violence. But if it isn’t an extreme, it's hard to know what might be. Many Democrats hated Mr Trump with every fibre of their being, but they voted to avoid a debt default without much hesitance or controversy.

What we are looking at, then, is a Republican Party that in different ways and at different registers is falling prey to nihilism and the politics of pure destruction.

At the House and state levels, it's mainly about race, immigration and defending the ethnic privileges of a waning white majority.

In the Supreme Court, an extremist religious agenda, wholly out of step with American public opinion and culture, is preparing to impose a broad new set of restrictions based on their own fundamentalist view of morality, not law or the constitution.

And in the Senate, it's no longer merely about blocking Democratic initiatives and making sure Mr Biden fails, but rather, potentially engineering a disastrous US government default.

All told, this is plainly a level of racial, religious and partisan extremism that would have been completely inconceivable at any time for the past century, and is clearly another sign of a polity in profound crisis.

Published: September 19, 2021, 2:00 PM