The most interesting question asked so far in the four Republican debates did not come from any of the moderators. Rather, it was posed by Rand Paul during the fourth debate following an explanation by Marco Rubio of his policies regarding tax credits and military spending. Mr. Paul asked the Florida Senator—who is becoming the candidate of the GOP establishment—“How is that conservative?” Senator Paul’s question has relevance for many of the candidates in this race.
Today’s Republican Party is, while certainly in strong opposition to the center-left Obama administration, no longer recognizably conservative. Since the 1960s, modern Republican conservatism has its roots in the ideology and views Senator Barry Goldwater, and in its more charming and electable form, Ronald Reagan. That conservatism was defined by a belief in strong defense, limited government intervention and the power of individual freedom. The last point was often a bit muddied as conservatism even then was influenced by fundamentalist Christians who sought to use government to legislate their opinions on social issues.
The GOP primary has gradually become a contest of who can make the most bizarre statement.
The current Republican presidential candidates have some conservative ideas, but many ideas that are not consistent with what are generally understood to be conservative values. Front-runner Donald Trump, most notably, has carved out a very unusual, and very popular political position for himself. His economic views are decidedly centrist and not consistent with the radical anti-taxing and anti-spending GOP views of the last half century. He has also presented a foreign policy that promises to be tough on some international threats, but also to resolve any conflict amiably through negotiating with Vladimir Putin. This latter view differs from conservative Republican attitudes towards Moscow dating back to the early days of the Cold War. Mr. Trump has married all of this to a nativism that is neither of the left nor the right.
Rick Santorum is a minor candidate in this race, but the message he has crafted, drawing on radical Christian fundamentalism, but also a recognition that income inequality is a significant problem that needs addressing, can also be seen in the rhetoric of more relevant candidates like Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio. Income inequality is a real problem in the U.S., but the principled conservative response to that should be as little government intervention as possible and a hope that the market will solve the problem. That, perhaps fantastical, view is no longer embraced by most of the Republican field of presidential candidates and was at the root of the question Senator Paul posed to Senator Rubio.
The recent rush to banish Syrian refugees and a willingness to float limitations on the rights of Muslims in the U.S., is also a departure from the patriotic right wing views of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan or even George W. Bush. Those conservative leaders believed that core American values, such as individual and religious freedom, were sacrosanct. They also believed that the U.S. was in Ronald Reagan’s famous biblical allusion “a city on a hill,” and should serve as model for the world.
Today, the Republican Party is preparing to turn its back on all of that because of the attacks in Paris and the chaotic and murderous presence of ISIS in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan, or any true conservative, saying essentially “well I suppose this religious freedom idea isn’t really worth defending …” That, however, is precisely what Republican leaders are doing when they advocate restricting the freedoms of Muslim Americans or let our fear of terrorism lead us to abandon our historic commitment to providing shelter and refuge to those fleeing war.
In recent years, it has frequently been said that Republican icons like President Reagan or Senator Goldwater would be too far left for today’s Republican Party. If the GOP primary continues to move in this direction, it will also be true that Mr. Goldwater and Mr. Reagan would be too far right for today’s Republican Party. This departure from core conservative beliefs is, in substantial part, a result of the rise of the entertainer candidate. This began with Sarah Palin in 2008, but has reached new heights this year as the top two Republican candidates in most polls are more entertainer than politician. Candidates like Mr. Trump and Dr. Ben Carson built a lot of their campaign around the idea that they will say unpopular things with which a lot of voters agree. While this may spring from an admirable belief in speaking unpopular truths, it rapidly devolved into an exercise by many of the candidates in saying pretty much anything as long as it was, in their terms, “politically incorrect.” This has included asserting that that Mosques and other places Muslim Americans gather should be shut down, Egyptian pyramids were grain silos and claiming to have viewed Planned Parenthood videos that do do not exist.
These outlandish claims have begun to dominate the Republican campaign and have forced the rest of the field to compete with these increasingly strange statements. Thus, the GOP primary has gradually become a contest of who can make the most bizarre statement, with the one precondition that it must anger secular liberals. The Republican Party has pivoted from a conservative party to one whose candidates simply crave attention and will say anything to get it. This might be a fun Republican drinking game, but it is a very long way from the party of even Reagan, let alone Lincoln. It is also a strategy that all but precludes competent governance.
Of course, not all Republicans have fallen into this trap. John McCain, for example, has again become the consistent and relatively principled hawk that initially drew voters to his 2000 presidential campaign. However, Paul Ryan, the new Republican Speaker of the House pushed through a bill on refugees that helped concretize the new Republican Party as one that is fearful, rather than patriotic, in response to what in any historical context is a relatively minor threat.
The Republicans have backed themselves into a corner where they feel compelled to disagree with the President’s assertions about the relative threat posed by ISIS, and the centrality of core conservative values like religious freedom, to our American identity, simply because these ideas have been articulated by the President. This leads to the current climate where the Republican leadership is treating ISIS as if it were an existential threat to American existence, comparable to Soviet Communism or Naziism. This is not exactly fear mongering, but more like selective paranoia wherein Republicans have exaggerated the ISIS threat for the simple, if strange reason, that President Obama has minimized it
GOP slavery to a blindly opposing anything Obama says or does has thus lead them to a position that reflects fear, an insultingly low opinion of the American resilience, strength and superiority of our system, and a comfort level with proposals of religious persecution that are without parallel in American history. In answer to Rand Paul’s question, there is nothing conservative, and barely even American, about that.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.