Following the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election, the debate over the future of the Republican Party has come into sharp focus. Even though the Democrats’ performance this year was objectively poor, especially compared to widespread predictions of a Democratic landslide, the fact that Biden still won the presidency has raised the questions of who will be the Republicans’ new leader, and how will the party define itself in the years to come? As I write this, Trump is expected to run again in 2024, assuming the Senate does not vote to bar him from seeking office on charges of inciting insurrection. If he does run in the 2024 Republican primaries I expect that he will win those handily, but of course a lot can happen in just a short amount of time. For now though the object of importance is the internal civil war within the embattled Republican Party.
For a number of years there has been a schism developing within the right that is at this point destined to rear itself in the Republican Party: that being the old guard Reaganite neo-conservatives (as represented by Ben Shapiro, Ron Johnson, Mitch McConnell etc.) vs. the new breed of Trumpian paleo-conservatives (Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, Saagar Enjeti etc.). The former represents the right wing of the establishment, the old rich people who like to concern troll about the deficit whenever it’s time to spend a modest sum on public services, while the latter represent the younger, often working-class conservatives who have grown tired of free market dogmas and view the more economically libertarian conservatives as being ineffectual as conservatives.
It is often mistakenly assumed by progressives that there is not much difference between the two camps because supposedly they agree on economics, and yet there are numerous differences. The most obvious difference is on culture. The old Reaganites are ultimately quite moderate on social issues such as immigration, or they will whine about issues like abortion, “migrant caravans” and the moral decline of America while not doing anything substantial about it once in power because the culture war is actually of scant importance to them. Contrast this with the Trumpians, for whom the lifeblood of their politics is a culture war against elite liberalism. The Trumpians take a hard conservative stance on issues such as immigration, abortion, religion and patriotism, and they are willing to part with free market orthodoxy if they felt it stood in the way of defending these values.
This relationship with established free market doctrines is another core difference between the two camps. The Trumpians are critics of established economic policy because they are sceptical as to how it serves conservative ends. Tucker Carlson summed this up when he said “what does free market capitalism get us?”. In contrast, the Reaganites are the faithful defenders of neoliberal economics, and thus they attack and decry the notion that government can have a role in achieving conservative ends and looking after the public. Charlie Kirk made this quite clear in his debate with Tucker Carlson when he said “it is not government’s role to take care of its citizens”. Of course, Tucker handily destroyed this argument when he got Kirk to explain that the government’s role is to provide for national defence, and asked “but isn’t providing for the national defence taking care of its citizens?”.
Another key difference concerns their stance on military intervention. For all their whining about how we supposedly can’t pay for universal healthcare, the Reaganites always find a way to pay for increases to the military budget and for new military adventures which they will disguise as humanitarian interventions meant to spread democracy across the world. The Trumpians, meanwhile, want an end to the current military adventures in places like Syria or Afghanistan, correctly viewing such policy as a waste of money and lives that has failed to meet any of the stated objectives.
Finally, there is a certain difference in class character and educational background. The Reaganites tend to be representative of the haute bourgeoisie, the elites if you will, and their economic platform will reflect this. Being rich, they could easily afford scholarship in some of the best universities in the country, and so they are likely to be well-educated. The Trumpians meanwhile tend to come from the either shrinking middle class or the working class (it is worth remembering that many of the counties which voted for Trump are poor, working class counties), and many Trump supporters lack a college degree. That last detail may in fact be a key ingredient in explaining the rise of Trumpism, as many working class voters without college degrees feel shafted by a Democratic Party that now caters primarily to university students and degree holders. Such a trend did indeed play out in the 2020 election, with the Democrats having secured the support of college graduates, whereas most people without a degree voted for the Republicans.
Now why do I bring up these differences? Because they are the lines of demarcation between the two factions in a civil war about to break out in the Republican party. The defeat of Trump in theory presents a golden opportunity for the old guard Reaganites to try and reclaim the party. They are preparing a narrative for why Trump lost that conveniently places the blame on his deviances from Reaganite orthodoxy, such as his willingness to spend more money during the pandemic. What they will not tell you is that it was precisely the fact that Trump listened to the deficit hawks to begin with that allowed the Democrats to paint him as lacking concern for the welfare of Americans during a pandemic-induced economic depression. They will also attempt to portray Trump as having uniquely assaulted democracy with his campaign to malign the integrity of the 2020 election, which culminated in the Capitol Hill riots in January, and again they will omit the fact that many of them cynically entertained #StoptheSteal throughout the run-up to the Georgia run-off election.
In theory, this should present the Trumpian Republicans with the opportunity to reinvent themselves as a party oriented towards the working class, particularly in contrast to a Democratic Party that is increasingly oriented towards middle class suburbanites, college graduates, upwardly mobile professionals, tech industry interests and a growing number of high bourgeois who are now more comfortable with a Democratic Party which has already signalled that nothing will fundamentally change.
There are already a number of prominent Republican politicians who recognise the possibility of this direction. For example, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has spent his career in the chamber pitching himself as a populist open to using the government to intervene on behalf of conservative aims, was one of the only Senators to call out the corporatism of Biden’s Office for Budget Management nominee Neera Tanden, worked with the progressive Bernie Sanders to deliver $2,000 stimulus checks to Americans, and has made it a key part of his agenda to challenge the monopolistic power of the tech industry. After a number of majority-Latino counties voted for Trump in 2020, Florida Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Marco Rubio indicated support for the idea of transforming the Republican Party into a multi-ethnic working class coalition. Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has also been increasingly incorporating the rhetoric of “prairie populism” in his campaigns against rival Republican candidates, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even said that the American worker will be one of his three focuses in the run-up to the midterms.
Another argument supporting the possibility is one frequently made by Saagar Enjeti of The Hill’s Rising with Krystal and Saagar, who argues that this is the only way the Republicans can become electorally relevant again on the basis that the demographic groups that switched sides from Republican to Democrat in 2020 are unlikely to switch back in future elections, and that many of the same capitalists that previously supported the Republicans are also switching to the Democratic Party, and thus the party needs to be able to form a new electoral coalition that can take it back to the White House if it is ever going to avoid slipping into permanent minority party status.
Some supporters of the idea may also point to history, specifically the successful interventionist conservatism of President Dwight Eisenhower, or if they really want to go back in time, perhaps even to Abraham Lincoln, who famously said in his first annual message in 1861:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
A rank-and-file Republican might be surprised to note that such remarks from the first Republican President echo the labour theory of value, and would be echoed years later by Friedrich Engels in Dialectics of Nature, in which he wrote:
Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source — next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.
All of this is fine and good, but it leads us to one important question: will the Republicans actually become a working class party? In answering this question, it brings me no pleasure to say that I am much more skeptical, even pessimistic of the possibility. I think it is unlikely that the party will be a working class party, and from here I will explain why.
Firstly I would like to bring up the dubious working class credentials of the politicians in question. For instance, Josh Hawley hardly comes from what we would describe as a working class background, his father being a banker and himself having attended a private preparatory school. Hawley himself opposed raising the minimum wage, did not oppose Missouri right-to-work laws (which in fact prohibit employees in unionised workplaces from negotiating contracts which require employers and union employees to pay the cost of union representation) and pushed for the weakening of environmental protections enacted by the Obama administration, even going so far as to sue the Trump administration in order to accelerate their already ongoing process of deregulation. The only difference between Hawley and other obvious stooges of the capitalist class is that his is a committed cultural conservative, as if that automatically puts you on the side of workers just because the Democrats happen to also be a bourgeois party.
Hawley is not the only case either. The idea that Marco Rubio is going to be a populist reads like some sort of perverse black comedy, perhaps even Orwellian newspeak, when considering his actual record. He voted for Trump’s tax cut bill even though he would later admit that it primarily helps corporations. He supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He supported cuts social security and Medicare (which he frames as “restructuring”), and has chastised the Senate for failing to cut spending despite himself supporting increased spending on defence. He opposed net neutrality, which requires ISPs to treat Internet data equally regardless of source or content. He has also hardly budged from the neoconservative orthodoxy on foreign policy, having supported the Iraq War, the intervention in Libya, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, the attempted installation of a puppet government in Venezuela, and also supported enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, which would have started a war with Russia. He’s not even a friend of liberty considering he supports the NSA collecting bulk metadata for “national security” purposes.
You will find a similarly tawdry record amongst many of the Republicans who claim themselves to be populist. Matt Gaetz voted for Trump’s tax bill and wanted to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Ted Cruz’s jostles to be the next populist president belie the fact that he is a opposed net neutrality, opposed raising the minimum wage, supported the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (a proposed law which would criminalise participation in boycotts against Israel in protest of their actions in the West Bank), and voted against the provision of federal aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Tucker Carlson, who likes to brag about how much of a populist he is on TV and how libertarianism is “controlled by the banks”, he himself is very well-off due to his affiliation with the wealthy Swanson family, an heiress of whom his father married. He also has no problem taking thousands of dollars in speaking fees from private equity firms such as JPMorgan and the Jeffries group, despite slamming former President Barack Obama from taking $400,000 in speaking fees from Wall Street.
The second important point is that while we are now witnessing an internal civil war within the Republican Party, the divisions are not really based on any sort of policy agenda or even really on class, but rather on personal loyalty to the person of Donald Trump. The first shot across the bough was fired by Eric Trump, one of the former presidents sons. In a televised interview on Fox News during the Georgia run-off elections, Eric declared that any Republican Congressman or Senator who refuses to support his father’s attempt to overturn the election will be liable to a primary challenge. Sure enough, there are now primary challenges being waged against Republicans who are deemed to have betrayed their god-king. For voting to impeach Trump, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney was censured by her state’s chapter of the GOP, and already has a conservative candidate vying to defeat her in the 2022 midterm primaries. Similarly, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy was censured by his state’s chapter of the GOP for changing his vote to convict Trump after recently being re-elected. There have even been calls to have Trump’s daughter Ivanka run against Marco Rubio in 2022, which just shows how nepotistic the movement remains.
If you want some idea of where the Republican Party is going, look no further than the controversy surrounding Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Georgia Congresswoman who was already notorious for her support of the fascistic QAnon conspiracy theory and bafflingly filed articles of impeachment against Joe Biden only a day after his inauguration. The controversy began when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell openly rebuked her, calling her a cancer upon the Republican Party and the country. Later the House of Representatives voted to remove her from all committee roles because of a series of unearthed statements by Greene in which she endorsed political violence against her Democratic opponents and even called for their execution.
Predictably, the pro-Trump side rallied around her, even if they might object to some of her views (and indeed even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy found himself disturbed by some of her comments), for the sole reason that she is a loyal defender of Donald Trump. In fact, she vocally supported his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, alleging that Trump would have won in a landslide were it not for widespread electoral fraud. She also earns praise from fellow Trump supporters for castigating the Republican old guard as “weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully”, presenting herself in her “message to the mob” as “a voice for the silent majority”, who she says she is one of them. Small wonder then why we see the Trumpist right swooning over her, with Newsmax TV’s Greg Kelly slobbering over her like a horny dog in one of the most embarrassing segments I’ve ever seen.
What we are seeing is the completion of the Republican Party’s transformation not into a party of the working class, but instead into a cult of personality where political advancement is linked directly to fealty to Trump. The party was already effectively a loyalty cult while Trump was President, but this has intensified after he has left. As far as class character is concerned, it is more likely that roles of the Democratic and Republican parties will reverse, with the Democratic Party becoming the party of the high bourgeois and the Republican Party becoming a party of the petty-bourgeois. It is worth nothing that Greene herself comes from a petty-bourgeois background. Her father was the founder of a local construction company which he sold to Greene and her husband Perry. Indeed, many Trump supporters who voted him into office came from the middle class rather than the working class.
An increasingly culturally reactionary Republican Party oriented around the petty-bourgeois isn’t going to be a pro-worker populist party, but rather a fascist one. When fascism has ascended to power, it ascends as a revolution of the middle class who, while they despise the high bourgeois, their longing to become like the high bourgeois may lead them to do the bidding of the ruling class in opposing the working class. As Marxist theorist Anton Pannekoek wrote in The Role of Fascism:
The chief characteristic of fascism is that of organizing the petty capitalist and middle class with their narrow-minded spirit of private business into a mass organization, strong enough to check and beat the proletarian organizations. This class, squeezed in between the capitalist and the working class, unable to fight capitalism, is always ready to turn against the workers’ class struggle. Tho it hates big capital and puts forth anti-capitalistic slogans, it is a tool in the hands of capitalism, which pays and directs its political action towards the subduing of the workers.
Pannekoek also noted that fascism “brings forward a strong nationalistic feeling, the idea of the unity of the nation against foreign nations”, which adequately describes the Greenes, Hawleys and Carlsons of the American right with their nationalist rhetoric and policy agenda.
Given that a key component of fascism is the rejection of democracy, it is also important to note that there are already Republican politicians who have shown themselves to be enemies of democracy. Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted that “democracy is not the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”, misspelling prosperity. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal effectively calling for the abolition of the 17th amendment, which established the popular election of Senators, and for the removal of cameras from Senate committee rooms. As a matter of fact, for all the faux concern for democracy, the impetus of #StoptheSteal is profoundly anti-democratic in the sense that it sought to overturn the outcome of an election that didn’t turn out the way they liked. That Republicans embraced it shows their contempt for democracy.
Through either incompetence, arrogance, deliberate provocation or some combination of all three, the liberals will aid in this transformation. Last week, TIME magazine put out a bizarre article entitled The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election. In terms of substance the article goes in depth to describe efforts by an alliance of businesses, labour groups and other powerful organisations to promote mail-in ballot voting, lobby social media companies to undermine “disinformation”, inform media outlets on how to interpret the lengthy amount of time it would take to count the results, co-ordinate the actions of corporations and protestors and so on and so forth.
Of course, none of this constitutes evidence of vast electoral fraud, or at least none significant enough to sway the election, but it is proof of powerful interests working together to ensure, through perfectly legal means, that the outcome of the election is favourable to them, which is what everyone who paid attention suspected would be the case. Equally predictable was that none of this stopped the Trumpian right, still drunk on the fantasy that Trump would actually have won a landslide were it not for communist vote rigging machines, from using the article as evidence of a conspiracy to steal the election, not least thanks to the needlessly sensationalist language used by author Molly Ball.
What will also entrench the Trumpists into the insane mindset that they are currently in is the sense that the new government sees them as an un-American, or even anti-American element of society that must be purged. While the tech industry was already colluding against the Trump administration before and after the election, these fears have already been confirmed by mounting calls to treat them like ISIS or al-Qaeda, and for the enacting of new domestic terror laws that would amount to what is basically Patriot Act 2.0. The final irony of course is that the attempts to overturn a democratic election may actually lead to the erosion of liberty and democracy itself being presided over by the Biden administration.
Don’t get me wrong, I would very much like for the Republicans to become a genuinely pro-worker party so that it can actually challenge the unchecked hegemony of cultural liberalism, but given all of these factors, not only do I think that it is unlikely, but the path to that might even be blocked so long as the Republican Party base is still under the hypnotic spell of Donald Trump even after he has left office. The Trumpian right is united under a single man and not under a unifying pro-worker programme, and his influence will take them to some very dark places indeed.