The GOP is a Walking Paradox
Conservative Republicans’ principles of tradition and free enterprise are on an irreconcilable collision course, and Trumpism is only making the problem worse.
The History of Republicans and Democrats
Historically, American politics has long had an electoral dichotomy split between the pro-labor and civil rights platforms of liberals and the Judeo-Christian values and laissez-faire economics of conservatives. Though the country’s two main political parties — the Democrats and Republicans, or ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP) — have swapped these platforms throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, these opposing platforms have long been the paradigm of America’s voting preferences.
The Democratic Party began as the ‘Democratic-Republican Party’ in the late 1700's, comprised of Jeffersonian anti-federalists and strong supporters of states’ rights. Its main rival was the Federalists, formed by Alexander Hamilton in 1791. The Federalists were a populist party based on principles of central banking, assumption of state debts, excise taxes, and trade controls, while the Democratic-Republicans were a loose faction of libertarian-minded voters united in opposition to Hamilton’s expansionary Treasury policies.
With Andrew Jackson’s ascension to the presidency in 1828, the Democratic-Republicans were simply calling themselves ‘the Democrats,’ and the Federalists were functionally extinct following the War of 1812. By this time, a faction of anti-Jacksonian Democrats had splintered off into what was called the ‘National Republicans.’ These National Republicans were soon brought under the tent of the emerging Whigs, who by that time were uniformly opposed to Jacksonian democracy.
With sectional discord in the mid-1800’s brewing, the northern Whigs rebranded into the Republican Party, while Democrats increasingly embraced the states’ rights position of southern slaveholders. With Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory in 1860, America’s modern split between Democrats and Republicans had begun.
During this time, the GOP coalesced around a civil rights platform much like the one espoused by modern Democrats, fighting an entire war to bring southern secessionist states back into the Union and end slavery once and for all. With the rollout of FDR’s New Deal, the parties had almost entirely switched their tickets and took on the platforms that seem so familiar to the voters of today.
The Paradox in Traditional Conservatism
As the GOP inherited the free enterprise views and social traditions of its forerunners, so too did it inherit the internal paradox of American conservatism: the contradiction between capitalism and the preservation of historical traditions. Conservatives have long supported lower taxes, gutting the power of regulatory agencies, and strict limits on constitutional overreach. Most importantly, they favor the free association of individuals and unfettered transactions between consumers and producers. However, this in many ways runs contrary to their positions on social issues. For example, the GOP’s opposition to same-sex marriage is threatened by the economic benefits enjoyed by non-traditional unions, not to mention that such opposition runs against the grain of the free association of individuals. The American Anthropological Association, American Psychological Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics have all affirmed the socioeconomic benefits experienced by same-sex couples. Studies show that children raised in households with same-sex parents fair just as well as those raised by opposite-sex couples. Researchers point out that the prime determinant in a child’s welfare is the quality of kinship relations, not the structural nature of those relations; in Layman’s terms, a child thrives with love, affection, and stability, regardless of where those things originate.
The U.S. Census Bureau points out that same-sex married couples see slightly higher household income than opposite-sex couples. A major reason for this has to do with higher education levels attained by same-sex couples relative to opposite-sex couples, as well as more shared responsibility of household duties. Another interesting caveat is that same-sex couples are less likely to leave work to rear children, with about 20% of same-sex couples raising children below the age of 18, compared with 44% for opposite-sex couples. This greater availability of skilled labor is a boon to employers. Since markets tend to favor a more skilled, educated, and healthier labor force, as a corollary they would experience greater long run returns should they favor the flexibility of workers in same-sex unions. Thus, it is more efficient for markets to favor unions with two available workers as opposed to unions with a single available breadwinner, as an investment in two ‘units’ of educated human capital will yield greater benefits for a firm than investing in fewer ‘units.’ However, this contradicts the conservative position supporting only traditional marriage. Yet, this support for traditional marriage pits conservatism against its core faith in laissez-faire economics. Hence, an apparent paradox emerges.
Conservatives run into another problem when it comes to education. They are right to criticize the world-wide engineering of academic ‘safe-spaces,’ since universities are at their core centers of unrestricted intellectual inquiry and deep criticism of all ideas; the advent of these safe-spaces strikes at the heart of higher education and would be seen by humanity’s greatest teachers as perverse. Nonetheless, conservatives err when they criticize the weaving of these principles into ideas and disciplines (i.e. sociology) that yield genuine intellectual critiques of long-standing conservative traditions. If an academic discipline produces research that shows the negative effects of a specific policy position held by a political party or school of thought, it is the onus of the institution to accept the criticism in earnest and change for the better, not issue blanket assaults calling disciplines ‘biased’ and useless. However, this is what the conservative branch of the GOP has done, utterly dismissing the innovations made by the human sciences when those innovations expose fault lines in their preferred societal arrangements. This is not to say that liberal Democrats aren’t guilty of this, and one would be remiss to ignore this fact. However, conservatives more often than liberals find themselves sparring with universities and research foundations, perceiving them as too liberal and biased against conservatives. These criticisms are occasionally warranted, but often they are made out of ideological cloth rather than genuine intellectual rebuttal.
Furthermore, many pro-business conservatives and pundits are quick to criticize students’ choice of major, such as art history or philosophy, as providing few real-world life skills and viewing them as ‘non-marketable’ disciplines. Salaries of engineering, finance, and data science majors far surpass those of more ancient disciplines such as the classics and archaeology. Much of this has to do with capitalism’s favor for business and growth-related industries and lack of business applicability for humanity’s older intellectual traditions. Simply put: there are competitive, high-paying industries for those with marketable financial, analytical, and/or engineering skills, whereas those without them are seen as the ‘runt’ of the economy and paid lower wages. However, many of these disciplines have existed for the majority of human history and ground our modern understanding of the human condition in all its aspects. In addition, disciplines such as art history, the classics, philosophy, and anthropology, among others, provide culture and perspective to our world. To quote Robin Williams, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Our society needs Broadway, it needs aspiring musicians, to breathe life into our world or else humanity risks living a meaningless existence.
To ignore the extinction of the liberal arts for the sake of economic efficiency creates an internal fissure within conservative thought. If we were to follow the conservative corridor of economic efficiency without regard to the damage it sows, our society would lose its vitality in the name of ‘free markets.’ Since the heart of conservatism is the shielding of history’s historical and cultural ways of life, it seems rather contradictory to embrace both economic efficiency and social conservation when the two can often find themselves at odds, especially in the arena of education.
The Paradox Created by Trump
Under Donald Trump, the GOP has undergone a radical transformation from a center-right party of free market fundamentals and the conservation of longstanding social institutions to a far-right party of populism, nationalism, and reduced American foreign policy influence. Much of the party, including congressional Republican leadership, have either embraced or enabled President Trump’s levying of tariffs and trade controls, bailouts of farmers impacted by the administration’s trade wars with China, assaults on Big Tech, and the expansion of large budget deficits.
Though the Republican old guard would balk at the positions of current party leadership and its base, this electoral shift was bound to come at some point. For decades, establishment Republicans promised social conservatives they would stop the country’s shift to the cultural left, but once they gained power they mostly executed the wishes of business interests by cutting taxes and standing by while evangelicals stood stupefied. Along came Donald Trump, who exposed these long-standing fault lines in the shaky ‘alliance’ between pro-business conservatives and social evangelicals and chose his priorities carefully. His choice to prioritize the dog whistling of culture wars at the expense of the party’s traditional fiscal conservatism is what propelled him to the GOP nomination and eventual presidency in 2016, and they are what energized the base for nearly four years. Tax cuts didn’t get John McCain or Mitt Romney to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Instead, jockeying to blow up the system as a political outsider, promising to spend trillions on infrastructure and a border wall, draconian anti-media quips, and inflaming the country’s cultural tensions handed Republicans trifecta control over the White House and both houses of Congress in the 2016 elections. However, by focusing on nationalism and populism, rather than mending the gap between conservatives, Trump didn’t resolve the aforementioned paradox: he simply introduced a new one, one between the authoritarian tendencies of conservative populism and the traditional constraints that conservatives have placed on government power.
Conservative Republicans have typically been fiscal hawks and readily campaigned to privatize and cut federal social outlays as a way to both lower taxes and reduce the deficit. Yet the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed corporate and personal income taxes while leaving spending mostly unchanged. That means the deficit has exploded ever since, and Republican lawmakers themselves expect over $1.5 trillion to be added to the nation’s debt over ten years. Yet the same revenue-neutral Republicans who slashed federal taxes are the same ones who, with unified control over the executive and legislative branches, didn’t parallelly cut spending in order to match the decline in tax receipts. Populists’ desire to both cut taxes and boost military expenditures while leaving popular social outlays relatively untouched puts them at odds with the more fiscally austere attitudes of the GOP’s old guard, who would rather see taxes fall, military spending rise, and social outlays scaled back.
Now cue the GOP’s outrage at tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. Twitter’s decision to deactivate Mr. Trump’s account following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th provoked the ire of conservatives. They claimed that tech companies like Twitter wielded too much power over online speech, and saw Twitter’s controversial move as an assault on Mr. Trump’s 1st Amendment rights. However, this blowback represents yet another contradiction. In the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, conservative justices led by Anthony M. Kennedy ruled that the Constitution treats political campaign contributions as functionally equivalent to free speech, and thus protected from government interference. As a consequence, corporations are now seen as legally enjoying the same due process rights as individual citizens, since they are nothing more than associations of citizens.
The relationship between conservatives’ support for Citizens United and Twitter’s actions regarding Mr. Trump’s account is clear: if conservative jurisprudence supports the free speech rights of both citizens and associations of citizens, then by extension conservative thought should support a private institution’s choices regarding how it interacts with its users. If one were to follow conservative though to its logical conclusion, then one would see Twitter’s decision to ban Mr. Trump from their servers as entirely in their purview and thus shielded from any legislative override. Yet, conservative Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and others have slammed the tech company’s recent decision as violating the former President’s free speech rights. Of course, Mr. Trump commands much popularity among the Republican base, so it’s no surprise that his congressional guard would rush to his defense. Yet their desire to punish tech companies (such as through a repeal of Section 230) who they view as silencing online conservative voices is at odds with some of the foundational tenets of conservative jurisprudence. If congressional Republicans succeed in eviscerating tech companies’ free association, then this would contradict both their support for the 1st Amendment as well as their emphasis on the free, unregulated association between citizens and private institutions. It would appear that Republicans’ attacks on Big Tech are nothing more than a partisan end, punishing those institutions that choose to chart a more liberal path.
Conservatives also contradict themselves when it comes to supposed ‘cancel culture.’ They rightly lambast the political Left for creating artificial purity tests for politicians and major influencers by diving deep into a person’s past to find something remotely controversial. Yet the choice of 10 House Republicans to vote ‘aye’ on impeaching Mr. Trump this month has exposed them to a wave of intraparty ridicule most characteristic of single-party ruled autocracies. It caused state party censure resolutions against federal GOP lawmakers and even prompted Republican Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to travel to Wyoming just to encourage primary challenges against Liz Cheney (R-WY). Additionally, the choice of prominent Republicans like former Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Cindy McCain to endorse Joe Biden for President, as well as Arizona’s GOP Governor Doug Ducey’s refusal to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state during the 2020 elections, led to censures by the state Republican Party. The move to condemn three elders of the GOP was rebuked by RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel as akin to cancel culture, yet it appears that Trump loyalty tests for Republicans are here to stay.
One would be remiss to say that the old GOP is unrecognizable compared to the party currently under the spell of Trumpism, as the Trump administration has enacted significant conservative priorities over these last four years — the rollback of environmental regulations, large business tax cuts, support for school choice programs, and, perhaps Trump’s greatest legacy: the lurch of the federal judiciary to the right. However, it appears that Trump has opened the floodgates of populism, risking the exodus of respected members such as Senators Benjamin Sasse (R-NE) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and further centralizing the GOP around an angry, anti-intellectual, and jingoist base that was normally kept at the fringes of conservative politics.
Conservatives at this moment must carry out two monumental tasks. One task is to resolve the internal intellectual contradictions that plague their philosophies before the movement flounders. Their second task is to purge the wave of authoritarianism that pits them against what conservatism represents at its best: opportunity and free association. Only time will tell if the GOP will overcome such grave hurdles. For now, it appears that conservative Republicans will continue to nail their party’s coffin closed.