In a recent opinion piece https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/23/opinion/sunday/trump-conspiracy-theories-ukraine.html, Maureen Dowd wrote, “A lot of Republicans have dirtied themselves defending Trump, and their party will not easily recover from perverting its values.”
But what if Republicans haven’t perverted their values? What if what we see with and under Trump ARE their values?
Let’s begin with what Republicans espouse. They all agree that they want to see smaller and limited government. Since they rarely specify which government—local, state, or federal—we can assume that they mean all government. They might even invoke here the apothegm: “The government which governs best governs least” or a statement similar to this.
The apothegm is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson or, farther afield for Republicans, Henry David Thoreau. But crediting Thoreau as the source would be a problem for Republicans. Thoreau’s use of the phrase was in the context of an argument for abolishing government altogether, and Republicans certainly don’t want that.
No, Republicans see a need for government…it just has to be their kind of government. They want government to provide security for the nation. So for them, the larger the military, the greater our security. Restrictions on military budgets, then, would be a clear sign of national weakness. In this case, the government that governs best has the largest military and the most border security.
Government’s other significant use for Republicans is temporary: to strip away the laws and regulations that strangle free enterprise. Remove the fetters on capitalism, and it will bloom. What about the ensuing dangers to our water and air, to our national and city parks, to airport and airplane safety, to our food supply, and on and on? Let the market take care of those problems. Once business is free of regulations, then government can wither away. The market can keep us both safe and free.
Of course, Republicans also acknowledge that courts have a role to play in society and in the marketplace. Unscrupulous grifters and con-artists bilk the public; people break contracts all the time. Courts exist to enforce laws governing malign practices within the economy and throughout society. This is nothing other than a branch of the security apparatus necessary for a well-protected, safe society.
We can see in this short recitation of Republican attitudes toward government a glimpse of Republican values. Free enterprise signifies the importance of “Freedom.” In this economic context, freedom means “left alone,” as in “laissez-faire” capitalism. But this conception of freedom spills over into the rest of society. Then we have libertarian Republicanism, where the more society is private, the better society will be. Privatization here includes much of our societal life, including maintaining streets and highways, building and operating schools and hospitals, ensuring firefighting, and providing police. This last one might seem surprising, given the emphasis above on government providing security. But at the local level, you either pay for your security or provide your own.
This brings us to another Republican value: personal security. We don’t need the government’s military for that. The Second Amendment to the Constitution is necessary only to thwart the government from taking our weapons. If we have little government, then we need not worry that it will come for our guns. Of course, since the market is now free of government regulation and interference, we can own whatever weapons we want and can afford. Would the Waltons or the Murdochs like to have a nuclear arsenal? Name your price.
So freedom is a central Republican value. But not every freedom. Libertarian Republicanism is not the only form of Republicanism. Other values exist to temper libertarian freedom. Family values, for example. Those values are undergirded by a focus on religion, specifically the Judeo-Christian religion, which really reduces to Christianity. That is a bedrock Republican value and thus central to social organization. This means that laws, for example, related to adoption of children by gay couples or related to gay marriage itself might have to be reconsidered. As Christianity is the bedrock of the nation, so too is marriage between one man and one woman the bedrock of any Republican community even as they espouse that women should follow tradition and the Bible and remain in the home tending to the family.
The above recitation outlines Republican values unsullied by Trump. So we are still looking for the Trumpian perversion of Republican values that Dowd mentioned. Certainly Trump’s actions and the enabling by Republicans throughout the nation are actions that further, and don’t pervert, Republican values: filling the courts with conservative judges and justices, increasing the military budget, cutting corporate and individual income taxes, rolling back economic regulations, resisting gun-control legislation, limiting immigration, safeguarding our border against illegal entry, and curbing abortions (which seems to interfere with the freedom of women to control their own bodies, which it does, but is undertaken in the service of a greater freedom—the life of the unborn zygote).
Government here is active, even large, only because Republicans have yet to gain sufficient control of local, state, and federal government to be able to institute a free-market society tempered by Christianity. No perverted Republican values yet.
Trump also appears to be anti-democratic. Unwilling to trust the voters to vote for him and to follow the propaganda train from the Fox News station, Trump enlisted some outside help. First, he invited the Russians to aid his campaign, (https://www.insider.com/mueller-report-rewritten-trump-russia-mark-bowden-archer-2019-7) beginning with his public invitation to Russia to find Hillary’s emails.
Later he used the power of the Oval Office to seek the aid of Ukraine in finding dirt on one of his prospective political rivals in the 2020 election. Nor has Trump insisted that our federal government undertake steps to secure our elections against cyber attacks and foreign interference.
These actions, however, are not necessarily Trump perversions. Anti-democracy spreads throughout Republicanism well beyond Trump. Before Trump, and now during his years, states controlled by Republicans passed laws to restrict voting. Florida and Georgia purged voter rolls that disproportionally affected minorities. North Carolina sought to limit early and absentee voting. Throughout the South and up into Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures sought to suppress the votes of minorities. Although both political parties have participated in gerrymandering—the drawing of boundaries for congressional districts—only Republicans have carried out “extreme gerrymandering,” which is designed to skew districts to favor Republican outcomes. An obvious example of this happened in Wisconsin, where Republicans in 2018 won 46% of the statewide vote but gained 64% of the seats in the state Assembly. (http://election.princeton.edu/2012/12/30/gerrymanders-part-1-busting-the-both-sides-do-it-myth/)
Also, to thwart the will of the people in a democratic election, Republicans have sought to strip incoming Democratic Governors first in Wisconsin and now in Kentucky of some of their governing powers.
The core democratic concept of one-person/one-vote has little appeal for Republicans. If it did, they would cease their voter-suppression and other anti-democratic tactics. They might even stop supporting the anti-democratic Electoral College, which is why candidates skip campaigning in non-swing states. The Electoral College may have served a worthy purpose in the 18th century. It doesn’t in democracy today.
Given the scope of the Republicans’ manipulation of our electoral system, it is difficult to argue that Trump has perverted the party into anti-democratic practices and values.
Another core value on which this country was founded that Republicans have perverted is equality. Their standard-bearer, Abraham Lincoln, himself declared that the nation was conceived in liberty (as said, a certain kind of liberty) and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That such equality pertains to men and women of color and pertains to women of any color is a difficult argument for Republicans to make in light of their efforts to suppress voting within minority communities and to deny women their reproductive rights. This is a longstanding and party-wide perversion. It can hardly be laid at the feet of Trump.
So where do we see in the era of Trump perversions of Republican values that Dowd alluded to? One clear Trump perversion is of the rule of law. He defies legal Congressional subpoenas, prevents subordinates from testifying, and, most recently, undermined our system of military justice. His Republican underlings and enablers go along or at least play along.
Another Republican value that Trump has perverted today is the idea of public service. The line of notable Republican public servants is long and esteemed. Beginning with Lincoln and moving up through John McCain, it is easy to point to valorous men and women throughout the civil service, elected office, and the military putting country over party. Anyone taking an oath of office declares that to be so. Despite that oath, this seems lost today as the right-wing media and several Republican Congressional Representatives vilify valued public servants such as Fiona Hill, Alex Vindman, Robert Mueller, and William Taylor as political operatives, hacks, and participants in a presidential coup orchestrated by the “Deep State.”
That one principal value, the single principle of putting country over party, might well save and restore the Republican Party. But has Trump perverted that value, or has Trump simply revealed the central value that always lay beneath at the heart of Republican politics: Ambition and power supplant love of country?
This is under Trump a perversion that has spread from Republican politics into culture. As a thrice-married, serial philanderer and self-declared sexual assaulter who rarely, if ever, attends church, Trump is the embodiment of Christian perversion. Still, the White evangelical wing of Protestant Christianity, particularly its white males, is Trump’s most steadfast base of support. This group has sacrificed its moral integrity, consistency, and credibility for the sake of political influence and ambition. Those are now their Republican values, as Trump has perverted Christian virtue into outright hypocrisy. Restoring their virtuous values will be difficult, to say the least.
Also difficult will be overcoming Republican misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe these don’t define the party, but they are characteristics marbled throughout it.
From perspectives outside the party, these are all perverse values. Given where the Republican Party began and considering its own moral trajectory, they are also a perversion of party values. Sad to say, but today we see little else in the Republican Party. Donald Trump has certainly reinforced and perhaps institutionalized many of the party’s perverted values. But as recounted here, not all of them. Still, as a party pervert, Trump remains Exhibit A.