As with many religions, political parties have a tendency to start as a movement, transform into a business, and finally degenerate into a racket designed to fleece the yokels. One organization which has gone out of its way to illustrate this evolution is the Republican Party. And it has done so with a national scope and fundraising apparatus that would have made Jimmy Swaggart or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker mute with awe.
By "Republican Party" I mean both the formal party and its extended apparat: talk radio and the Fox News empire, pressure groups like the Family Research Council, allegedly "educational" 501(c)3 organizations like the Heritage Foundation, direct mail outfits descended from the original Richard Viguerie mother ship, polling firms like Rasmussen's, and the Tea Party itself (the latter nevertheless asserts its non-affiliation with the GOP despite its having sponsored the Florida Republican presidential candidates' debate in 2011).
True believers in this multi-faceted scam are usually careful to make a (false) distinction between the institutional GOP and the so-called conservative movement. The Republican Party and its grandees, according to this fable, are not "true conservatives." By 2008, the operatives of the racket were already saying this about George W. Bush, but that assessment required them to perform the mental gymnastics of forgetting that only a few years earlier, they were eager to nominate Dubbya to the next available vacancy in the Trinity.
Having abandoned the apostate Bush, the true believers were off on a quixotic hunt for the next messiah: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Hermann Cain, the resurrected Newt Gingrich. Each pasteboard messiah having eventually fallen to earth with a thump, the congregation settled for the colorless but ostensibly electable Mitt Romney (Romney may have been the purest true conservative in the operational sense, given his genius for separating rich donors from their money). That pragmatic decision came to naught in November 2012, but it wasn't long before the faithful, and all the movement's con artists who cling to the faithful like fleas to a dog, were off on a pilgrimage to find the next conservative Wunderkind. Chris Christie, maybe? On second thought, perhaps he lacks the soothing, good-natured bonhomie of Dutch Reagan. Would it be Marco Rubio, evidently qualified to rebrand the party for a rising demographic because both his names end in vowels? Perhaps not. Or maybe even Ben Carson, who, like Herman Cain, has never been elected to public office, but who generates (also like Cain) the required evangelical fervor? The search continues for the anointed one, much to the amusement of satirists.
It was not always thus. Having decisively won the presidency in the 1988 presidential election -- even with a mediocre candidate -- for the third consecutive time, the GOP was probably at the height of its national potential. George H.W. Bush had taken California (the last time for a Republican presidential candidate) and several other states, such as Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey, that we can now almost always count in the Democratic column. Educated suburban voters, including the women among them, were trending Republican. Soothsayers were declaring the GOP as being on the threshold of political dominance with an "electoral lock."
It was not to be; ironically it was always triumphs that portended overreach. Perhaps this was because the zealous believers rushed with unseemly haste to build their New Jerusalem while average, sane Americans began to regret what their electoral decisions had wrought. In the 1990s, after winning Congress for the first time in 40 years, the GOP proceeded to shut down the government, impeach the chief executive over a bedroom farce, and perform amateur forensic tests to prove Vince Foster was murdered. Enjoying stratospheric approval ratings (ironically enough in the wake of a national tragedy resulting from his own failure to understand an intelligence briefing warning him of the impending tragedy) George W. Bush brought us bogus WMD, the invasion of Iraq, torture, and heck-of-a-job-Brownie. After re-taking the House in 2010, gonzo Republicans promptly marched the country into the first national credit downgrade in our history.
Unchastened by its electoral drubbing in 2012, the GOP circled the wagons once again. Is their former colleague, the war-disabled Bob Dole, pleading with the Senate GOP to ratify a harmless United Nations treaty recommending international standards for treatment of the handicapped? No way, the UN's black helicopters might descend on America! Are hurricane victims still out of their homes in the depth of winter? Screw 'em, they're not our constituents. Is the GOP's filibuster of a nominee for secretary of defense (and a former GOP colleague to boot) unprecedented? Precedents were made to be broken, and traitors have to be punished. Indeed, freshman Senator Ted Cruz, visually and substantively reprising the role of Joe McCarthy, has even implied treason, slyly insinuating that nominee Chuck Hagel might be in the pay of North Korea or Iran. It doesn't even end there: the lunatic Right is now suggesting that John Brennan, the CIA Director-designee, and certainly a man involved in killing his share of Muslims, is himself a secret Muslim convert, just like his boss, the president!
Shocking as all this is, it should not be surprising. Belief in the rapture (a word found nowhere in the Bible) has been around as a formal theological precept since John Darby fabricated the notion in the early 19th century. Yet when the promised apocalypse fails to arrive on schedule, it is only the weak-willed who renounce the sacred dogma. The anointed remnant knows that the great disappointment was merely a test of their faith, so they redouble their adherence to the sacred text, whether the author is St. John the Divine or Ayn Rand. The refusal of the world to end on October 22, 1844 may have caused some disenchantment among the Millerites, but more than a century and a half later, the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has sold over 65 million copies (more than sales of Merriam-Webster dictionaries). In like fashion, the complete failure during the last 30 years of tax cuts for the wealthy to increase revenue, kick-start economic growth, or help the middle class has not dented the faith of the true believers -- nor has it reduced the personal wealth of hucksters like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, or Dick Armey, who profitably dispense economic snake oil to the rubes wholesale.
As the GOP narrowed and hardened its dogma, the affluent, educated suburbs drifted away from the Church of Reagan, leaving the organization to an increasingly less educated, southern, rural, and downscale white voting base (needless to say, the executive wing of the party is decidedly not downscale in its personal finances; they know, just as surely as L. Ron Hubbard knew, that there is gold to be mined from the suckers). The slide among both voters and elected officials has been frighteningly steep since 2008. Compared to the current crop of congressional GOP freshmen and sophomores, even George W. Bush looks like Henry Cabot Lodge. The party of Abraham Lincoln (a genuine architect of popular enlightenment through his establishment of land grant colleges) has degenerated into Scientology for rednecks who think embryology, evolutionary biology, and geology are lies from the pit of hell.
The deeper causes of this lunacy lie beyond the GOP, for the party is a symptom of a peculiar American sociology as much as the Republican Party is a cause of many of the political ills we face. One suspects the real cause is ultimately a confluence of long-term historical trends. The 40-year-long deindustrialization of the country and the associated weakening of upward mobility for blue-collar Americans are significant factors. Along with deindustrialization came the catastrophic decline of industrial unions, which had once been a secular political outlet for constructive action and social assimilation for workers. The symbiosis of politics and religion in American life, a phenomenon almost unheard of in other advanced democracies these days, infused many politicians with a taste for self-righteousness and apocalyptic brinksmanship that are fatal to a system designed for separation of powers, compromise, and moderation. Finally, the Cold War lasted too long, and left a permanent garrison state; it also left a paranoid world view that demands enemies foreign and domestic. If the monolithic world Communist conspiracy is no longer with us, the Muslim caliphate will serve nicely in its stead. If there is no longer an internal Red menace boring from within, there is a secret Muslim poised to become CIA director.
Contrary to some observers, I do not believe the GOP is finished as a national party. It is too well entrenched in too many state legislatures due to gerrymandering. In turn, the state legislatures can gerrymander congressional districts thoroughly enough so that it is unlikely Republicans will lose control of the House at least until the census of 2020. Dixie and the Tornado Belt are prone to send candidates of the intellectual caliber and world view of James Inhofe to the Senate for the foreseeable future, thus assuring a veto over legislation via the filibuster. The voting base itself, endlessly stoked by talk radio and Fox News, thrives on its martyr-like self-image as a persecuted remnant of Real Americans; and all the would-be messiahs they adore are Republicans, not third party candidates. There is also just too much money to be made by hucksters, so it is doubtful that the GOP will go the way of the Whigs. And, who knows, another national catastrophe like 9/11 or an asset collapse could once again put them at the helm of the country to summon the demons lurking in the national id.