Donald Trump (R) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis

Former U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis hold a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida on July 31, 2020.

(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Has the GOP Lost Its Brain? Hardly.

This political party does still have ideas—extremely dangerous ones that must be soundly and permanently defeated.

Timothy Noah is an incisive commentor on U.S. politics. His recent New Republic essay, “How the GOP Lost Its Brain,” nicely documents the ways that the Republican party has become both increasingly anti-intellectual and incoherent since the days of Reagan. The GOP deserves to be skewered for its inconsistencies, absurdities, and lunatics. And its very real fissures ought to be analyzed with care, for they can grow, and contribute to the party’s weakening if they do. But it does not follow from these fissures that the GOP is an agglomeration of nihilists and no longer has “ideas.” It has ideas, and they are summed up in the acronym MAGA, which now defines both the Republican base and its major leaders and presidential aspirants.

These are powerful and dangerous ideas, even if they do not constitute a coherent policy agenda.

Noah writes that the party’s “failure to produce a party platform in 2020 proved beyond a doubt that there was no such thing as a GOP ideology.” I get what he is saying; that 2020 Republican not-platform was surely a sign of something troubling. But Noah’s account is not quite right. The RNC’s one-page announcement in the summer of 2020 declared that the Convention “would adjourn without adopting a new platform” until 2024 (emphasis added.) This announcement was immediately preceded by this Resolution: “That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

In short, the GOP in 2020 registered its continued adherence to its 2016 platform and, more important, announced its unqualified and total support for the agenda, the rhetoric, and the performance of Donald Trump, this after numerous scandals, the Mueller Report, and an impeachment.

There is a term for this: The Leader Principle (in German, more ominously, Fuhrerprinzip). It played an important role in the history of fascism. As Noah well knows, for years now a serious debate has raged among scholars and public intellectuals about the extent to which Trumpism has fascist dimensions. The semantic debate about “fascism” will surely continue. But what is really beyond debate is that the GOP has become deeply hostile to liberal democracy, and its principal leaders and ideologues have quite explicitly lauded the xenophobic, nationalistic, and anti-liberal regime of Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The GOP might be confused about what it is for. But it is crystal clear about what it is against.

It is not only that prominent Republican officials and MAGA media personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Steve Bannon embrace Orban. A substantial network of right-wing academic institutions actively and relentlessly promote Orban’s dark vision. These include the Claremont Institute and its publications, The Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind; venues such as American Affairs, American Greatness, and Law & Liberty; and Hillsdale College–the principal source of Trump’s infamous “1776 Commission”–which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is currently vaunting as the model for the restructuring of higher education in his state (and is surely a demonstration project for a DeSantis presidency).

The purveyors of these ideas have willingly and cynically made common cause with Q-anon conspiracists, Second Amendment fanatics, “Left Behind” preppers, and neo-Nazis. And in doing so they have helped to transform the GOP from a more or less free market conservative party to a radical conservative party—an extremist party—intent on eradicating “progressivism,” “socialism,” “wokeism,” and all forms of liberalism.

The GOP might be confused about what it is for. But it is crystal clear about what it is against.

And while the nasty skirmish about Kevin McCarthy’s House Speakership might have centered on “egos and power rivalries,” it is a fact that McCarthy, Elise Stefaniak, Steve Scalise and their attack dog Marjorie Taylor Greene in short order came together with Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar—all of whom voted to undo Joe Biden’s election as president—to commit themselves to a culture war against the left and indeed against cultural modernity itself.

Today’s GOP contains idiots and nihilists and pathological liars like George Santos. It contains sheer opportunists such as Mitch McConnell and even McCarthy himself. And since 2016, it has been dominated by a group of right-wing ideologues, inside and outside of government, who have fueled and been fueled by Trump and who are emphatically committed to a reactionary nationalist, racist, and authoritarian vision of “American Greatness.” Whether this vision is carried forward by Trump, or DeSantis, is for them quite beside the point. For that is the GOP vision.

I am quite willing to agree with Timothy Noah that in a conventional, colloquial sense these people have “lost their minds.” They surely inhabit a strange intellectual and moral universe of their own deluded contrivance. But they are not without ideas. They are fanatics, in possession of and possessed by very dangerous ideas. These ideas helped to promote an insurrection. They continue to sustain lies about the legitimacy of the Biden administration and to justify efforts to undermine democratic procedures, voting rights, and racial and gender equality. And they are currently being instrumentalized to reshape K-12 education and higher education in the U.S.

These ideas are very dangerous. And in order to defeat them we need to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

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