Tonight, the caucus-goers of Iowa will trudge through the snow and drizzle and gently, calmly tear the Republican Party into a dozen different shreds. The Republicans will vote for men with wildly conflicting visions to be their candidate for President: the plastic Mormon-marketeering of Mitt Romney, the theocratic fever of Mike Huckabee, the near-anarchism of Ron Paul. After seven years of Bush, American conservatism is coming apart at the seams, dazed and foggy about where to go now.
Ever since Ronald Reagan, the Republicans have managed to glue together a conflicting, contradictory coalition of interests. They took Christian fundamentalists and market fundamentalists, swollen Empire-builders and lean small-staters, and squeezed them all into one option in the polling booth. But in the run-up to Iowa, we have seen these different components turn on each other with an angry snarl. Look, for example, at the Christian evangelicals. The Republican leadership has fed and watered this base by offering ever-more pious words, and ever-more anti-abortion judges. In return, they expect the evangelicals to support everything else they do - vast tax-cuts for the rich, pissing on the poor, bombing The Bad Guys. Bush's former senior advisors David Kuo and John Dilulio have described how Bush and his confidants would often invite evangelical leaders into the Oval Office, make reams of promises to them, and then mock them the moment they left as fools.
But something fascinating has happened this year: the evangelicals have grown angry at being kept in this judges-and-bromides cage. They have smashed through the bars, and the man who helped them do it is Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee. He is a syrup-voiced Baptist minister from a town called Hope (yes, the same one that gave us Bill Clinton). And he is way off the establishment-Republican script.
Huckabee defines himself against "big corporations," complaining that most hard-working families have not seen the benefits of the Bush boom because it has all trickled up to "Wall Street, not Main Street." He dismisses the tax-cutting Club for Growth as "the Club for Greed". As governor, he increased taxes by 47 per cent to rebuild the state's collapsing infrastructure, and gave scholarships to the children of illegal immigrants. In Huckabee's hokey breast, the old-style evangelical populism of William Jennings Bryan -the perennial Democratic candidate for President at the turn of the last century - has been reborn. And, like Bryan, he is a barking theocrat. He insists the world was created 6,000 years ago, and he ain't descended from no monkey. He drawls, "Science changes with every generation with new discoveries, and God doesn't. So I'll stick with God." In the 1990s he suggested quarantining HIV victims, and he openly compares homosexuality to necrophilia and bestiality. Both halves of this message resonated in the Republican heartlands: Huckabee was ahead in the polls for the nomination just a few weeks ago.
The panicked corporate Republican establishment spent decades inciting the evangelicals to ever-higher heights of rhetorical fancy - only to find the monster they created is now turning on them, demanding their theocratic words be taken seriously.
At the opposite end of the Republican spectrum, there is a parallel and opposing rebellion - of the small-state conservatives. The Republicans have always claimed they are committed to peeling back both taxes and spending, and (the old clichÃƒ©) "getting the state off your back". But under Bush they have done the opposite. Spending has exploded - primarily because of the one-trillion-dollar war in Iraq, and the vast government hand-outs Bush signed into law for his corporate donors. True, there have been huge tax cuts for the wealthy - but they have been put on America's Visa card, paid for with massive loans from China.
So now the small-staters are kicking back. Their magi is Ron Paul, a soft-spoken doctor and Congressman from Texas who openly describes the United States as "an empire" he wants to "abolish" overnight. He would bring all US troops home on his first night as President and he says this would end Islamic fundamentalism because "they don't hate us because we're free, they hate us because we're over there".
Ron Paul wants to shrink the US state back to the size it was when the constitution was written in the 18th- century. He would abolish healthcare, pensions, anti-poverty programmes - almost everything. He would end the war on drugs and the "war on terror", and pull the US out of the United Nations. This is a revival of the old isolationist America First! message that dominated the American right until relatively recently - the 1940s. His campaign has found extraordinary resonance with one chunk of the Republican base: Paul has received more individual donations than any other candidate, even though he has no chance of winning. It shows how far the Republican coalition has been stretched that Paul and Huckabee are in the same party: Paul called one of Huckabee's adverts "fascist".
Yet the Republican establishment has found it hard to demolish these tendencies because they have no obvious candidate to unite behind. Rudi Giuliani is a hardline imperialist and instinctive authoritarian, but he is soft on gays and guns. John McCain believes the US should be the successor to the brutal British Empire and wants to criminalise abortion, but he also believes in capping corporate power over politics and doing something (but not enough) about global warming. This Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism is too much for them today. The Party's corporate paymasters have tried to manufacture a candidate who can keep the old Reagan coalition together: the mega-rich businessman and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. He is handsome, wholesome and wholly false. He has taken a tick-list of all the things a Republican candidate has to be, and carefully contorted himself to fit them all.
Just a few years ago, Romney was a pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun governor who bragged he wasn't a successor to Reagan. But, like his Mormon Church, whenever politics requires it, he has a convenient divine revelation telling him God wants him to get with the focus groups.
Just before it became illegal in the 1970s, God "told" the Mormon elders their ban on black people was wrong all along.
Just before running for the Republican nomination, Romney realised he was an anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-gun Reaganite all along. He is now trying to gloss over the cracks by defining himself against (boo! hiss!) "secularists", and insisting that "freedom requires religion".
It is now plausible there will be no obvious winner from the Republican primaries. If that happens, we will be in a situation unseen since 1948: the delegates at the convention in September will have to huddle together and pick a representative of Republicanism. It won't be easy. They will be frantically trying to glue together scraps of bacon, long after the pig has been slaughtered.
© 2008 The Independent