As President Joe Biden sells a popular Covid-19 rescue plan, highlights a quickening national vaccine effort, positions himself to benefit from an economic growth spurt after the pandemic and tackles economic inequity in American society, the GOP seems to be acting out the temperament of the last President. At times, the party seems trapped in a perpetual primary race, shaping positions that seem best suited as fodder for the culture warriors at Fox News.
The party has spent the first months of the Biden administration rewriting electoral laws to suppress minority votes, denying the truth of Trump’s Capitol insurrection, raging against vaccine passports and trashing science with state openings that threaten to cause unnecessary pandemic deaths.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unleashed a fearsome attack on “woke” corporations that reacted to a discriminatory voting law in Georgia. McConnell, at least in his rhetoric, sounded a lot like the former President. “Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box,” the Kentucky Republican said. In fact, what Georgia voters rejected at the ballot box – causing the GOP to change the laws – was a second term for Trump and two Republican senators.
McConnell’s threat of consequences for big business also rang with Trumpian bluster since no one thinks the GOP – or the Kentuckian, who has built a career defending corporate cash in politics – is suddenly turning into an Occupy Wall Street activist. Yet it was a free hit for a minority leader more known for playing the long game, with the veteran senator well aware that it will draw headlines in conservative media and might help ease his estrangement with Trump’s base voters.
The most eye-catching current story about the Republican Party is not the way it is mobilizing to thwart Biden’s increasingly radical presidency. It is the multiple scandals ripping around Trump protegé Rep. Matt Gaetz, the latest being a New York Times report Tuesday night that alleged the Florida Republican sought a preemptive pardon for himself and congressional allies at the end of the ex-President’s time in office.
Gaetz is refusing to show contrition in a defiant and unapologetic stand reminiscent of his mentor. While few Republicans are rushing to defend him, it has been an unwelcome distraction for the GOP as they try to reposition the party for the elections of 2022. Another one of the most visible Republicans this year has been first-term pro-Trump Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who is known for conspiracy theories and spreading false narratives about Trump’s election loss.
The party’s strategy does reflect the views of much of its activist base voters – among whom Trump remains deeply popular in an audience that is fully bought into the ex-President’s lies about the last election being stolen. But it is far from clear the Trump-style uproar is proving to be an effective counter to Biden, as he rushes to put a lasting liberal imprint on social policy that echoes Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Trump still ruling the GOP
By making a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago soon after Trump left the White House, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a signal that he believed keeping the Make America Great Again fans on his side was a passport to power in the 2022 congressional elections.
But it remains an open question if that is a winning message among the suburban voters who deserted the GOP amid distaste at Trump’s antics. Populism drove Trump to power. But now that he’s not in the White House, ad hoc appeals to his base are doing little to build a coherent rhetorical and philosophical alternative to Biden’s big government power. The party lacks the kind of conservative doctrine and clear program that swept Newt Gingrich to the speaker’s gavel in the 1994 midterm election or even the clear message that helped George W. Bush win the White House in 2000.
It’s not as if there aren’t good targets for Republicans. Biden was initially caught flatfooted amid a surge of child migrants to the border when he changed the former President’s tough immigration policies. The issue is one where the President has significant vulnerabilities, according to polls. But the Gaetz firestorm, coverage of GOP voter suppression and the heartrending testimony in the trial into George Floyd’s death have thwarted Republican efforts to keep Biden on the spot on immigration.
Biden’s new cause, a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that represents his latest attempt to reorient the economy towards working class and middle class Americans, also ought to offer pickings for the Republicans. The party is taking a familiar tack in branding the huge bill as little more than a massive tax hike to fuel far left liberal programs. Yet there must be questions over whether that approach fits the current mood of the country during a pandemic in which sweeping government action to solve problems has been enjoying something of a revival.
Just as the GOP left Biden a clear field to claim credit for any economic recovery by opposing the Covid relief bill, there is a chance its obstruction on infrastructure could turn out to be a liability. There is no sign for example that Republicans have an alternative plan to help out the many elderly and disabled Americans who need home health care – who the President is targeting under his expanded definition of “infrastructure.” It may also be a risk to oppose a hike in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% after big business got a windfall during the Trump years.
Trump’s influence is nationwide
Republican culture warriors are not just operating in Washington. Governors across the country – including several who might hope to woo Trump’s flock in possible 2024 White House runs – are also headline hunting, attempting to use the roiling battle over voter suppression to their advantage.
Rejecting criticism of Georgia’s restrictive voting rights law, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp essentially ripped a page from Trump’s playbook when dealing with the fallout of Major League Baseball pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta. In a shape-shifting exercise, he blamed Democrats for the backlash to the law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, charging that their “lies” about the legislation had cost “hard working Georgians” a paycheck by causing baseball to shift the game to Denver.
Hitting a buzzword sure to have resonance for the GOP nationally, Kemp argued that the move was the product of “cancel culture,” a favorite catch phrase of the former President, who used it as a defense whenever his attempts to stoke the culture wars came under fire.
Attempting to deflect criticism for their role in legislation that will disproportionately make it harder for Black Americans to vote, Kemp and other Republicans have suggested that the community is now paying an economic price as a result of corporate activism on voting rights. The Georgia governor said the nation should interpret MLB’s move to mean that “cancel culture and partisan activists are coming for your business. They’re coming for your game or event in your hometown, and they’re coming to cancel everything from sports to how you make a living, and they will stop at nothing to silence all of us.”
Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel echoed those talking points in an interview on Fox News in which she said that the “little person” in Georgia will ultimately be harmed by MLB’s actions. “Atlanta, a majority-black city, those hotdog vendors, those hotels, these businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic,” McDaniel said. “They are hurting the little guy based on a lie told by the President, by President Joe Biden.” The President did err in suggesting that the Peach State had cut voting hours on Election Day. But the bulk of the evidence suggests the law makes it harder for Black Georgians to vote.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another Trump acolyte, tied MLB’s action to what she viewed as pandering to political correctness when football and basketball stars came out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests last year that followed the death of George Floyd while under arrest by a Minneapolis police officer.
“Like the @nfl & @nba before it, @mlb is the latest pro sports league being used & bullied by the most radical liberal groups in this country,” Noem said in a recent tweet, adding the hashtag #GetWokeGoBroke.
After calling this past weekend for Republicans to boycott the corporations that are speaking up on voting rights, Trump weighed in with similar mockery of “woke” corporations during an interview with Newsmax on Tuesday: “They’re woke and woke is not good for our country. Woke is not good,” Trump said when asked for his opinion on MLB’s decision.
Apparently alluding to several restrictive voting bills that are moving through the Texas Legislature – which have led companies like American Airlines and Dell to register their opposition before the bills become law – Trump also warned that corporations might pay a steeper price for speaking up in the Lone Star State.
“Let them try boycotting Texas. Texas will teach them a lesson, that I can tell you. Let them try it,” Trump told Newsmax. “Look, it’s crazy what’s going on, it shouldn’t be happening, frankly these companies should stay out of it, because all they do is aggravate people and people are not happy with it.”
“If Republican conservatives ever got their act together,” the former President added, they would boycott the corporations criticizing the legislation and “these companies that are so above it all, you would find that they would come back into the fold very quickly. But right now, the liberals, the radical left, the Democrats, they play a much tougher game.”
His comments were a reminder that the former President doesn’t just loom over the Republican Party — he has changed the way it conducts politics, a lasting legacy and a set of tactics that the GOP does not seem willing to abandon anytime soon.