The culture of fundamentalist Christianity has had profound impacts on the Republican party in the past few decades, moving Republicans to the right on various issues and forcing Republicans to prioritize gay-bashing and attacks on reproductive rights. The shutdown, however, ended up demonstrating something even more sinister. Republicans are no longer just cribbing their political ideology from fundamentalist Christianity. Increasingly, conservative politicians are abandoning the basic task of representing the interests of their voters and instead are exploiting their voters in the same way televangelists and other fundamentalist charlatans exploit the true believers that come to them looking for spiritual salvation.
Ted Cruz is the most prominent example, at least in the past month. After the shutdown debacle, it became clear that Cruz has no interest in using his position as a Texas senator to work on behalf of the voters who got him there. Instead, his M.O. is pure sleazy televangelist: Lots of public grandstanding to convince his marks, previously known as constituents, that he's on their side, for the sole purpose of shaking them down for money and support without offering anything in return.
The Houston Chronicle lamented ever endorsing Cruz, comparing him unfavorably to his predecessor Kay Baily Hutchinson. Hutchinson actually bothered to represent her voters, putting a priority on the state’s economic development. Cruz is as different from Hutchinson as a miracle-promising conman taking old ladies for their Social Security checks is from the local minister who actually bothers to do the unglamorous work of holding hands, wiping tears and performing weddings and funerals for parishioners. Being an actual working politician is boring. Cruz is a new breed of conservative politician who is forsaking even the semblance of governance for mugging for the camera and then cashing some more checks.
Of course, Cruz is far from the only politician who apparently models his career off fraudulent fundamentalist preachers who love self-aggrandizing drama but don’t care too much about, well, caring for their people. The all-flash-no-substance model is beginning to take over the Republican party. While Sarah Palin may be wedged by party leaders out of having any position of power anymore, her run as a celebrity-politician signaled a new era of leaders who are far more interested in grandstanding dramatics than they could ever be in doing the hard work of governing. It’s not just that Palin is a camera hog who has tried repeatedly to even get into the reality show business. She notoriously quit her actual job as governor to focus full time on her “job” of being a rabble rouser.
Michele Bachmann loves praising Jesus in front of the camera, but ended up deciding not to run for re-election when the spotlight was put on her campaign’s possible corruption. Rand Paul paints himself as a filibustering hero taking on worldwide evil, but the reality is that his crusades are all dramatics without much substance. Republicans love to accuse Obama of being an empty suit, but the Republican bench is where you have to go to see politicians living the life of arena-packing fundamentalist charlatans, who talk a big game but aren’t interested in delivering real services to their followers. The entire House of Republicans is quickly becoming notorious for being a bunch of do-nothings who love preening for the cameras but can’t be bothered to govern.
The entire battle over Obamacare shows that the heavy dramatics/minimal substance model brought over from religious charlatans has become the way the Republican Party does business these days. It’s not just the 42-and-counting votes to repeal Obamacare. It’s that Republicans have decided to actively screw their constituents over in order to pose like true heroes for the cause.
The Medicaid expansion is the classic example. Generally speaking, even if voters in a state disapprove of the federal government spending tax money on a program, representatives who can’t end the disapproved-of federal program will opt for their state to take the money. Otherwise, it’s not fair to the voters. They paid into the federal tax accounts, and should be able to see their share coming back to them for that. This need to be fair to their voters means Republican politicians may vote the way voters want them to on social programs, but at the end of the day, if the programs are going to exist, they’re going to take their fair share.
But most Republican governors and legislatures have opted this go-round to refuse to take on the Medicaid expansion, even though that means turning down their fair share of the money their voters have paid into the system already. It’s about making a dramatic gesture to make the audience ooh and ah, all while hoping they don’t notice they’re not actually getting the results they wanted. Much like a faith healer hitting you on the head and leaving town with your money before you realize you’re not actually cured, Republicans know that the only result of this gesture is that the voters are going to pay their tax money without seeing any return on their investment. It’s a complete abdication of the basic responsibilities of looking out for the interests of the voters.
Obviously, the right has always had a charlatan side, with plenty of self-appointed leaders viewing the faithful as marks to bilk for cash instead of giving people the services promised. Faith healers and other religious conmen have preyed on fundamentalist Christian audiences for over a century now. As historian Rick Perlstein wrote in the Baffler, conservative media has long subsisted on selling snake oil to their followers and running mail order schemes to defraud conservative readers while making the leaders wealthy. But, by and large, Republicans of the past did consider it a duty to actually work for the people who elected them. That relationship has fundamentally changed. Like megachurch pastors who praise Jesus and pass the collection plate but can't remember their parishioners' names, the modern Republican sees the voters as rubes he can hoodwink into sending him to D.C. while not doing any actual work for them.