Republicans' private terror: Why they despise the modern American state -- and embrace fanaticism

That letter to Iran said more about the GOP than Tom Cotton and company ever intended. Here's their demented logic

Published March 19, 2015 8:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston/Chris Carlson/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Danny Johnston/Chris Carlson/Photo montage by Salon)

As I write this, more than a week has passed since 47 Republican senators decided the leaders of Iran needed an American civics class. Their March 9 letter moved from the relatively arcane-- how to distinguish treaties from “executive-congressional agreements” and both from “mere executive agreements”-- to the comparatively straightforward: presidents come and go, the Republicans observed, but senators can last forever. (Or at least for “decades.”) Their lessons imparted, the 47 (can it be long before a movie tells their story in the fashion of “300”?) wished “clarity” upon the mullahs and signed off, doubtless to prepare their next text -- a postcard on the Federalist Papers, perhaps, or an email on the blessings (or the curse) of judicial review. The latter, it goes without saying, will not be issued until the Supreme Court rules on the latest Obamacare case.

Denunciations were immediate and thunderous, most of them from Democrats, of course, but some from that increasingly endangered species variously identified as “establishment” or “mainstream” Republicans. (A species on a double-edged sword of extinction, because not only is it subject to constant predation, it has given up any effort to reproduce!) All of them decried the letter as utterly unprecedented, which forgets only the other utterly unprecedented moves by congressional Republicans, such as John Boehner’s decision a week earlier to turn the floor of the House into a mosh pit for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whether or not the Senate’s pedagogical moment was inspired by the example of their House colleagues--- a pincer movement! a tag-team event! a double whammy!--- it certainly employed the same tactic: the use of a foreign power to shape the outcome of an American policy debate.

Much froth has been expended on the question of whether this constitutes “treason.” Even more has been devoted to theories about why Republicans do these things. Why the dalliance with Netanyahu? Why the love note to the Iranian right? Predictably, many commentators link these events to Republican hatred of President Obama. On MSNBC’s "Hardball," for example, Chris Matthews depicted both as simply the right’s latest primal scream, a two-headed monster from the Republican id:

“Some day years from now people will look back on this presidency… They will read how it started with the Republican Senate leader calling for the president’s defeat, declaring that the business of the opposition from the first day was to ensure the new president (a) accomplishes nothing and (b) gets booted from office as quickly as possible. They will… wonder what was it that made this Republican opposition so all out contemptuous of an American president…. They will… perhaps get the idea that the age of Jim Crow managed to find a new habitat in the early 21st century Republican Party.”

They may very well get that idea, and far be it from me to say they would be mistaken. But this can’t be a complete explanation of what happened here. After all, 21st century Republicans are also following in the footsteps of their late 20th century brethren, who, for example, didn’t just oppose and defame Bill Clinton -- they impeached him. So while it’s undoubtedly true that some Republicans despise Obama, their behavior as a party seems driven by something other than purely personal motives. Difficult as it may be for many Americans to realize, politics is really about something more than personalities. It’s about, er, politics, and the recent behavior of Republicans must be seen in that light to be fully understood. Their latest escapades merely extend the logic of the party’s evolution since the early 1960s. They may hate Barack Obama, but what they really hate is the modern American state.

Constitutions matter, but every political system depends as well on informal norms, a more or less tacit consensus on how things will be done and what kind of behavior is and isn’t acceptable. This is especially true in America, where our constitutional separation of executive and legislature, and extra-constitutional devices like the filibuster, require compromise and cooperation if the government is to function effectively. Political actors must accept the constraints laid down by the rules (formal and informal) that define legitimate behavior, and must trust that others will do so in turn. When this trust lapses, confrontation replaces compromise and the political system lurches into crisis.

There have been three moments in our history when something like this happened. The first arose very early, when anxieties about revolutionary France led the Federalist administration of John Adams to propose a number of measures, including the infamous “Alien and Sedition Acts,” intended to enhance executive authority and to repress domestic dissent. This led the Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to draft a series of resolutions defending the right of states to nullify federal statutes they deemed unconstitutional. Adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures, these ignited a confrontation between proponents of Federal power and advocates of “states’ rights” that roiled our politics until the Civil War, and beyond.

The second moment, of course, was the Civil War itself. The third is much more recent, extending over at least the Obama presidency but with roots as far back, perhaps, as the Clinton impeachment. It involves the readiness of Republicans to violate long-standing norms of institutional conduct in order to advance a highly divisive, intensely partisan agenda. Impeachment and the threat of impeachment; the use of primaries to defeat Republican incumbents judged to be insufficiently “conservative”; a willingness to default on the debt or shutdown the government; the indiscriminate use of the filibuster to require super-majorities in the Senate on virtually every issue--- this pattern of increasingly radical behavior may certainly be associated, in any given case, with the anger or pique of particular politicians. But its deepest source is in the political attitudes of an increasingly radical party.

There are several different levels of explanation here. To some degree, the Republican obsession with impeachment and the filibuster--- and the Iran letter too -- simply reflects the GOP’s growing sense of itself as primarily a congressional party. As it gradually loses the ability to compete for the presidency -- it has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections -- its power base in Congress and legislative prerogatives generally are more important to it. The party that fought pitched battles during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan years -- and even as recently as the Bush II presidency -- to safeguard executive authority from congressional “overreach” now defends the right of freshman senators to conduct foreign policy. One would love to hear what Dick Cheney thinks about that, if only he could be trusted to say what he thinks.

Also relevant is the entrepreneurial environment GOP politicians inhabit nowadays. The proliferation of media outlets, PACs, and “policy” centers on the right has changed the calculus for many of its office-holders. They know an alternate career path is out there, one potentially more lucrative and less burdensome than government employment. A conservative politician who is fast on his or her feet, looks good in a suit, and adheres closely enough to right-wing dogma can trade public service for the private sector and make out like a bandit. The pioneer here, of course, is Sarah Palin, who ditched the governorship of Alaska for media celebrity after her ride on the Straight Talk Express in 2008. Her example is surely not lost on the likes of Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton. As such people grow more and more detached from actual governing, the norms that enable and define successful governance matter less and less to them.

But these two factors, important as they are, are not the deepest source of the GOP’s behavior. That is surely the mutation in its idea of government, a mutation that spread through the party as a whole when white Southerners flocked to it after the passage of Civil Rights laws in the mid-1960s. Until that time, the Republican Party, while “conservative” in the spectrum of American politics, largely accepted the modern state constructed by politicians -- Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt -- of both parties. This state tried to keep private markets free and fair, and imposed minimum standards for the safety and welfare of workers; it sought a stable currency; and it insisted on the equal citizenship of racial, religious, and ethnic minorities. More recently, it worked to extend this status to groups defined variously by gender and/or sexuality.

Republicans might be suspicious of some of these aspirations, and more inclined than Democrats to urge caution and restraint, but in general they regarded the modern state as a necessary compromise with modern life. This began to change in response to the racial and cultural politics of the 1960s. The white Southerners who bolted the Democratic Party for the GOP didn’t view the modern state as a necessity; they saw it as apostasy. It wasn’t a pragmatic compromise with the changed landscape of modernity, but a monstrous conspiracy to replace true American values with a spurious and corrupt humanism. In doing so, it sought to blot out God-given distinctions between the races and the sexes -- and between the productive and the unproductive -- in the name of an artificial equality that would both require and justify constant Federal intrusion.

To maximize its appeal to these new Southern voters, the Republican Party adopted an increasingly radical version of conservative thought and expressed it in increasingly harsh rhetoric. As liberals and moderates in the North and upper Midwest began to desert the Party, its Southern supporters became ever more important to it -- which led to even more extreme advocacy and another round of desertions and defections. After 50 years, this relentless process of ideological purification has produced a party whose electoral appeal is almost wholly confined to rural and suburban whites, most of whom reside in Southern states. In the 2012 presidential election, the South provided 72 percent of Mitt Romney’s electoral votes. (The Party is still strong in some areas of the West and Midwest, but these sparsely populated states provide little electoral heft. Today’s GOP is essentially a field of kudzu combed now and then by stray tumbleweeds.)

This is the party of Georgia boy Newt Gingrich, who dismissed Kansas Sen. Robert Dole, an old-school Robert Taft Republican, as “a tax collector for the welfare state.” It’s the party of Tennessee’s Martha Blackburn, a House member who hailed the 2013 government shutdown because it would show Americans “they can live with a lot less government than what they thought they needed.” It’s the party of Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech, and of former Texas governor Rick Perry, who peppers his speeches with references to secession and “states’ rights.”  This Republican Party shows little interest in the norms that have defined American politics because it has only contempt for the state those norms are designed to sustain.

Full of scorn for their own government, the ideologues who control today’s GOP feel free to disregard any limitation on their pursuit of conservative purity. The letter to Iran, and the invitation to Netanyahu, merely enact this principle in the realm of foreign affairs. The real concern of the Tea Party isn’t the modern American state, which it despises, but its own hermetic vision of the conservative “cause”-- a cause that transcends national boundaries. Its adherents find it easier to cooperate with the leader of Israel’s Likud Party than with their Democratic colleagues in the American Congress. Tom Cotton’s dispatch to Tehran -- or something like it -- was the inevitable outcome of the process set in motion by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. We should expect more of the same in the future.

President Obama remarked that the Republican outreach to Iran’s leaders resulted in “an unusual coalition.” One of the many pleasures of Richard Condon’s novel "The Manchurian Candidate" -- and of the sublime 1962 film with Angela Lansbury and Lawrence Harvey -- was its suggestion that ultimately all fanaticisms merge and all fanatics, no matter how sharp their visible differences, become potential allies. Lansbury, an anti-communist Lady Macbeth to a vile, Joe McCarthy-like politician, plots to install her son (Harvey) in the White House with the help of China’s Communist Party. In the fractured world of the film it all makes a terrible kind of sense. The logic of fanaticism can be hard to resist. Just ask Tom Cotton.

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick lives in North Carolina. His blog, "Primarily Politics," is at

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