My wife’s late father, J.E. Herod, was a lifelong Tennessee Republican from the hill country east of Nashville near Carthage. It’s a land of small towns that had names after the Civil War like difficult and defeated. A land of hard-working farmers plowing with horses and mules, and with struggling small merchants.
J.E. Herod won the Distinguished Flying Cross in WWII. As a kid, as a special treat, my wife climbed on this lap to play with the shrapnel that still remained in his arm. He was a moral man, a religious man who eventually became a wealthy real estate developer building well-designed subdivisions. He was the embodiment of the rock-robbed, prudent and self-reliant Republican. He knew what he stood for and what he believed.
My wife assures me he would have despised Donald Trump, like her brother does today, another deeply religious conservative Southern Republican, definitely not a liberal and definitely not a member of the MAGA mob.
The future for the Republican Party and American democracy unfolds
What’s to become of a Republican Party with a majority of voters apparently still members of the Donald Trump personality cult? And, more importantly, what’s to become of American democracy in a two-party system where one of the two parties now considers insurrection and sacking the Capitol as just another useful and necessary tool.
The participants in the MAGA mob that assaulted and sacked the Capitol on Jan 6 expressed the kind of frenzied violence and absolute belief of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards more than belief in any sort of rational political program. “Fight for Trump” was their chant and only explicit politics. The Red Guards, like the MAGA mob, were true believers in the self-anointed leader’s whims whose orders they follow. They are capable of acts of extreme cruelty and violence perpetrated with the belief they are moral and patriotic. “Hang Mike Pence” they chanted and snapped selfies and sent happy texts back home, some reflecting the same kind of joy shown in photos of celebratory lynch mobs after murdering African Americans or other unfortunate victims. Democracy is nowhere to be found.
Republican politicians standing up to Trump like Liz Cheney face not just censure from colleagues but veiled threats. There is a kind of civil war now within the Republican Party between those who support Democracy and conservatism and the supporters of DJT who are not burdened by a political platform beyond service to Donald Trump who as a carnival barker is an expert playing to the crowd’s fears, darker impulses, and unleashed conspiratorial fancies.
What happens if the Republican Party continues to embrace and coddle white supremacy, nativism, anti-semitism, and insurrection manifest variously in groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Q-Anon, Boogaloo boys, and many self-styled armed militia groups? After the events of January 6, this is not an abstract or ideological question. Currently, the next date to install Donald Trump to his place as President is being discussed online as of March 4, 2021.
That such debates and plans still occur online makes it clear that these groups still believe they can plot sedition and insurrection openly because they are following the orders of the “real” President and are acting as patriots to “Stop the Steal”. This is despite the decisions of 60 courts, the findings of Attorney General Barr, the certification of the votes by 50 states, with 7 million more Biden votes counted, and on and on.
So far, those who sacked the Capitol have generally been charged with minor crimes, and with a few exceptions been released on low or no bond. They have not yet been charged with much more serious crimes of insurrection or felony-murder for the killing of a police officer at the Capitol. Perhaps the American political system is incapable of confronting MAGA nation and its mob and the plotters and will continue to operate with relative impunity.
It’s often remarked that if Jan 6 was a Black Lives Matter attempt to storm the Capitol that many scores would have been shot dead before they set to breaking the windows to enter the Capitol first by bull rushing and beating police standing in their way.
Alternative futures for the Republican Party
If the Republican Party continues to embrace, in the name of MAGA, violent insurrection justified by a “stolen” election and Q-anon cultism, sooner or later it will either not function as a major political party in the United States or, alternatively, finally succeed in reinstalling Trump or a surrogate autocrat into power and dispensing with democracy.
An insurrectionist Republican Part is likely to face, sooner or later, the fate of Golden Dawn in Greece a right-wing group whose predilection to violence ultimately led to the indictment and arrest of leadership, and its end as a force in Greek politics.
As armed struggle groups like the IRA, Al-Qaeda, ETA in the Basque region of Spain, have found, you cannot have a group supporting and practicing armed struggle function as a group with public meetings and open communications. You must go under-ground. That means leaving your home, jobs, all social contacts and live in the shadows. The Republican Party could serve as the above ground mouthpiece for armed struggles like Sinn Fein in Ireland or Batasuna in the Basque country which itself was banded in 2003 as an anti-democratic organization.
It is highly unlikely that such a group in the context of American politics could win national or most state elections. Georgia and Arizona are good examples of the likely electoral rebuke of a Republican Party that goes even deeper into a violence prone MAGA dream.
It is likely that a U.S. conservative party will emerge either as a post-MAGA GOP or as a new party, much as the Whig party in the 19th century, unable to deal with the question of slavery, disappeared, and was eventually replaced by the anti-slavery, pro-business Republican Party.
The MAGA GOP is more like the rise in the 1850s of the anti-immigrant American Party of the 19th century, popularly known as the Know Nothings who had influence before fading away during the Civil War. They were the first major third party with a strong anti-catholic, anti-immigration, anti-Irish and pro-worker, populist bent, given to spreading anti-Catholic conspiracies, sort of a proto-MAGA group.
The party grew out of an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB) formed in New York in 1849 with lodges soon appearing in most major American cities. The OSSB was open only to citizens of Protestant Anglo-Saxon heritage. They had requisite secret passwords and hand signals with an initiation ritual called “Seeing Sam,” and a pledge never to disclose any information to outsiders, with a response if questioned, “I know nothing.
They elected Nathaniel Banks to Congress in MA in 1854. In 1855, at the peak of their power, the Know Nothings claimed 43 congressmen. In 1856 they nominated former President Millard Fillmore in the 1856 election. Fillmore won a single state, Maryland, finished third with 29% of the vote behind the Democratic and Republican nominees with James Buchanan becoming President and attempting unsuccessfully to satisfy both pro and anti-slavery forces.
After the Dred Scott pro-slavery Supreme Court decision in 1857 the Know Nothings, like most of America, split into pro and antislavery camps. Many anti-slavery No-Nothings joined the Republican Party. Other Know Nothings became part of the Constitutional Union Party that supported the union and slavery.
The future of U.S. democracy
Past is prologue. A personality driven Trump cult is likely to have limited longevity. But that does not mean it cannot or will not contend for power. The success and political perspicacity of the Biden administration will have a lot to do with what happens to democracy challenged by the MAGA mob. A Biden failure will open the doors to any number of ambitious Trump acolytes yearning to raise the Trump banner once again.
But what seems more likely, is that Biden’s success against the Covid-19 virus and successful economic relief and climate change driven mass infrastructure revitalization will go a long way to confine Trumpism to an ever shrinking sphere of influence whose time has come and gone. Q-anon of Trumpism and the Order of Sam of the Know Nothings are expressions, 170 years apart, of the paranoid style of American politics, described by Richard Hofstadter, erupting in times of social ferment and change. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” noted Hofstadter in 1964 in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and conservatism once again rising.
Americans of all political stripes, as 2020 and 2021 have shown, are not simply spectators, but must exercise their rights as Democratic citizens working non-violently for Democracy. That’s the path toward peace and democracy for all. What we do matters.
Or, as Churchill said in a Speech to the House of Commons in 1947, and is worth remembering in these most challenging times:
... democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, and that public opinion expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.