Letter from Washington: This is Matt. Don’t be like Matt
Are Republicans serious?
This week, Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida flew to Wyoming. The perma-quiffed sunshine state representative had travelled to chilly Cheyenne to blast Liz Cheney, one of his Republican House colleagues, for supporting the impeachment of Donald Trump.
“Defeat Liz Cheney in this upcoming election,” Gaetz said, “and Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees. How can you call yourself a representative when you don’t represent the will of the people?”
It was exactly the sort of stunt that Gaetz prides himself on. “Stagecraft is statecraft,” Gaetz told Vanity Fair, apparently without even a hint of irony, last year. “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” With Trump out of the White House, it’s becoming even more obvious that the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party is, first and foremost, defined by this attention-seeking impulse.
In an email to Republican colleagues leaked to Time this week, freshman Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn, like Gaetz an enthusiastic Trumpist who voted against the certification of the presidential election results, said that he had built his staff “around comms rather than legislation”. It’s a small, insidery detail — but a telling one.
Lauren Boebert, the owner of a gun-themed restaurant in Colorado who was elected to Congress in November, has come to Washington and spent her time making videos about arming herself on the streets of DC and fussing about metal detectors installed outside the House chamber after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
A party that is a collection of meme lords hunting for virality is hardly a party at all
In the debate about the future of the Republican Party, the most important question is not what set of ideas the Republican Party will stand for, but whether it is even capable of being for any substantive programme of government. Will Republicanism continue to reward stuntmen like Gaetz, serving first and foremost as a platform for content creation in a perpetual, self-sustaining, very online culture war, or will it use its time in opposition to come up with solutions to the problems American voters face? A party that is a collection of meme lords hunting for virality is hardly a party at all.
For those who want Trumpism to be more than a series of populist impulses, this week brought welcome news, with the creation of a new, unapologetically MAGA think tank. Founded by Russ Vought, who served as the last president’s director of Office of Management and Budget, the Center for American Restoration will “recommit to the fight President Trump began” and “help restore an old consensus in America that has been forgotten”. In the Washington Post, Henry Olsen argues that initiatives like this promise to give conservative populism the intellectual chops that has so far been lacking. It might, but Olsen’s optimism must be weighed against the antics of the party’s Trumpist wing, who time and again show a lack of seriousness about big policy questions.
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Part of the problem is the belief, widespread on both sides of the aisle and across America’s very partisan media landscape, that the primary political priority is stopping the other side. A politics in which you and your supporters are convinced that your opponents are an existential threat to the Republic is one in which you don’t have to scrutinise your own side especially closely. It’s a politics in which you don’t need to think too deeply about what you might do with power. Winning elections isn’t a means to an end, it’s an end in and of itself. Keeping the bastards out trumps all else.
Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, is a good counter-example to this unhealthy tendency. He has a track record of constructive Senate work that has earned him respect across the spectrum. This week he announced that he would not be seeking re-election in 2022. “How much can you get done in this town these days,” he asked in an interview with the Dispatch’s Steve Hayes. Suggesting that his pragmatism was no longer especially welcome, he said “I’m not good at throwing out the red meat, and I don’t do it — I say no to a lot of opportunities to be on Sunday shows and to do the interviews that are conducive to kind of being the political warrior, because I don’t think that’s my job. My job is actually to figure out how to get things done. And it seems like maybe that’s out of date right now.”
It’s not hard to see why Portman thinks his mode of politics is doomed. And the response of the Gaetzes of this world to the charge that they are preoccupied with shallow showmanship would probably be along the lines of “get with the times”. Social media means that this is the best way to advance our agenda these days, they might argue. Meme or be memed.
But this argument ignores a towering counter-example: the President of the United States. Joe Biden won the White House by being a Portman not a Gaetz. His campaign was ruthless in its imperviousness to social media trends, online rows and the unsolicited advice of the Twitterati. He bet on a hunger for an old-fashioned, more civilised way of doing politics — and he won. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is a one-term president in part because of the digital scrapes that he got himself into: needless row after needless row that delighted his superfans but shrunk his pool of potential voters. One of the lessons from 2020 is that shitposting doesn’t work.
If the Republican Party is to have a future as a party that is serious about governing (and it is far from clear that it does) it must internalise the lesson of Biden’s win, and it needs more Portmans and fewer Gaetzes. That doesn’t mean ideological compromise, but it does mean giving some indication as to why you want power and what you might do with it, and understanding that there is more to politics (and life) than owning the libs.
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