External Affairs

What Lies Behind the Civil War in the GOP

Analysis of Republican primary results so far suggests that the crisis in the GOP is far deeper than the Trump phenomenon and is exposing a party incapable of governing with anything like a coherent programme let alone a favoured candidate backed by the official leadership.

Republicans have been raised for the past 25 years on the most shrill rhetoric against their Democratic rivals – so much so that facts and truth were long ago jettisoned to the dustbin of history. But that incivility, bluster and downright mendacity has come home to roost: and it’s tearing the Republican party apart. A party that stopped the American government from functioning on numerous occasions in the Obama years has now managed to bring its own authority to a grinding halt as the populist Donald Trump and Tea Partier Ted Cruz race ahead of the GOP elite’s favourite son, Marco Rubio, who’s trailing in the polls even in Florida, his home state.

Trump voters are certainly fed up with the GOP establishment but they are not primarily sourced in the Tea Party. Trump’s support responds to his populist image and message – harvesting the message of fear, threat and anxiety delivered by Republicans since Newt Gingrich’s declaration of war on President Bill Clinton. Ted Cruz is the Tea Partier, the right-wing insurgency against the Republican establishment. Unless voters who previously backed Ben Carson and John Kasich switch allegiance to Rubio, which they might, the GOP will lose complete control over the race for the White House in November 2016.

The ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ was only partially self-serving when announced by First Lady Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. It coincided with the development of a genuinely influential conservative establishment – from the Heritage Foundation through to Fox News and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), an alliance at the core of the post-9-11 road to Iraq and the construction of an ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, among others – upon whom a disastrous global war on terror continues, laying waste to any semblance of the international rule of law, the authority of the United Nations and the moral standing of the United States.

The whole mentality of right wing Republicanism which took hold of the party was summed up by the Republican strategist Karl Rove when he retorted to reporters that “We’re an empire now and we create our own reality” – that is, we act and speak and make reality – while the rest of us live in the reality-based community. What Rove meant was that truth and falsehood had no place in the mindsets of real statesmen like George W. Bush; they were too busy making history to pay heed to the realities of the world.

Put together with the level of vitriol in the Republican candidates’ debates, this is a process that’s exposing a party that appears to have lost control of the primaries and, if either Trump or Cruz wins the White House, is likely to disavow their own president.

A former head of the CIA and NSA has suggested that the US military might refuse to obey orders form commander-in-chief Donald Trump. Over a hundred self-styled ‘reasonable Republicans’ – some of whom supported some of the worst decisions in recent US foreign policy history – have declared Trump a racist warmongering military adventurer. There are moves among congressional Republicans to distance themselves from a future President Trump and effectively leave him without a party in Congress to organise and deliver a legislative programme. They would treat President Trump as if he were a third party candidate.

There have been bitter rivalries before – indeed the primaries are famous for ‘venting’ – but the rhetoric appears to be reaching new lows because there is so much at stake. This is happening because the Republican establishment has no credible candidate in the primaries as Trump and Cruz pull away, leaving clear daylight between them and Rubio. Republicans are wounded and have had enough. Those who want “their country back” are behind Trump and Cruz. Those who want their party back are behind Rubio. This is nothing less than a civil war within the Grand Old Party which believes it is the real heart and soul of America and the keeper of the keys to the White House.

The contrast with the Democratic primaries could hardly be more stark: despite the lively debates, differing visions and personalities of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the Democrats are broadly united behind a liberal message; and their debates have been a model of civility.

The GOP is used to making war on its enemies: now they seem to be turning their guns on themselves.

Inderjeet Parmar is Professor and Head of the Department of International Politics, City University London