When evidence of potential Russian interference began surfacing after last year’s presidential election and Donald Trump only offered praise of Vladimir Putin in response, I began to notice a trend that struck me as odd. Many people - journalists, social-media users, friends - were asking what amounted to the same question: “Why isn’t the GOP standing up to Trump or Putin?” After Trump violated countless democratic norms (and potentially many laws) during his first weeks in office, the questions only became more urgent: “Why doesn’t the GOP do something about _____?”, where the blank could be filled by any of the daily onslaught of ethics violations, financial conflicts of interest, security breaches, outright lies, and unqualified cabinet nominees emanating from the Trump administration.
Despite mounting evidence from the intel community and countless dubious actions by Trump and his associates, punctuated most recently by the firing of General Flynn as National Security Adviser after discussing U.S. sanctions with a Russian official, the GOP-controlled Congress has done nothing, save make a few token statements or chase after low-value targets while ignoring the more serious threats. In fact, since the new Congress convened in January, they’ve engaged in similarly egregious behavior—proposing or enacting measures that would dismantle ethics oversight, undermine the impartial civil service and limit government transparency. This is the same GOP that was so obsessed with ethics breaches and overreach when Obama was president, and vowed to investigate Hillary Clinton into oblivion should she have won the election.
To understand the GOP’s apparent complicity with, or at least tolerance of Trump’s moral lapses and authoritarian tendencies - not to mention Russian interference in the election - it is necessary to look at the bigger picture and examine the Republican party, and the interests it represents, in a historical context. Once we do this, it becomes clear that Vladimir Putin is not the main influence on authoritarian policies being issued from the White House. Rather, Putin’s genius was in exploiting for his own ends existing political divisions and right-wing movements that have been active in the U.S. for decades.
Right-wing populist and authoritarian movements have existed in the U.S. throughout the nation’s history, most notably during Reconstruction. The current incarnation is an unholy trinity consisting of ultra-wealthy oligarchs, the religious right, and white nationalists. Each of these groups has its own set of goals, and has been working toward gaining control of (or effectively destroying) the U.S. government since at least the 1970s. Though many of their goals overlap, what really drove these factions to overlook their differences and work together was the election of our first black president in 2008, and his attempt to pass a sweeping health-reform law.
Here’s how it played out: As the Democratic party embraced a pro-civil-rights platform, embodied in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the racist Dixiecrat wing of the party became increasingly alienated. Seeing an opportunity to create a viable voting bloc, Republican strategists working for Nixon undertook the Southern Strategy to co-opt the bigoted white vote and bring these voters to the GOP via race-baiting and a call for law and order (a thinly disguised reference to suppressing minority unrest).
Even with this voting bloc in place, conservative interests realized that they were still losing the information war in the media and popular culture, which were questioning the unfettered power of government, corporations, and other traditional institutions of power. Leading conservatives realized that in order to stop being on the defensive, they would have to put in place institutions that would promote their ideas and goals and legitimize their policies in the eyes of the public.
These goals were crystallized in the Powell Memo, which called for conservative business interests take control of the national conversation, and laid out a framework for accomplishing this goal. A variety of influential businesses and individuals took this advice to heart, and over the next decades they established a vast network of think tanks, membership organizations, and lobbying groups to promote and normalize their policies.
They also set out to pave the way for the establishment of propaganda outlets by systematically attacking media fairness rules and constantly claiming that the media had a “liberal bias” and encouraging outlets to always feature opposing conservative views, even if some of those views were disproved or far outside the mainstream. Once the fairness doctrine - and trust in mainstream media reporting - had been sufficiently undermined, the right was able to create propaganda channels disguised as news, culminating with the formation of Fox News, and more recently with the mainstreaming of white-nationalist online outlets like Breitbart, which was, until recently, helmed by Steve Bannon, whom Trump recently appointed to a seat on the National Security Council’s “principals” committee.
Around the same time, Evangelical Protestants felt under siege due to the enormous social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. Many pastors and Evangelical organizations saw common cause with the far right corporatist Republicans who were trying to normalize their libertarian economic and social views, and hopped on the bandwagon by establishing religious television programs and networks through which they could disseminate their own propaganda. Outlets like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, Christian radio networks, and a proliferation of televangelists could now spread far-right Republican positions through the guise of “morality” and “values.”
As these religious groups expanded their reach and gained more influence with Republicans, they were able to exert influence and shift party policies and platforms. Interestingly, the religious influence on the GOP meshed well with the corporate influence due to its embrace of “Prosperity Theology.” This is a sort of neo-Calvinist view that teaches followers that wealth and material success are signs of God’s blessing, and that poverty is the fault of the poor. This belief has several negative effects. First, it makes poverty a personal problem rather than a systemic problem that government can help solve. Second, it prevents examination of the negative effects of income/wealth inequality and the systems that promote it. Most insidiously, it leads poor people to hold out hope that they’re just “not rich yet” and to identify with the interests of the wealthy who rig the system for themselves.
The final leg in the unholy trinity is white supremacists, also known variously as white nationalists, anti-government militias, neo-Nazis and more recently the alt-right, who have established a dizzying array of organized groups, media sites, and social media networks capable of radicalizing susceptible individuals. These groups have waxed and waned since the Civil War, but tend to grow in strength and numbers whenever white men feel a particular threat to their status or entitlement, be it from freed slaves, immigrants, or social change efforts such as the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement. These organizations experienced a resurgence during the Obama administration and many played a role in smearing Hillary Clinton during her presidential bid. Their misogynist views overlap heavily with those of the religious right, which seeks biblical rule (Christian Sharia Law, if you will) that would codify the subordination of women to men.
Since Obama took office in 2008, this unholy trinity has worked overtime to undermine liberal democracy and shift the Republican Party further rightward. Wealthy oligarchs such as the Kochs and Mercers funded training and campaigns for hand-selected far right candidates, and utilized fake grassroots movements to unseat less extreme GOP candidates. They orchestrated the Citizens United case to eliminate soft money restrictions so they could further expand their influence. Far right GOP operatives undertook a coordinated effort to suppress Democratic votes through gerrymandering and aggressive voter ID laws, and gutted the Voting Rights Act by bringing carefully planned challenges to a sympathetic Supreme Court. At the same time, corporate and religious right wing media stoked a non-stop propaganda machine to gain support of the white working and middle class by appealing to racism and economic insecurity.
Which brings us back to 2016. Putin saw in Trump’s candidacy a perfect opportunity to sow discord and doubt in America’s electorate and weaken the U.S. whether or not he won the election. When he defied expectations and started winning primaries, some on the far right realized that he had enough charisma and name recognition to carry the GOP nomination, and that with no clear ideology of his own (other than “what’s in it for me”) he could serve as an ideal Trojan Horse for their extremist agenda. The fact that many on the right already had a strange admiration for Putin, and that both white supremacist and fundamentalist Christian supporters had close ties to Russia probably served to lessen concern among GOP electeds that their candidate might be compromised by a foreign nation.
So the next time Congress declines to investigate Russian influence or ethics breaches by the Trump administration, just remember: they’re getting exactly what they want out of this arrangement, and will continue to enact their far-right agenda as long as they have the votes. Congress, Trump, and Putin all back the same vision of a Christian, white nationalist, authoritarian world order that will protect the wealth of oligarchs while suppressing women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and anyone else they perceive as a threat to their control.