Illustration of elephant representing republican party, with zombie hands reaching up, and Trump red MAGA hats

Illustration Terran Kim for DAME, Adobe

State of Disunion

Illustration Terran Kim for DAME, Adobe

The Mindless Ideology of the Zombie GOP

Republicans' only agenda is inchoate rage, hatred, and obstruction. And they’ll stop at nothing to destroy everything in their wake.

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28 Days Later, the 2002 zombie apocalypse film directed by Danny Boyle, is about a plague spread through blood and saliva that turns people into mindless killing machines. But the infected don’t die; they just become unthinking vessels of uncontrolled rage toward everything, moving from target to target at a full run with the goal of killing or infecting everyone else. For the rage zombies there is no grand plan, no strategy. Their mission is simply chasing and destroying whatever has their attention at that instant.

This seems an apt metaphor for the state of the Republican Party base today. There is no thought or policy, just inchoate rage at whatever shiny culture war issue Fox News and cynical elites like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have dangled in front of them that day. They, in turn, go chasing after it, intent on mayhem, no matter how dumb the issue is. If they retained a scintilla of reasoning skills after being infected, they would see that they’re being weaponized with completely manufactured issues.

In the past few weeks, they’ve been enraged by the alleged cancellation of “Mr.” Potato Head, when in fact Hasbro still sells Mr. (and Mrs.) Potato Head and only dropped the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” from Potato Head to be more inclusive. (According to Hasbro, “Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head” are alive and well and sold in stores—their names simply less prominently displayed, at the bottom of the box.) Congressional leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have convinced their constituents that the “woke” leftists are banning Dr. Seuss, when in fact it was Dr. Seuss’s own trust that decided to stop publishing six of his more obscure works that contained racist imagery. Fox News and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) made transgender athletes a top issue for their audience to direct their hatred, when in reality, in the past decade, there have been more people in Florida shot by their dog (three) than there have been top-level transgender girls playing in high-school sports (two). They declared that Disney Plus has “canceled” The Muppet Show, when they’re in fact streaming the 1970s series, adding a disclaimer before a handful of episodes that depict negative stereotypes.

These are all distractions from the reality that the GOP no longer has a coherent plan for the country. Their entire 2020 party platform was essentially: We believe, and will do, anything Donald Trump tells us. It’s also meant to prevent people from recognizing, or appreciating, the fact that Democratic legislative initiatives are remarkably popular, despite high degrees of political polarization.

The Biden administration has pursued items that have a high degree of support. This includes the COVID stimulus bill, a minimum-wage increase to $15 per hour, passing legislation to bar discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, and passing the Voting Rights Act, all of which are supported by roughly two-thirds of the public. The GOP has nearly unanimously opposed all of these, while offering little in the way of actual debate or alternatives. The asymmetry of support for policy doesn’t cost Republicans anything, as long as they keep their base distracted and at a boiling froth over meaningless culture war agitprop.

During the CPAC, held late last month, the COVID package was being debated in the House. Thirteen GOP members of the House skipped this vote to attend the conference, where there was scarcely any mention of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, the largest in U.S. history. When there is any mention of actual policy or legislation, they promptly deflect, resorting to lies intended to enrage the base. They describe their opposition to voting rights as a desire to prevent elections from being stolen again, promoting the “big lie” that the election was somehow stolen from Trump, despite the fact that the GOP somehow managed to gain seats in the House and almost hang onto the Senate. They tie their opposition to the Equality Act (which deals with employment discrimination) to transgender athletes (which falls under an entirely different set of education laws).

The GOP would love for the public to forget that when given control of the trifecta of the House, Senate, and White House in 2017-2019, they could not come up with a single popular agenda item that had any meaningful effect on the public. Three-quarters of Americans didn’t want to end the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement, and the GOP never developed one. Two-thirds didn’t want to spend billions on an ineffective border wall. The Trump tax cut for corporations and the wealthy was one of the least popular pieces of legislation to pass in the past 30 years.

At the state level, the GOP agenda becomes clearer: Pass legislation to disenfranchise enough people that they will still win no matter how intellectually bankrupt and unpopular their movement has become. Republicans in 43 states have introduced 253 bills to roll back voting rights. They will still win by riling up the base with manufactured culture-war outrage and suppressing the votes of minorities sitting tight in their gerrymandered districts. If the GOP has people arguing about Harry Potter, Miss Piggy, the Smurfs, or any other irrelevancy in 2022 and 2024, they win, no matter how the economy is doing. They would rather the election be about supposedly keeping “political correctness” or “cancel culture” out of government than an evaluation of Democratic policies under the Biden administration.

GOP Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and others know exactly what they’re doing with the zombie army they’ve created. Their goal was always to chum the waters with lies and conspiracy theories, then let them loose. The results look like what happened January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. Worse, if the GOP does end up winning permanent political power (as appears nearly inevitable), GOP leadership will find it necessary to continue to feed the zombie army if they want to both stay in power and maintain the façade of democracy.

The problem is, they won’t eat the actual laws the GOP tries to feed them. The undead horde has specific dietary needs—it’s like trying to get your dog to eat Brussels sprouts. More tax cuts for the rich, environmental deregulation, and subverting the Post Office won’t sate their hunger. After the GOP has the control they want to implement their current agendas, they will have to find something new to feed their base. After being promised unholy vengeance against the people that they think ruined America, they will settle for nothing less than the reddest of meat, and they’re in a position to demand it.

This is where it gets very dangerous.

Over the past decade, the GOP has shown a complete inability to rein in the monsters they’ve created. Indeed, they are completely reliant on these creations to stay in power. At the same time, anger and hatred toward outgroups has been intentionally built upon for years. This pushes the U.S. toward something known as “ethnic outbidding.” This is where political leaders competing for support from an ethnically homogeneous group (in this case, the majority-white, majority-evangelical Christian GOP base) have really strong incentives to demonize outgroups, and make promises to do bad things to them, to gain political support. Once that process has started, this rhetoric (and promises) enter a self-reinforcing spiral where each GOP candidate may try to one-up the others to compete for a bloc of voters who hate or fear that outgroup.

It’s also part of how modern autocrats harness power. As fascism expert Tim Snyder noted of Putin: “If citizens can be kept uncertain by the regular manufacture of crisis, their emotions can be managed and directed.”

To illustrate how this can horribly wrong, in elections where only GOP candidates have a chance of winning, each candidate will try desperately to prove they are more anti-immigrant, more anti-transgender, and more anti-abortion than their opponent. Both move further and further to the right to avoid being labeled a RINO (Republican in Name Only) or a “squish.” It’s not hard to see how this sort of outbidding ends up in promises of land mines on the border, the death penalty for women who get abortions, or banning LGBTQ content on the internet.

If this sounds unimaginable, it shouldn’t. Extreme elements of the GOP have proposed all of these in recent years. Four years ago, the idea that Trump supporters enraged by conspiracy theories would storm the Capitol on his behalf and almost succeed at capturing (and potentially killing) Vice-President Mike Pence to overturn the election would have sounded even more outlandish. However, like all good movies where someone thinks they can control the mindless hordes and use them to their own ends, eventually the villains end up zombie-chow too.

Unfortunately, so do most, if not all, of the protagonists.

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