April 2, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The GOP’s Separatist Movement Exposed

The rich get richer. The rest get whatever’s coming to them.

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I said during Donald Trump’s impeachment trial that the Republicans were acting less like a party and more like a separatist movement. A Republican president who breaks the law, as Trump did when he blocked congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, is not only above it; he is it. A law-breaking Democratic president, on the other hand, “deserves the full-force of Congressional investigation, prosecution and removal.”

The common view is that the Republicans are so partisan they are willing to follow Trump to hell. But that explanation is unsatisfying. Partisanship is one thing. Surrendering to the enemy is another. That, to me, explains why Ted Cruz said, “If we call John Bolton, I promise you, we are calling Hunter Biden.” Cruz isn’t voicing ordinary partisanship so much as the political desperation of a suicide bomber.

I said yesterday the Republican Party is best understood as an insurrection. Perhaps “separatist movement” is a better phrase. That would communicate the binary thinking of the Republican value system. There are two, separate but not equal.

I think that theory holds up now that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Many Republicans still behave as if the virus that has now killed 5,000 Americans is part of a secret conspiracy to bring down Trump. Some GOP governors behave as if doing the right thing (shutting down state economies) is a sign of disloyalty. The president himself still behaves as if now’s a good time to reward friends and punish enemies.

Sam Tanenhaus, in 2009: “Modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.”

One thousand Americans died Wednesday. One thousand more could die today. Six and a half million filed for unemployment insurance benefits in one week, on top of 3.3 million last week. Yet leading Republicans, like Senator Ron Johnson, are urging people to go back to work. Yet leading Republicans, like Senator Tom Cotton, are calling for revenge on China. All the while, Trump appears poised to divvy up the spoils of last week’s passage of the $2 trillion economic stimulus so friendly states like Florida get all the help they need while unfriendly states like New York get jack.

The legislation, called the CARES Act, sets aside half a trillion dollars in corporate loans. (That’s on top of $4 trillion in unlimited “quantitative easing” and direct borrowing by and from the Fed.) A provision requires the president to designate an inspector general to oversee accountability of the fund. But in a signing statement, the president said he will do no such thing. After all, acquittal means a president is no longer constitutionally bound to take care that the law is faithfully executed. Well, a GOP president, anyway. Separate but not equal means Democrats go to the wall.

The GOP is acting like a separatist movement.

The rich get richer. The rest get whatever’s coming to them.

Too much? I don’t see why. This state of affairs has been crescendoing for some time. I had occasion recently to reread Sam Tanenhaus’s canonical piece in The New Republic. Published more than a decade ago, parts of “Conservatism Is Dead” read like they were written last month. Here’s how the former New York Times Book Review editor characterized the debate among conservatives in the years after World War II:

On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare (my stress).

What has been the target of such a strategy? Well, everything these “revanchist counterrevolutionaries” were against, Tanenhaus said in plain English: “Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy—‘statist’ social programs; ‘socialized medicine’; ‘big labor’; ‘activist’ Supreme Court justices, the ‘media elite’; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government (again, my stress).

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What did they stand for? Tanenhaus said “movement conservatives” always struggled with that question. But if Trump’s election is any indication—if Trump’s acquittal is any indication—conservatives, such as they are, no longer struggle. Why bother? To be against “the enemy” is enough, even if the enemy is American civil society itself.

To be sure, as Michael Harriot reminds us, that enemy has been Americans on the margins of civil society, specifically Americans of color. The margins are growing, though. Unemployment numbers are worse than they were in the Great Depression. Americans might die from the novel coronavirus in greater numbers than all the men who died fighting in World War II. In normal times, white Americans might not have noticed the Republican Party’s separatist movement. Normal times are history now.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Petra Muller on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    Dear John, thanks so much for letting me stay on the list for so long. I am working on being able to pay for a subscription. It is not possible at the moment because I have no credit card, believe it or not. I have very rarely ever had my own credit card for most of my life. I do believe that your work is very important.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

      Thank you! I’ll be here when you’re ready!

  2. RUArmyNavyMominTX on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    A brutal truth, but one that bears repeating and repeating. Resist & persist.

  3. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I said here before the modern GOP/conservative movement is a reactionary trifecta of brutal plutocracy (think the Koch brothers), the dominionist Christianity (think Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham), and white nationalist supremacy (too many to identify by name). This combination sees the good ol’ days as the political, social, and economic monopoly of the Gilded Age prior to the New Deal as the ideal construction of America. So long as they have all the power, everything is good but any gains by disenfranchised groups is not just negative but morally evil in their eyes.

    Since they can no longer monopolize power in today’s environment, they are very willing to destroy the country as John so eloquently explains. They may see themselves as leading a morality based reaction, but given their willingness to let Americans they don’t like die from the virus, I will happily label them as they truly are – traitors to the United States of America.

  4. John Smart on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    The Trump Right is correct on one count: The USA as a nation no longer makes sense. Would it be so horrible if the rich blue states walked away from the mooch red states?

    I’ve seen/heard more people in California discuss secession openly since the lock down than ever…and our gov is using “nation-state” consistently in his pressers. Countries collapse. I support a peaceful separation of the sane areas from the lunatic red states.

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