There is only one political party in the United States.
The first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump demonstrated with hideous clarity that the Democratic Party is currently running against not a conservative public policy agenda or a coherent philosophy of governance, but a collective psychotic episode, channeled through an authoritarian demagogue who is equally propelled and crippled by his own neuroses.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Gore Vidal, one of America's best chroniclers of empire, once provided instruction to a British interviewer expressing confusion over the radical hostility Republicans showed toward Barack Obama, and the former president's inability to react with equal aggression: "Obama believes the Republican Party is a political party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word 'conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they're fascists."
That mindset is now threatening to devour everything in its path, while its current figurehead, Donald Trump, provides encouragement to violent extremists, giving the Proud Boys — a militant far-right organization whose members have committed hate crimes — the chilling order, "Stand back and stand by."
The president's refusal to reject white supremacist movements elicited almost no clear condemnation from Republican commentators in the immediate aftermath of the debate. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate (and one of only two in Congress), pathetically speculated that Trump "misspoke," and the few Republican members of Congress who spoke out against Trump's dangerous remarks equivocated by drawing comparisons to antifa, the right wing's favorite phantom hallucination.
Observers of political debate can now expect journalists and analysts to fall into the familiar pattern of throwing their arms in the air, articulating incredulity at Trump's malevolence and the Republican refusal to object, and conclude they are merely making a "political calculation," proceeding with caution so as not to alienate Trump's rabid base.
This is wrong.
It's certainly true that Republican officials are afraid of the bloodlust of the Trump cult. But it is also true, and more important to recognize, that Trump's hatred for democracy — which critics and commentators view as a liability is largely an asset for his supporters. Many of those who hold office at the national level, as evident from the ghoulish statements of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and others, along with the voters who applaud Trump's every act of cruelty, are glad to see him waging war on a system designed to give representation and power to a diverse group of citizens.
If Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and their enablers in Congress can succeed in subverting the presidential election, and "making America great again" by enshrining the minority rule of white Christians, the average Republican will celebrate. There is no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the fact that between 80 and 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's performance in office.
Among Democrats, there is an ongoing, interesting and important argument between moderate figures like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regarding the expansion of the social welfare state, federal regulation of economic activity and the extent of measures necessary to curb inequality and climate change.
The Republican Party offers nothing to the American people. They have no policy agenda. Despite Trump's meaningless and inane boasting of nonexistent "plans," they articulate no agenda to address the converging crises of American life.
An American without health insurance, or who pays a high monthly premium for inadequate coverage, can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Working parents who cannot afford child care and have no disposable income after paying each month's bills can expect nothing from the Republican Party. A young college graduate unable to qualify for a mortgage because he has tens of thousands of dollars in student debt can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Poor children suffering through hunger and struggling to learn basic skills in a dysfunctional school can expect nothing from the Republican Party.
Finally, no one on planet Earth can expect anything from a Republican Party that is still in denial about climate change, even as it threatens to end all livable ecology within the next hundred years.
The Republican Party is actively anti-human. It does not qualify as a political party according to any definition of politics, no matter how elementary or esoteric.
In ancient Greece, politics roughly translated into "matters pertaining to the city." Aristotle wrote about the city as synonymous with "community," and posited that all communities are established for the sake of the good life. The ultimate end and ambition of the community is for happiness. It was this Aristotelian conception of politics that influenced the American founders to write the words "the pursuit of happiness," in the Declaration of Independence.
Absent from the Republican National Convention was any mention of anything — save for occasional references to the mysterious issue conservatives call "school choice" — that might remotely assist people to live happier or better lives. To the contrary, much of the Republican agenda is the obliteration of potential for happiness and the imposition of suffering on masses of immigrants, the poor, the sick, the disabled and anyone in a position outside the ownership class.
Even to the overwhelming majority of white Americans, the Republican Party offers nothing with the sole exception of rhetorical massages for their atrophied egos — the ignorant insistence that they are the "real Americans." Only white Republicans are satisfied with this sad recognition in place of an actual politics that might actually give them more opportunities for security, prosperity and dignity. Beyond the myth of white supremacy, Republican politicians on the national level give America various keys in which to scream the word "freedom," and instructions on how to fit as many flags as possible on one small stage.
The Democratic Party should accelerate its drive toward progressive policies, and champion candidates and officials who are fighting to pull their country into the more humane and civilized world, alongside the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and other social democracies, which for all of their current struggles with xenophobia, escalating inequality and populist revolt still provide their citizens with basic social services. Even the moderates, while too meek in their advocacy for fairness and equality, and too cozy with multinational corporations, offer a political program responsive to the problems of ordinary citizens. The Affordable Care Act, as an example, provided 18 million Americans with health coverage for the first time, and protects anyone with a pre-existing condition.
For all their disappointments, the moderates in the Democratic Party are committed to the laws and norms of the democratic system of governance. Studies show that the Republican Party, on the other hand, is far off the spectrum of mainstream conservative parties in comparable countries. The Trump and McConnell-led GOP is more extreme, more authoritarian and more hostile toward democracy than any right-leaning party with significant power in other free societies, even as anti-immigrant nationalist parties gain popularity in Italy, France and other European countries.
It isn't as if there are no longer competing ideologies of governance. One could easily imagine George Will debating an advocate of progressive economics. It is that national Republicans have abandoned any connection to previous notions of "conservative" politics, as Will himself has argued in recent columns.
Trump was unable to debate Joe Biden, and could only interrupt, mock and descend into a tantrum familiar to anyone with teaching experience at a middle school, because the Republicans have nothing to debate. Through their multi-decade commitment to shrinking government down so small that it can "drown in a bathtub," to use the words of Grover Norquist, what was once a reasonably coherent pro-business conservative party has arrived at its logical endpoint — a fascist power grab under the guise of an incoherent personality cult.
The late Stanley Crouch warned Republicans of their trouble in the late 1990s, explaining to Charlie Rose that you "cannot assemble a group of lunatics" to follow you without eventually following them into lunacy.
Welcome to America in 2020.