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Republicans are building a legacy of shame

Michael Reagan, the son of the late president, has called Volodymyr Zelensky “the Reagan of Ukraine.” Throughout Eastern Europe, Ronald Reagan was greatly admired for his staunch anti-communism and frequent denunciations of the Soviet Union. At the onset of his presidency, Reagan said Russia’s communist leaders “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” and he later denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”

When Joe Biden emotionally condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s killing of innocent civilians in Ukraine, telling the world, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he was summoning the spirit of Ronald Reagan.   

Ronald Reagan is a founding father of the modern Republican Party with its emphasis on sticking up for America overseas while calling for smaller government and greater individual responsibility at home. Sadly, today’s Republican party is shredding Reagan’s once-proud legacy.

At Helsinki in 2018, Donald Trump stood next to Putin and contradicted the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. After Putin invaded Ukraine, Trump heaped praise on the Russian leader, calling him a “genius,” and pleaded with him to find political dirt on Hunter Biden. In Trump’s world, principles don’t matter, the accumulation of power does.

His lies about the 2020 election being “stolen,” and his desire to seek retribution by winning back the presidency in 2024 speaks to Trump’s penchant to extract revenge without adhering to party principles. As Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, “The most important thing you can realize right now is that there are no rules in war.”

Trump’s focus on gaining power by whatever means necessary has poisoned the Republican Party. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican questioning was, in the words of Joe Biden’s sometime nemesis, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), “embarrassing.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) mistakenly queried the judge about a children’s book titled “Anti-Racist Baby” whose premise wasn’t, as Cruz thought, that infants are inherently racist, but that racism must be taught.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked how Jackson would define a woman. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) inquired how often Jackson attends church, whether she could fairly judge a Catholic and how she would rate her religious commitment on a scale of one to 10. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) badgered Jackson about her sentencing of a teen who possessed child pornography, perhaps sending a signal to QAnon supporters who believe Democrats are secretly abusing children. Throughout her nearly 24 hours of questioning, Jackson maintained her composure, no doubt realizing that as a Black woman she did not have the luxury of getting angry. As Michelle Obama once noted, the image of an angry black woman has been “forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) decried the “jackassery” that currently characterizes the Senate as members mug before the cameras. Sasse’s analysis highlights the passing of a bipartisan era where serious debates and congressional friendships crossed party lines nearly as often as votes cast. During that bygone era, the Senate voted 98 to zero to confirm Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court and endorsed Bill Clinton’s selection of Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the same position by a vote of 96 to 3. Both served on the Court with distinction.

Today’s Republicans are mesmerized with obtaining power and keeping it by using whatever jackassery means are necessary. The disappearance of a once-vital center means that Republicans prioritize appealing to their largely white base voters who matter most in primaries and general elections. Greater public acceptance of homosexuality, the decline of the nuclear family and the weakening of organized religion have given Republicans considerable ammunition to pursue the culture wars, with their most vehement denunciations getting traction on social media and winning favor from the party’s base.  

Donald Trump understood this. As president, Trump used his voluble Twitter feed to say out loud what many Republican voters privately thought. And they rewarded Trump by uniformly sticking with him. In fact, Trump garnered more popular votes while losing in 2020 than he won in 2016, becoming the first Republican incumbent since Herbert Hoover to be denied another term while winning more votes the second time around.  

Today’s Republicans assiduously cater to their party’s base. The questioning of Judge Jackson by Cruz, Hawley, Graham, Blackburn and others was designed to be replayed on conservative news outlets. At one point during the committee hearings, Ted Cruz was seen checking his Twitter feed to see how many likes and retweets his “performative tantrum” had generated.

As the Republican Party moves rightward, its leaders find political rewards by victimizing the marginalized. The party’s fear of the future is a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s vision of a shining city on a hill whose walls had “doors open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Most members of Congress leave without a trace. But there are times when their votes matter. In 1967, when Lyndon Johnson nominated the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, to the Supreme Court, only 69 senators voted to confirm him. Among the nays were conservative Southern Democrats from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, joined by Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and former Ku Klux Klan member Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Each knew they had to satisfy their prejudiced voters to keep their seats. Today, Marshall is revered with courthouses and airports named after him.

Heather Cox Richardson’s “To Make Men Free” is an enthralling history of the Republican Party and its legislators. Today this once Grand Old Party is being shredded by those bent on acquiring political power — a quest that has sometimes led them to embrace the authoritarian-like tactics of the communist leaders Ronald Reagan so explicitly deplored. In May 2021, approval was granted to build a Reagan monument in Kyiv, joining 11 others that have been erected across Eastern Europe. But at home the once-proud history of Reagan’s Republican Party is turning into a legacy of shame.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Clarence Thomas Donald Trump Ginni Thomas Josh Hawley Josh Hawley Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson kentaji brown jackson Ketanji Brown Jackson Lindsey Graham Marsha Blackburn Michael Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ted Cruz Ted Cruz U.S. Supreme Court Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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