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Under Donald Trump’s banner, US Republicans are becoming the party of white Christian nationalism



Thomas Greven,

Trump supporters in protest outside of a Washington, DC courthouse, 3 August 2023.
Trump supporters in protest outside of a Washington, DC courthouse, 3 August 2023. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

Conservative parties are under considerable pressure internationally. Some have almost disappeared, as right-populist or even extremist parties have taken their place on the political spectrum. Other centre-right parties have been infiltrated by the far right — including in the United States, where the mainstream conservative party’s turn to the radical right is threatening the stability of democratic institutions and the foundations of liberal, multi-ethnic democracy.

Thomas Greven is an adjunct professor of political science at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

The Republicans, who call themselves the “Grand Old Party” (GOP) and whose history goes back to the fight against slavery in the 1850s, are currently engaged in a heated internal conflict over the soul of the party that could ultimately go in favour of the personality cult around Donald Trump. Trump, the party base that is largely under his spell, and the many officeholders who support his claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen have led the party down an autocratic path that could result in significant political violence during the 2024 election year.

In the apocalyptic analyses of numerous authors (including Michael Anton, John Eastman, Stephen Wolfe, and Patrick Deneen) who work out their catastrophic scenarios at places like California’s Claremont Institute, the US is engaged in a “cold civil war” against a progressive cosmopolitan enemy that threatens to destroy the country and its values.

If these assertions were just the work of marginal intellectuals, we could quickly forget about them. However, GOP politicians eagerly use them as ideological justifications for extreme measures like the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January 2021. They say that democracy is a luxury that may no longer be worth the cost given the fundamental threat. Not only is the adjective in the phrase “liberal democracy” increasingly in question, in keeping with familiar discussions of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”, but the noun is as well.

Demagoguery and Dysfunction

This trend in the GOP is already considerably impairing the US government’s capacity to govern. After the “rebels” in the caucus around Florida’s Matt Gaetz forced Kevin McCarthy out, it took several attempts for the Republicans in the House of Representatives to finally agree on a new speaker on 25 October, namely Mike Johnson from Louisiana. Prior to that, the work done by Congress — and therefore part of the federal government — had been at a standstill for three weeks.

Johnson is not a member of the radical Freedom Caucus, which is largely in thrall to Trump. Rather, he was the chair of the (also ultraconservative) Republican Study Committee until he was elected vice chair of the House Republican Conference in 2021. Can Johnson, who is no oratorical firebrand but rather has the demeanour of a Sunday school student, end the conflict between the House Republican factions (surprisingly aptly described using mafia-speak as “the five families”)?

Probably not, because the fundamental problems persist and cannot be solved by the speaker alone. Since the Republicans only have a slim majority, and a single representative can file a motion to remove the speaker, any bipartisan compromises hang over Johnson’s head like the sword of Damocles, just as they did for McCarthy.

Even if it looks like Trump hijacked the party, it would be more correct to say that the white, Christian base has been driving the party establishment for quite some time.

Despite his quiet disposition, Johnson is an extremely conservative, Christian nationalist politician who regards the Bible as an essential guide for governance and would like to, for instance, outlaw homosexuality. Behind the scenes, he was a leading figure driving the pseudo-legal challenges to Joe Biden’s election. A large majority of Republican representatives refused to certify Biden’s election in January 2021 and continue to deny his legitimacy. Johnson, one of these election deniers, supports the threadbare impeachment proceedings against Biden with complete conviction.

Johnson’s appointment therefore shows that House Republicans have shifted further to the right. Whereas McCarthy was an opportunist who negotiated in every direction to stay in power, compromise with Johnson appears to be even more difficult.

From the perspective of the rebels around Gaetz and many other Republican representatives, such compromises are fundamental products of the Washington swamp, which must be drained at any cost. Nobody knows how far these right-wing extremists are willing to go to combat the federal government, which, in their collective delusion, is ruled by a conspiratorial “deep state” that allegedly wants to destroy the country. It remains to be seen whether Johnson believes in this conspiracy narrative.

In any case, finding common ground will continue to prove difficult. That is a serious problem, given that compromise is a necessary part of the presidential system in the US. This is particularly the case because a divided government, in which neither party is sufficiently structurally dominant to define its own era, has been the norm for a long time now. At the moment, another government shutdown, during which all non-essential federal institutions temporarily close, looms when the continuing resolution to fund the government expires.

How did it get to this point? Did Donald Trump hijack what had previously been a “normal” conservative party? We have to go back to the GOP’s origins to understand why Trump had such an easy time turning the party in a radical, right-wing populist, autocratic direction.

The GOP’s Structural Advantage

The US Constitution is the product of a wide array of compromises. When the country was founded, both the interests of the slave-owning states need to be considered, but also the concerns of the wealthy vis-à-vis the riff-raff. In both cases, protecting private property rights was considered a priority. Moreover, the federal government was a creation of the states, not the other way around — the rights of the 13 founding states also had to be respected.

The result was a constitutional system that prevented the dreaded “tyranny of the majority” through checks and balances and ordinarily made government action dependent on inter-party compromise. However, it also enabled a political minority to take over the government, or at least make it almost impossible for the majority to govern. In that sense, the Constitution “protects and empowers” an authoritarian minority, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently wrote in The Atlantic. Given the GOP’s authoritarian course, that represents a structural threat to democracy.

The heart of the problem is the rural population’s massive over-representation in the Senate and the Electoral College, which elects the presidents. Each state sends two senators to Washington. That was meant to ensure that the states would be equally represented in the federal legislative process. However, the gaps between the populous states with large urban centres and the sparsely populated, largely rural states are significantly greater today: 40 million people currently live in California, whereas there are fewer than 600,000 in Wyoming.

That is how four of the nine current Supreme Court justices were confirmed by a Senate majority that did not represent the majority of the population. Moreover, three of them were nominated by a president who was not elected by a majority of the population. That is because of the Electoral College, to which every state sends as many electors as it has senators and representatives — another advantage for voters in rural states with small populations.

On top of that, the Republicans also benefit from the fact that the number of representatives in the House is limited to 435 and therefore the seats are redistributed among the states after the census, taken every ten years. This can require electoral districts to be reshaped, a process usually undertaken by state legislatures. Because Democratic Party voters more often live in cities and suburbs and are therefore more tightly consolidated than Republican voters, it is easier for Republican-dominated state governments to tailor electoral districts to their own advantage, a process known as “gerrymandering”.

The history of party politics in the US can be regarded as a series of realignments, in the sense of fundamental reorientations of party-political preferences on the part of large voting blocs.

The districts that are demographically “optimized” that way, and can therefore be regarded as “safe” by one of the two parties, bolster the radicals and contribute to political radicalization and social polarization. That is because a party’s nominees in the US are usually determined through primaries, in which only a small number of particularly active partisans usually participate. In a district that is “safe” for one party, the primary becomes the decisive election, and victory often goes to the candidate who screams the loudest. In today’s GOP, that usually means supporters of Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement.

In addition to these structural advantages, the GOP also benefits from statistical voter participation: Democratic voter coalitions tend to be young, urban, and ethnically mixed, but older, rural, and white Republican voters go to the polls more reliably. The GOP could take a less aggressive approach to its base to try to expand beyond the shrinking white Christian population and win over, for instance, socially conservative Latinos and African-Americans. After their losses to Barack Obama, party insiders recommended just that kind of re-orientation — yet the party base took the opposite approach, siding with the Tea Party movement and adopting a populist course.

In other words, even if it looks like Trump has hijacked the party, it would be more correct to say that the white, Christian base has been driving the party establishment for quite some time. Strategists Roger Stone and Steve Bannon recognized that this intra-party movement had no leading figure, and they therefore presented Trump as a “saviour” who would rescue them from the dreaded majority-minority society, in which the sum total of minority populations is larger than the white population.

Because more and more Republicans are declaring the Democrats an existential threat to the country, the GOP needs to ensure that only it governs. David Pepper, author of Laboratories of Autocracy, argues, “this is not a democracy to them anymore”. Therefore, systematic voter suppression and obstruction of voter participation in the many states that are under Republican control have become a central part of the party’s strategic repertoire in order to win at the national level, even if they get fewer votes than the Democrats nationwide (which has been the case in seven of the last eight presidential elections).

Under the pretext of protecting election integrity against alleged attempts at fraud — for which there is no current evidence, only historical anecdotes — they use not only laws, but also every available administrative option, such as reducing the number of polling places in predominantly Black districts. Apart from that, the GOP also relies on infiltrating electoral authorities with militant party loyalists. Given the aggressive political climate, which includes death threats from the ranks of MAGA Republicans, experienced election officials and volunteer poll workers are quitting one after another, and there is a growing risk that the 2024 election may not be properly executed.

The viability of democratic institutions in the US is being perceptibly pushed to the limit due to affective polarization (meaning: an irreconcilable hostility and tribalization of the populace), a loss of control by the GOP establishment, and the party’s hollowed-out obstructionism in opposition to the common good. Will the Republicans accept future electoral defeats at all? Or are Trump’s brazen claims that he can only be beaten through electoral fraud a sign of the GOP’s path toward autocracy?

Racism and Hostility to Immigration

This path clearly did not begin with Donald Trump. On the contrary, its roots go back to the party’s founding moment. Abolition of slavery, which Republican President Abraham Lincoln pushed through amid a bloody civil war, was not justified on the basis of human rights alone, but also by the desire to eliminate competition with “free labour” in the industrialized northern states. “Free labour” was also called “American labour”, and this was therefore also an anti-immigrant and nativist position, something the GOP adopted from one of its predecessor parties, the Know Nothings.

Many Republicans did not regard freed Black people as equals, and a majority of the predominantly Protestant party members opposed immigration from mostly Catholic countries — it took many decades for them to consider immigrants from Ireland, Italy, or Poland “white”. Even John F. Kennedy had to assert his independence from the Vatican. This is one root of today’s largely feigned concern about “election integrity” — during what is known as the Progressive Era (around 1900), it took a great deal of effort to break up the patronage systems that, at the time, the Democratic Party in particular used to lock in the votes of newly naturalized immigrants.

Along with the anti-urban instinct that it developed in this historical context, the GOP also retained a penchant for politically exploiting religious fault lines. The traditional aversion to Catholics, long denigrated as “papists” or even “Antichrists”, has softened since at least the onset of the Christian Right’s shared fight against the nationwide right to abortion, which the Supreme Court established with its 1973 ruling in the Roe v. Wade case.

Despite its country club image, the classically conservative Republican Party of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries already exhibited elements of anti-intellectualism and a rural anti-urbanism and anti-elitism.

In the years since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the GOP has been characterized above all by its anti-Muslim outlook, and particularly its opposition to Muslim immigration. The party regards Islam as “anti-American”. At the same time, the Republicans have also attempted to win over Jews, who predominantly vote for Democrats, with decidedly pro-Israel policies.

The history of party politics in the US can be regarded as a series of realignments, in the sense of fundamental reorientations of party-political preferences on the part of large voting blocs. The reversal in party preferences that started in the 1960s in the South, which is to say the states where slavery and, thereafter, segregation were codified in law, was particularly powerful. The more the Democrats distanced themselves from segregation policies and supported the Civil Rights Movement, the more Southern voters turned away.

At the same time, the GOP completely gave up on its prior support for African-American concerns. Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by implementing the “Southern strategy”, an orientation toward white voting blocs, which was a new approach for Republicans. Ronald Reagan extended this strategy to include white suburbanites (“Reagan Democrats”) by using coded language to accuse Black people of defrauding the welfare state. His successor, George H. W. Bush, used white voters’ fear of (Black) criminality for the same purpose.

Alongside their traditional anti-immigrant nativism, racism — whether explicit or implicit — thus became part of a strategy of division that Republicans have been able to use to win elections, despite the fact that their white, Christian voter base is shrinking. A racialized populist “us vs. them” narrative characterized the GOP long before Donald Trump entered the political arena. As a party of white Christians, the Republican Party defines itself as the last line of defence against a secular, minority-dominated society.

Delegitimizing the Federal Government

One goal that almost every wing of the GOP establishment can agree on is delegitimizing the federal government on every issue other than national security. They regard the government as the source of all evil and believe that it should be reduced to the size that one could “drown it in the bathtub”, to quote Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

By the end of the Reagan administration, the Democrats’ New Deal hegemony — namely the bipartisan consensus on an active role for the federal government in economic and social policy — had broken down, and the GOP adopted a dual strategy: Republicans always want to incur less debt and balance the national budget whenever the Democrats are in power.

When Republicans govern, debt is no longer an issue, because growth can allegedly be stimulated through tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, so that everyone profits and the budget can still be balanced. Empirically speaking, this “trickle-down effect” has never existed. That said, the mounting debts place massive restrictions on what Democratic presidents can do given that they are forced to cut spending — something they have wanted for a long time based on neoliberal convictions.

This Republican hegemony over economic and social policy has weakened somewhat since the rise of Bernie Sanders and left-wing Congress members around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have applied pressure on the neoliberal elements within the Democratic Party. However, weakened does not mean abolished: when they govern, Republicans continue to lowet taxes for the rich — as was the case most recently under President Trump — and when they are in the opposition, they still use their newly rediscovered awareness of the national debt to prevent Democrats from governing in a way that would make the state function reasonably well for its citizens. Reagan famously believed that government is “the problem, not the solution”. That perspective is unlikely to go away.

Yet something is new. The removal of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker by a group of “rebels” around Representative Matt Gaetz was the culmination of a trend that had already indirectly cost other speakers their position.

The difference between the rebels and most congressional Republicans is primarily that the ultra-right-wingers are willing to put up with any chaos in order to force their demands for drastic budget cuts through. Last spring, amidst the debate over raising the debt ceiling, it looked for a moment as though they wanted to gamble with the creditworthiness of the United States. Inspired by Trump — who is concerned, above all, with preventing a legal reappraisal of his role in the Capitol insurrection and his attempt to stay in office despite his electoral defeat — the rebels refuse to make any compromises and rely on an all-or-nothing approach.

The Base’s Self-Empowerment

Only a few representatives were willing to vote to end Kevin McCarthy’s term as speaker. However, the number of Republican elected officials at the federal and state levels who are committed to a decidedly anti-establishment course and resolutely oppose bipartisan compromise — often opposing members of their own party as a consequence — is much larger and growing steadily. These rebels are primarily concentrated in the House of Representatives’ right-wing Freedom Caucus. But where do they come from, and why is it that the party establishment does not have them under control?

As the party of the (white) working class, pragmatically defined as people without college degrees, the GOP has rediscovered protectionism — which the Trump administration nonetheless used primarily to push through market deregulation.

Despite its country club image, the classically conservative Republican Party of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries already exhibited elements of anti-intellectualism and a rural anti-urbanism and anti-elitism. Yet it was only through the concerted effort of Speaker Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s that Republican members of Congress were able to break open the political culture of Washington, DC. This is where we find the roots of today’s anti-establishment populism.

Gingrich attacked Republicans who did not live in the electoral districts they represented or who hardly spent any time there because their demographic composition made them “safe”. Inspired by conservative media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, he incited the base against these Republicans whenever they did not adhere to his approach of refusing to compromise and increasingly demonizing political opponents. As a result, representatives did in fact become more dependent on their districts, but at the same time, the social, cultural, and political estrangement between the two parties only grew.

This anti-establishment populism within the GOP took on a life of its own with rise of the Tea Party movement in the spring of 2009, immediately after the election of Barack Obama. There is debate over whether the Tea Party was actually a grassroots initiative or a campaign directed by the establishment, which needed support for its obstruction of the Obama administration’s policies. However, it is clear today that the establishment lost control over anti-establishment populism due to the vehemence of many Tea Party participants.

The base was no longer waiting for instructions from party headquarters or congressional leadership to take action against so-called RINOs, “Republicans in name only”. Tea Party activists banked on the power they had in party primaries even more intensively than they had under Gingrich’s strategy. Because participation in primaries is usually low, these activists took on particular importance. In fact, primary elections make it easier for more ideologically radical candidates to win, particularly in “safe” districts. They “only” have to win over the active party base.

With the Tea Party, the GOP began developing into a radical populist party that almost exclusively represented white Christians. Chants of “We want our country back!” by base activists raise the question: back from whom? Faced with a demographic trend that sooner or later will lead to a society in which white people are no longer the majority, many Republicans no longer conceive of the country as a nation, but instead look to other identities — to the “real Americans”, which for many means white and, for some, only white Christians. There should indeed be a welfare state for them, which contradicts the GOP establishment’s dominant, vulgar libertarian party line.

That is precisely what later became a point of entry for Donald Trump.

The Culture Wars

As a representative of a shrinking, almost exclusively white, Christian base, the GOP’s demographically defensive position is accelerating a populist mobilization of culture-war themes. The fight against the 1973 constitutional right to abortion since 1973 already bridged the gaps between Evangelicals and Catholics and politicized the Christian Right in favour of the Republicans. The Christian fundamentalist “moral majority” became an important part of the GOP base, which then also took up the fight against marriage equality. George W. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, exploited that debate in the 2004 presidential election to mobilize conservative voters in swing states with skilfully placed referenda on same-sex marriage.

Today, the GOP no longer has that mobilization advantage. Now that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court has overturned the constitutional right to abortion, it is the Democrats’ turn to strategically introduce state-level referenda to mobilize voters.

Moreover, the fight against “wokeness” — a progressive term for vigilance with respect to injustice, which conservatives have turned into a battle cry — has created an intensity that transcends tactical utilization. Culture wars over LGBTQ rights, book bans in schools, and curricula that address racism, homosexuality, and transsexuality along with the right to own weapons, are now undermining the foundations of American democracy as activists link them with the question of who is to be regarded as a full citizen.

These culture wars sometimes have a strong Christian conservative element: a non-Christian is not a real American. This Christian nationalism is not just conservative, but reactionary: it is not a matter of moderating change, but rather a return to an ostensibly better time.

Meanwhile, portions of the GOP are even turning against the business world that has traditionally supported the party — companies face calls for boycotts whenever they take progressive stances, pursue socio-ecological investment strategies, or, as the conflict between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis shows, defend LGBTQ rights.

A Monster Is Born

What does Donald Trump add to the Republican strategy mix? How can we explain how easily he was able to turn a large part of the GOP base into his own personality cult? What are the prospects for “Trumpism without Trump”?

Barack Obama’s presidency presented Donald Trump the opportunity to offer himself as the “last hope” for the demographically shrinking white Christian population in the US. While he did pursue largely orthodox GOP policies of reducing taxes and deregulation during his term in office, his campaigns deployed the entire repertoire of divisive Republican policies, but greatly intensified: anti-immigrant nativism, racism, and anti-Muslim statements were no longer subliminal, but rather aggressively and abusively stated. Demonization of political enemies and the media as “enemies of the people” also reached new dimensions.

Because of his exploitation of the base in the primaries, many Republican Trump sceptics were either voted out or “voluntarily” withdrew.

Along with his stardom and his willingness to dehumanize his political adversaries, Trump’s explicit scepticism of free trade and military interventions also placed him far enough apart from GOP orthodoxy for him to benefit from outsider status. As the party of the (white) working class, pragmatically defined as people without college degrees, the GOP has rediscovered protectionism — which the Trump administration nonetheless used primarily to push through market deregulation.

States with conservative governments have successfully sued in an effort to cut back the federal government’s authority in areas like climate policy, migration, and social policy.

Trump is also pragmatic when it comes to the welfare state, given that a portion of the base opposes GOP orthodoxy in that field. But the state is only meant to work for them, namely, for the “real Americans”, and only for the “deserving” poor.

There have always been extremist tendencies within the GOP (the antisemitic John Birch Society, for instance), which the establishment always constrained. Yet Trump’s rhetorical as well as (through accelerated border fortification) practical intensification of anti-immigrant nativism and racism, as well as his use of antisemitic code words like “globalism”, have eroded the boundary around radical right-wing positions.

If nothing else, this is evident in the participation of groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys in the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January 2021, which many observers have described as an attempt by Trump to execute a coup d’état. A strong ethno- and Christian nationalist tendency has subsequently developed within the GOP. In short: non-white people are not really American.

There is thus a reason why fascism is being discussed in the US. Writers connected with the Claremont Institute talk unapologetically about Caesarism or regard Trump as a new Napoleon (while overlooking those leaders’ respective fates). Trump may in fact have introduced a new orientation in US politics: the cult-like, unconditional alignment with one person. Current polls, which place Trump ahead of President Joe Biden in battleground states a year ahead of the presidential election, seem to indicate that that is the case.

At the same time, however, there are signs that not only the establishment, but Trump himself is at risk of losing control of the MAGA base. Contempt for elites has become a difficult factor to calculate. The Christian nationalist base and its protected representatives in safe electoral districts emphatically demand a strict, nationwide abortion ban, which even Trump has refrained from endorsing, in light of the broad consensus in favour of abortion rights. In that regard, Trump is rightly concerned about his chances in the 2024 election — however, the increase in small campaign donations has freed not only him, but also some members of congress, of their dependence on large donors and their political action committees.

While the GOP is increasingly willing to manipulate future elections, particularly through targeted obstruction of voter participation among minorities and young voters, conspiracy theories and a propensity towards violence are on the rise among the base. Many believe that democratic rules can or even must be disregarded in order to save the country from Democrats and minority groups. The GOP does still have its country club culture and business people who will back anything, as long as taxes stay low. However, the base now openly disparages them as RINOs and is willing to demonize and silence them with the aid of conservative media.

Laboratories of Autocracy

The loss of control is particularly evident in Republican-dominated states. The pre-eminence of Trumpism in parts of the country continues to exacerbate social and political polarization in the US. Although the predicted “red wave” failed to materialize in the 2022 mid-term elections, as many candidates who Trump explicitly supported lost and the Republicans were only able win a slim majority in the House of Representatives, Joe Lombardo was elected governor in Nevada with Trump’s support.

That is not the only place where the GOP has transformed into a right-wing authoritarian party under Trump’s influence. Particularly Florida, which was a swing state until recently, has increasingly become a de facto one-party state, partly due to gerrymandering, or partisan tailoring of voting districts. Ohio is similar, although the populace there is roughly evenly divided in political terms. The Republicans hold two thirds of the seats in Wisconsin, although they won fewer than half of the votes. Even if MAGA Republicans lost elections in 2022 in a few swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, hundreds of other MAGA candidates won, even without Trump’s explicit support.

Trump has made no secret of his plans for a second term: career officials who are insufficiently loyal to him will be fired and replaced with acolytes.

States with conservative governments, particularly Texas, have successfully sued in an effort to cut back the federal government’s authority in areas like climate policy, migration, and social policy. The Supreme Court’s abrogation of important parts of the Voting Rights Act is making it easier for Republican-led states to systematically suppress voter participation among minorities. This ultimately means that states with Republican governments are no longer federalist “laboratories of democracy”, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called them in 1932, but rather “laboratories of autocracy”.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has a reputation as a culture warrior. He is using what are known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law and the “Stop WOKE Act” to keep public schools and libraries on a short leash with respect to historiography that does not elicit feelings of guilt (for white people). The way that Florida is fighting the re-instatement of voting rights for about 1 million former prisoners — contrary to a resolution that voters supported in a 2018 state-wide referendum — is even more revealing of the state’s authoritarian turn. Before that, re-instatement was only possible on an individual basis through a pardon from the governor. After the referendum, the Florida Legislature immediately passed a law linking restoration of voting rights with full payment of all outstanding fees, fines, and financial penalties — an extremely high bar for former prisoners.

A Fateful Election Year

The elections and referenda that took place in several states on 7 November 2023 put a damper on the GOP’s autocratic evolution, but also on the protagonists of a conservative trend beyond dependence on MAGA and Trump.

In Ohio, a Republican-dominated “red state”, voters not only legalized recreational use of cannabis, but also passed an amendment to the state constitution — against massive Republican resistance — guaranteeing the right to abortion. In Kentucky, also a red state, Democratic gubernatorial incumbent Andy Beshear defeated Daniel Cameron, supported by both Trump and institutionalist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s attempt to win a majority in both houses of the General Assembly in his “purple” state (divided between “blue” Northern Virginia, in the Washington, DC, suburbs, and the rural, Republican “red” southern part of the state) also failed on 7 November. While Youngkin himself was not up for re-election, he tried, like most Republicans, to avoid making abortion an issue by taking an approach that he regards as moderate, stating that abortion should be legal in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. Compared with drastic bans in other states, where doctors have to wait until the mother’s life is in severe danger, his proposal does, in fact, appear moderate.

Nonetheless, the GOP was not able to win a majority in the Virginia Senate or defend its majority in the House of Delegates. As in 2022 — and surely again in 2024 — the Democrats took every opportunity to present themselves as fighters for the right to abortion and, consequently, as defenders of women’s rights in general. For that reason, things do not look bad for them at the moment, apart from the admittedly significant difficulties that candidate Joe Biden is facing.

That is unambiguously a consequence of the GOP’s autocratic turn, which in a short time has transformed it from a traditionally conservative party largely supportive of the interests of the state into a right-populist, and at this point even partly far-right (or sometimes right-wing extremist) party.

Apocalyptic convictions based on conspiracy theories are escalating into a willingness to use violence. They are ready to do (almost) anything to defend what they perceive as a “white Christian nation” that is existentially threatened by an increasingly diverse, secular, urban populace. Armed citizens turn up at campaign events, and members of ethnic minorities have said that they are afraid to show up to vote. Prominent figures in what is ostensibly the party of “law and order”, like Marco Rubio, Kevin McCarthy, and Ted Cruz, rub elbows with extreme right-wing leaders and conspiracy theorists who talk about the “Gestapo”, the “Stasi”, a “banana republic”, and a looming civil war.

For his part, presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has made no secret of his plans for a second term: career officials who are insufficiently loyal to him will be fired and replaced with acolytes. The threat that Trump might use governmental power not only to reward his own supporters — and, when in doubt, to pardon himself — but also to punish political enemies, could not be clearer.

Thus far, Trump’s severe stance has not hurt him in the polls, and Murdoch media outlets (Fox News, The New York Post, etc.) have partly walked back their dissociation from Trump of the past few years. Big donors from the business world still have not given up hope that a more promising Trump opponent will appear in the GOP primaries, but if need be, they will once again opportunistically support the Republican nominee, like they did in 2016 and, to a great extent, in 2020. Beyond all the nativist, racist, protectionist, and Christian nationalist rhetoric, Trump will surely give them what GOP orthodoxy promises: low taxes, deregulation, conservative judges, and anti-union action.

Translated by Joseph Keady and Anna Dinwoodie for Gegensatz Translation Collective.