(reading time: 3 mins)
If you’ve been wondering what happened to the Republican party under Trump, look beyond 2016 and look back exactly 30 years. The Republicans’ wholesale abandonment of many of their core values, to the point where elected members now spout deep state conspiracy theories that contradict the CIA and FBI in order to stay on message with their president, has not been an overnight process. However the event that triggered it, the fall of the Berlin wall, was.
When the wall fell, hawks like Condoleezza Rice apparently wanted president Bush Snr. to hit Berlin as fast as humanly possible and go dance on the grave of communism. In fact Bush waited nearly a year before visiting Berlin, and not just because schadenfreude wasn’t part of his character. He knew his presence there could make things difficult for Gorbachev, and reduce the chance of a smooth transition to democracy in the eastern bloc. After all the USSR had been telling its people America was interfering in its affairs for decades.
Although Bush Snr. was right to hold back, traditional Republicans couldn’t hold back their party. I believe November 1989 was the moment the Republican party began slipping away from traditionalists like Bush and John McCain, because it was the moment the free market right became convinced of its absolute right to govern.
For most outside America, Francis Fukiyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’ in the summer of 1989 was easy to dismiss as temporary self congratulatory American hubris. But to the right, the dismantling of communism’s most physical symbol was irrefutable proof that they had won, and – perhaps ironically considering their evangelical base – proved their Darwinian right to govern from there on in. That hubris led to the disastrous Iraq war, and financial deregulation that nearly crashed the world economy in 2008.
Sure, all parties have their idealists, their pragmatists and those who value staying in office above all else, while faking fidelity to their party’s values. And the Democrats too have had their moments of hypocrisy.
But since 1989 Republicans have re-ignited their passionate for fiscal conservatism only while Clinton and Obama were president. Under Dubya and Trump deficits spiraled. Once a party acquires the habit of selectively applying its principles – valuing the independence of government employees, respecting the rule of law, fighting against foreign election meddling, and seeing America as a place of refuge rather than a fortress to be defended by punishing poor children – it gets easier to let other basic principles fall by the wayside.
The Republicans developed a potent background narrative after November 1989. A narrative that the right has the victor’s authority to exercise power no matter what. That the GOP still has moral authority despite enabling the most openly amoral president in US history. And most of all, that it can neglect its guiding principles behind without losing its identity. This narrative was acquired in November 1989 and now drives the Republican party more than anything.