(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 some many 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 get to Berlin as fast as possible, in order to dance on the grave of communism. Bush Snr 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 domestically and reduce the chance of a smooth transition to democracy in the Eastern bloc. The USSR had after all 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 the hubris that grew in 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 easily dismissed as passing 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 they had a Darwinian right to govern from there on in. That hubris led to the disastrous Iraq war, and financial deregulation that ruined 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 passion for fiscal conservatism only while Clinton and Obama were president. Under Dubya and Trump deficits spiralled. Once a party acquires the habit of selectively applying its principles – be that valuing the independence of government employees, respecting the rule of law, fighting against foreign election meddling, or seeing America as a place of refuge rather than a fortress to be defended by punishing poor children – it gets easier to let all the other basic principles fall by the wayside.
The Republicans acquired a potent background narrative after November 1989. A narrative that the right has the victor’s authority to exercise power no matter what. Some in the GOP believe this gives them continuing moral authority, despite enabling the most openly amoral president in US history. But no party can so neglect its guiding principles behind without losing its identity. The narrative that winning is all that counts, was acquired when the Berlin Wall fell, and is now the main force driving the Republican party.