Why does the GOP have a death wish?

Jackie Calmes
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

From top to bottom, at all levels of government, the Republican Party is on a tear to epitomize the timeless truth of 19th century Britain's Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Signs of backlash are building, however. Witness Democrats' takeover of the Wisconsin Supreme Court last week, and its capture of Michigan's entire government last fall — victories in two heartland states that Democrats had long feared were slipping away from them. By public demand, the Republican-controlled Tennessee House has had to reseat the two Black Democratic representatives it expelled last week for egging on a protest in support of gun control after a shooter killed six at a Nashville school.

For a Republican Party that didn't even bother to write an actual platform in 2020, Americans can clearly see a de facto one: Its planks are antiabortion extremism, pro-gun absolutism, anti-LGBTQ activism, book banning, vote suppression and election denialism. That's not a winning mix.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaks during a hearing before House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis at Rayburn House Office Building June 23, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

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Most Republican leaders aren't stupid; they recognize their political peril in swing states and national elections, if only privately. Pollsters and consultants are warning them. As Sarah Longwell, who conducts focus groups of Republican voters, told Politico, "The gap between what base voters demand … and what swing voters are up for has gotten very wide."

Which suggests just one explanation for Republicans' not only staying the course, but also doubling down on issues unpopular with just about everyone other than their base: They have a death wish.

That's bad not just for the no-longer-Grand Old Party's future. It's also bad for the rest of us — the country needs two sound political parties to sustain democracy.

Let's start at the party's bottom, because it's the radicalized Republican base, turbocharged by Donald Trump, that is the tail wagging this dog. For all of Republicans' apparent power, party leaders at the local, state and federal levels seem unable to stand up to the wrathful Trump and his loyal voters who push them to such extremes.

Local school boards have been taken over by conservative parents and groups intent on banning books that offend their finely tuned sensibilities on race, sexuality and U.S. history. Last month, in what Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis unironically calls the Free State of Florida, a high school yanked a graphic novel of Anne Frank's diary. But why go book by book? In the Missouri House, the Republican supermajority just voted to defund all of the state's libraries.

Given this right-wing jihad, the nation is on pace to break the sad record set in 2022 when, according to the American Library Assn., there were nearly 1,300 demands to censor library books and materials. That was the most since the group began collecting data 20-plus years ago.

Meanwhile, at local election offices, the nonpartisan administrators who do the grunt work of democracy are quitting or being pushed out under the pressure of Trump-inspired conspiracists. In a Virginia county, the entire election staff resigned in frustration over the baseless vote-fraud claims of the newly Republican-controlled board. Perversely, six red states — Florida, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana — have lately left a multistate coalition organized to protect against fraud, after right-wing media falsely alleged that it fostered Democratic vote-rigging.

Those six states are among the 20 where Republicans have veto-proof supermajority legislatures — virtually unchecked power — and they choose to spend their time on such burning, base-pleasing issues as outlawing drag shows and medical care for transgender people, looking for new ways to restrict votes in Democratic areas and gerrymandering political districts. (In nine states, including California, Democrats have supermajorities in the state legislatures — and, yes, they're vulnerable to overreaching too.)

In Congress, Republicans are far from a supermajority in the House, but they nonetheless behave as though they have superpowers beyond anything the Constitution confers.

Led by Rep. Jim Jordan, the performative Republican from Ohio, Trump allies who wouldn't comply with subpoenas to testify about the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection are now sending subpoenas right and left, trying to prove specious claims about Democrats' "weaponization" of government. They're seeking to interfere in the ongoing criminal case against their master, Trump, for his alleged preelection payoff of a porn star. On Tuesday, the district attorney in that New York state case, Alvin L. Bragg Jr., sued to stop a "brazen and unconstitutional attack."

The audacity of hyperpartisanship extends even into the supposedly nonpartisan judiciary. Right-wing plaintiffs brazenly shop for friendly judges, so you have outrages like the openly antiabortion Trump judge in Texas who did just what he was picked to do: overturn the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 23-year-old approval of mifepristone, a drug used for more than half of U.S. abortions.

Then there's the Supreme Court. With its corruptly engineered supermajority of six Republican-appointed justices, it defies public opinion and precedents to reach obvious right-wing ends. Justice Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, snubs his nose at ethical constraints most of us understand intuitively. As we learned thanks to ProPublica, he vacationed for years on a Republican billionaire's many, many dimes and neglected to disclose that the billionaire had purchased property from him as well.

Now court change is a motivating issue for Democrats, much as it was for Republican voters for decades.

For all of this, the 2024 elections hold opportunities for Republicans from the White House and Senate on down — but for their death-wish devotion to power grabs, forced pregnancy, guns and Trump.

Instead of living out Lord Acton's wisdom, I'd recommend Republicans take this advice from a good ol' American, Will Rogers: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

— Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.