In more than a half-century of working to understand human affairs, I’ve encountered no greater mystery than this: how has the Republican Party managed to keep the unquestioning loyalty of (the great majority of) its supporters even as it has violated almost all the values it had once claimed to represent?
We know from American history within living memory that Americans do sometimes change their party loyalty when their old party stops standing for something important to them.
From the late 1960s through the 1990s, the solid Democratic South became the solid Republican South. And it’s clear that this change occurred because the Democratic Party – which had been the Party of the Slave Power before the Civil War and remained the party of the segregated Jim Crow South – had morphed into the party that passed major civil rights legislation to put an end to the legal oppression of black people.
Over the course of a generation, a whole population of white Southerners migrated from loyal Democrats to loyal Republicans.
All of which highlights the mystery of how the Republican Party has been able to undergo a transformation at the deepest level of moral values while maintaining the loyalty of almost all of its conservative base.
Recall the virtues conservatives strove to represent over the decades of the 20th century: upright, honest, people of character; who are patriotic and civic-minded; and who insist that respect be given to the norms that the culture, in its wisdom, had created over the generations.
In the 1990s – through hundreds of hours of probing radio conversations with a conservative audience in the Shenandoah Valley – I got to experience conservatives’ allegiance to such values.
Yet in the years since – even as the Republican Party has stopped showing any real concern about virtue at all, or any genuine concern about the good of the country – the conservatives of my part of Virginia are if anything even more fiercely committed to that party.
How has the party generated in their base a loyalty that seems to have completely overridden what the people had previously declared their most basic values?
For example, a recent senatorial contest in Virginia pitted Republican Corey Stewart against Democrat Tim Kaine. Kaine is one of the truly most virtuous people in politics. Stewart boasted that his campaign would be “vicious” — as if he expected his viciousness would be a point in his favor. Can one imagine any “good conservative” of the past using their “viciousness” as a way of selling themselves as one to whom power should be given?
Yet the conservatives of the Shenandoah Valley – people who used to talk about the importance of “character” – voted overwhelmingly for Stewart.
And likewise, the Republican base overwhelmingly supports President Trump, who quite openly tramples on all the norms – of American politics and basic human conduct – that conservatives used to claim were important to them.
A Republican Party that once trumpeted its veneration of the Constitution has changed into a party that assaults the Constitution to an extent unprecedented in the history of American political parties: twisting “advise and consent” into something unrecognizable; supporting a president’s wanton violation of the Constitution, overriding the constitutional authority of Congress to decide what will be funded (the wall), and when to impose tariffs, and – even more fundamentally essential to the system of checks and balances – to oversee the executive branch (with the subpoena power to compel documents and witnesses).
Mysterious, too, is how Trump and the Trump party could act as they do and yet maintain the loyalty of people who regard being “Christian” as at the heart of their lives — Trump, whose ways are about as opposite as one could imagine to the moral teachings of Christ.
(Trump says his philosophy of life is to hit back tenfold anyone who crosses him, whereas Jesus said, “turn the other cheek.” Jesus blessed the “peacemakers,” whereas Trump continually picks fights. Jesus rejected the expression of raca – contempt – whereas Trump habitually treats people with unwarranted contempt.)
So why did civil rights legislation precipitate an exodus from the Democratic Party, while the partisan loyalty of the Republican base remains unshaken despite such comprehensive abandonment of such basic conservative values?
Could it be because the commitment to white supremacy was more powerful than any commitment to “values?” Perhaps, but it certainly seemed to me in the 1990s that those values were sincerely held. Nor are there signs that most Republicans have any clear awareness of how far their party has taken them from the values they used to hold dear. Which suggests that something much more mysterious – in psychological terms — has happened. Something that has perhaps disabled certain important – morally and spiritually relevant – areas of awareness. Something that has plugged into some very deep level of motivation.
Something that remains mostly a mystery to me.