If the Republicans are in disarray, why are they surging in the polls?

I have been reading a lot of mainstream op-ed pieces lamenting the collapse of the Grand Old Party.  The GOP, the argument goes, has been taken captive by Dominionist evangelicals, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and a growing White Nationalism movement.  Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, people who were once considered fringe, are now viewed of harbingers of things to come.  Most significantly, perhaps, Donald Trump, the man who organized a treasonous coup d’état, has emerged as the only credible Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

In other words, the GOP is a party in utter disarray, is wracked by scandal, and has fallen captive to loony tune nutjobs.  This should be a recipe for political disaster, right?

But there is another side to the news.  We just learned that a new “generic ballot” released by the Washington Post and ABC News shows Republicans with a 10-point advantage (51%-41%) among registered voters.  In other words, asked if they would prefer a Republican or a Democrat for Congress, a solid majority favor the GOP. 

Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s popularity numbers have plummeted to 41%.  This suggests that the only voters who still back the president are convinced Democrats.  And this after Biden’s infrastructure bill has been signed into law.

In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe thought he could win the governor’s race by bashing a disgraced ex-president.  He miscalculated.  His opponent, Glenn Youngkin, focused on the right of parents to determine what their children are taught about American history.  That’s a winning strategy in 2021 poltics.

The issue of who controls how history is taught in public schools explains why Republicans, though in complete disarray and with no discernible legislative agenda, are nonetheless surging in the polls. 

According to the WP/ABC poll, voters who said parents should have “a lot” of influence over school instruction broke heavily Republican; those who said parents should have “some” influence trended Democratic.  The problem, for Democrats, is that a lot more voters are checking the “a lot” box.

Much depends on the way the question is posed. If you ask, “should parents have ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ influence over school instruction”, the tendency is to imagine an authoritarian school system teaching the little ones whatever it wishes regardless of what mom and dad believe.

A different question would have produced different answers. For instance, if the focus shifts from empowering parents to who controls the national story, a different set of concerns emerge. If asked, “should white Americans control the American story?” respondents would have been forced to confront the real issue.

So long as the issue is considered from the perspective of parental control, Republicans will continue to cash in politically.

This morning, I listened to a riveting conversation between Nicole Hemmer Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right, Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics), and Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago professor who wrote Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement in Paramilitary AmericaThe conversation covered a lot of territory, but it was all germane to the question I am asking: why is a party that is drowning in corruption, treason, insanity and dysfunction polling so well?

Belew notes that what she calls the “White Power movement” developed an anti-government philosophy in the 1980s, curiously, in the heart of the Reagan administration.  She speaks of “white power” as opposed to “white nationalism” because, she says, the goal has always been to take America back to a time when the authority of white people was unquestioned, America was overwhelmingly Caucasian, and people of color were excluded from virtually all positions of power. 

Belew argues that the White Power movement has always thought in terms of comparatively small concentric circles.  Since the movement was anti-democratic, the goal was never to win over a majority of voters. 

The inner core consisted of “dedicated hard-core activists who are the ones who might take violent radical action if the opportunity arose or if they were called to do so.”  In the 1980s, she says, this inner core consisted of approximately 25,000 people.

The second concentric circle, also relatively small, consisted of between 100,000 and 125,000 people who “do things like donate money, come to public-facing marches, participate in social activities, which are very important to this kind of activism.”

Then we have an outer circle of about 450,000 people who “don’t donate money . . . don’t subscribe to newsletters . . . but they regularly read white power content secondhand.”

The goal, from the beginning, was to secure white power via armed insurrection.  The January 6 insurrection, Belew says, forces us to imagine a radical expansion of each of these circles.  In addition, we must reckon with an outer concentric circle that is infinitely larger than anything we have previously imagined. 

The goal of January 6th, she says, wasn’t to take over full control of government in a mass casualty event.  That’s why gunfire played a fairly minor role.  Organizers were, however, aiming to brutalize a few select representative political leaders as a way of demonstrating movement power.  In other words, it was entirely conceivable that a handful of politicians would have been beaten, and possibly murdered, if the mob had been able to lay hands on them.

According to Belew, the goal was always to draw people in the outer rings closer to the core.  The significance of QAnon, she believes, is that it was able to move people from the conventional world of Republican politics into a bloodthirsty conspiracy almost immediately.

So, we are dealing with a complex mix of philosophies and motivations held together by a common set of anxieties.  “All of these people came together,” she says, “because they shared a sense of impending emergency about racial apocalypse, which, for them, had to do with a decreasing white birthrate and a whole bunch of issues that attached to that concern, like anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-integration, anti-immigration.” The focus shifts from group-to-group, but “it’s all about how whiteness is their race and their nation and how they felt that they needed to fight to protect it from extinction.”

This explains the power of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) panic.  It’s all about who gets to tell America’s story.  Are we a white nation controlled from top to bottom by men and women (mostly men) of European ethnic origin; or are we a racially diverse nation in which there is no obvious connection between race, gender and ethnicity and power?

The fact that the GOP is enjoying fabulous success in spite of January 6th, the Big Lie, QAnon and an utter lack of a governing philosophy, shows us just how important it is for white voters to maintain control over the American story.  We are forced to reckon with the possibility that, from a political perspective, it’s the only thing that truly matters.

Confronted with such a monstrous reality, Christian churches must free themselves from the spiritual scandal of white power.  Then we must project a clear, easily enunciated alternative to the madness we are currently witnessing on every side.  Silence, in this context, is the rankest of heresies.

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