Is the GOP a Far Right Party?
I know what you are thinking... no, of course not. After all, the Republican Party, or Grand Old Party (GOP), is a party of the right, conservative, but square within the political mainstream.
Just because Donald Trump is leading the primaries, and the GOP seems unable and unwilling to stop him, does not make the whole party far right. The official party platform is more or less mainstream conservative, as is the (toothless) party leader Reince Priebus. And only a minority of the party's Members of Congress, most notably in the House of Representatives, is ideologically far right -- such as Michelle Bachmann (Minnesota), Louie Gohmert (Texas), Steve King (Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (Alabama).
The situation is much less clear at the state level, however. Here authoritarianism and nativism run rampant among governors and legislators alike. It is almost exclusively among GOP-controlled states that strict anti-immigration and "anti-Sharia" legislation was introduced. And the vast majority of Republican governors refused to accept Syrian refugees to their state, on the unfounded allegation that they would include terrorists.
American parties are not the centralized, homogeneous political organizations that European parties are. The particular combination of a first-past-the-post electoral system and extremely expensive campaigns means that individuals can create some independence vis-à-vis national party leaders, particularly if they have their own financial backers or sources. Consequently, the parties are strongly influenced by some individual members, particularly if one of those individuals wins the presidency. In other words, the major presidential candidates play a major role in the (self-)characterization of the party.
The real problem of the GOP today is that Donald Trump is not just a far right outsider, who has infiltrated a mainstream right-wing party, as the establishment is desperately trying to tell you and most mainstream media continue to confirm. The success of Trump is in many ways the product of a decade-long radicalization of the grassroots and cadres of the party and, consequently, Trump represents the party at least as much as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or failed establishment candidate Jeb Bush.
The case for labeling Trump "far right" is pretty straightforward. The core of his campaign is authoritarianism and nativism fueled with fierce and vulgar anti-establishment rhetoric. No minority is safe from him: Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, and even Jews -- who were treated to beautiful examples of anti-Semitic philosemitism -- including the already legendary "I'm a negotiator, like you folks" -- at a speech to the Republican Jews Coalition last year. For Trump every issue is, in essence, a security issue that has to be dealt with in an authoritarian manner -- from the wall with Mexico to terrorism -- in which he does not shy away from using violence (including torture). Not surprising then that authoritarianism is a key factor explaining support for Trump among voters. While he is not a true populist, as he believes in his own unique virtues and not those of the (common) people, his anti-establishment discourse is very similar to that of far right populists in Europe, i.e. claiming all elites are essentially corrupt and on the same side.
The problem for the GOP is that Trump is not the only major candidate whose core beliefs are at odds with liberal democracy, in particular minority rights. Each of the remaining five presidential candidates has proposed to limit the rights of minorities, including the gay community and Muslims. In fact, the top three candidates have all called for increased monitoring of "Muslim communities" in sharp opposition to religious freedom and, obviously, the First Amendment.
In fact, if the 2016 primaries had been normal by any conventional standard, even the standards of the 2012 GOP primaries (which were also lathered with religious extremism and Islamophobia), all the attention and outrage would have been focused on the behavior and ideas of Ted Cruz. And I am not talking about him cooking bacon with a machine gun. Cruz has a long and well-established track record of supporting far right causes and conspiracies. In a recent article in the SPLC's Intelligence Report on the ten most popular far right conspiracy theories in the United States, Cruz featured regularly as one of the most prominent supporters of those theories -- including the insane conspiracies around Agenda 21, an alleged attempt to put "the tentacles of the UN into US institutions" (one of the key conspiracy theories of the far right John Birch Society), and Jade Helm, the 2015 US military training exercise in several Southern states that many far right activists in Texas thought was a secret Pentagon plan to invade their state.
And, despite Trump's recent re-invention as a devout Christian, uncritically accepted by large portion of the Religious Right, the real religious extremism comes from other candidates within the party, most notably Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Asked "a simple question" on MSNBC, namely "Does the Bible have authority over the Constitution?", Carson answered "That is not a simple question", arguing that it depended on the "specific context." Cruz has said, on multiple occasions, "That our rights do not come from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or even from the Tea Party. Our rights come from our creator." In other words, two of the five remaining GOP presidential candidates believe that the Bible is more important than the Constitution, which suggests a theocratic understanding of politics that is directly at odds with democracy, not just liberal democracy.
Even the last hope of the GOP establishment, Marco Rubio, is not a traditional mainstream conservative. First, he was catapulted into national politics by the Tea Party movement, even though he quickly abandoned them when he found other, richer backers. Second, he has supported classic far right tropes, such as the denial of man-made climate change or the obviously wrong assertion that Christianity is being treated as "hate speech" under President Obama. In one of the most bizarre moments in the campaign so far, a very high bar, Rubio and Cruz, both Cuban Americans, were trying to out-Trump each other on immigration with Rubio outright denying his previous support for immigration reform and blurring lines between immigrants and terrorists. Similarly, there is little light between Rubio's anti-Muslim comments and those of Trump (or Cruz). In fact, after Trump had stated that mosques should be under surveillance because of the risk of "radical Islam", Rubio extended that to "any place -- whether it's a cafe, a diner, an internet site -- any place where radicals are being inspired".
So, what does this say about the GOP today? Is the GOP a far right party? Clearly not if one only looks at the official front of the party, i.e. the fairly irrelevant party leader and platform. And only at the margins if one looks at the main (national) representatives in US Congress. But increasingly it is if one focuses at the most popular candidates for presidency, which, if successful, will be the most powerful person within the party. Consequently, it is high time that the GOP leadership and supporters who do still support liberal democracy take their responsibility and see their party for what it is. Not a party that was hijacked by Trump (and Cruz), but a party that created him, and that is now increasingly being shaped in his image.