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Sunday Special: Why the Republican Party is on the verge of extinction

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There was one great Republican president in the 20th century, and no, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan. It was a man who said, “I do not dislike, but I certainly have no especial respect or admiration for and no trust in, the typical big monied men of my country.”

He said those words in his first term, around 1903, a time when progressive ideas were seizing hold of the country due to the excesses of greedy tycoons. The progressive movement had started in the agricultural Midwest and Upper Mississippi Valley, as farmers saw bankers rip them off and seize their land; and then it spread to urban areas, where industrial workers got poorer and sicker as the tycoons racked up immense quantities of money, and the gap between the average American and a nabob like John D. Rockefeller grew into an unbridgeable, and un-American, chasm.

That sounds a lot like the situation today, when Democrats rail against a vastly unequal distribution of wealth and the overlordship of Wall Street banks and dark-money billionaires like the Koch Brothers. But the president who spoke the words I quoted above was not a Democrat.

Theodore Roosevelt was no rabble-rouser. He was conservative in his bones, having been born to an old New York family of landed gentry and wealth. T.R. was an imperialist, with a muscular foreign policy that did not hesitate to use gunboat diplomacy to further America’s interests. And yet he was the first progressive president; he laid the groundwork for the environmental movement, for Hamiltonian big, regulatory national government (as opposed to Jeffersonian small government), for anti-monopolistic laws, rigidly enforced by federal agencies, notably in his trust-busting crusades against Big Railroads, Big Oil and Big Steel. T.R. provided the framework for his fifth cousin, the Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to push through the New Deal, which probably saved America from Communist revolution.

How was it that T.R.—Republican to the core—believed in things that sound so Democratic? Because he was raised with a sense of noblesse obige, which required him, as president, to act on behalf of those with far less than he had, not in cahoots with the one percent.

The Republican Party started as the party of Abraham Lincoln; it stood for strong central government, against slavery, and for business, which it understood properly was good for America. What the Republican Party never allowed room for (and neither did the Democratic Party) was the intrusion of religious zealots in shaping its values and positions—just as the founding fathers would have wanted. It’s not that Republicans weren’t religious: they were (or professed to be), but the respect for the separation of church and state that is enshrined in our Constitution has guided every political party since the nation’s founding.

Until recently.

There is a single cause why the Republican Party has ceased to represent all Americans, and that is its embrace of radical, rightwing Christianity. When you think of the influence that Donald Trump has allowed individuals and organizations such as Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Steve Scheffler, Ralph Reed, the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Catholic Information Center, Mike Pence, Travis Korson, Rev. Richard Lee, Betsy DeVos and others to have on shaping policy, it’s not only frightening, but an insult to T.R., whose contempt for religious extremists was as palpable as it was for “monied men.” He believed in “muscular Christianity,” a Y.M.C.A.-style approach that emphasized physical fitness and moral behavior, but the craziness of holy rollers and revivalists offended his intelligence.

T.R. understood the importance of America’s secular tradition. He also knew—as the current occupant of the White House does not—that unrestrained capitalism is a disaster: immoral, unfair and dangerous. His criticism of “big monied men” was all the more telling because he’d grown up in their midst.

All of these traditions began to be breached in the 1970s and 1980s by Republicans, as the religious right infiltrated the GOP. The breach deepened in the 1990s and 2000s, until today, the Republican Party is little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of theocrats who believe that the Second Coming is just around the corner and the Rapture will soon lift believing Christians to Heaven, while the rest of us will be left to burn in a (presumably Democratic) hell.

Republicans, in other words, have lost their minds. T.R. is spinning in his grave. He would not be a Republican if he were still alive. Even a born-again but sane Christian Republican like George W. Bush understands the horrors of Donald Trump and the destruction he and his Christian cohorts have inflicted on the Republican Party and upon the nation.

History is an ongoing story, always in danger of being forgotten (pace Santayana), particularly in days like ours when Christians, from the president on down, claim that history is fiction, that science is fake, that only the bible is true. And yet, nations cannot escape their own history. This country made a terrible, tragic mistake when it elected Donald Trump. There is no conceivable way history will regard his advent as anything other than the most massive political blunder America ever made. Fortunately, the progressive light that Teddy Roosevelt ignited for the Republican Party may be dim, but it is not extinguished; it lives on, in fact, in the Democratic Party. There may still be room for a Republican Party that is a proud descendant of the party of T.R., but there is no room for a Republican Party that cannot distinguish between itself and a fundamentalist church. That is a house divided against itself; it cannot stand.

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