It all began when the intellectual Godfather of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., defined that movement as standing athwart history yelling stop. What Buckley was trying to stop was the New Deal—the expansion of government under Franklin Roosevelt. He was also referring to the growing secularization of society. His first book, “God and Man at Yale,” published in 1951, was a diatribe against what he believed were the anti-Christian and anti-capitalist forces at the nation’s best universities.
Buckley yelled stop again during the civil-rights movement, writing in 1957 that “the South must prevail” because the more “advanced” white race had an obligation and right to rule over others. He changed his mind during the mid-1960s, but many conservatives remained staunchly opposed to the landmark civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965.
In other words, the modern Republican Party has its roots in rebellion—rebellion against the main currents of change in modern American society: the growth of the welfare state, the secularization of life and the increasing diversity of American society.
The trouble is, most Americans don’t agree with that protest. They may express discomfort with the welfare state in theory, but in practice they love Social Security, Medicare and the rest. Secularization is a force that is sweeping through almost all advanced industrial societies and one government can do little to stop. And America’s growing diversity is inevitable in a country built on immigration and has mostly proved to be a strength, not a weakness.
But Republican politicians are now riding the back of a tiger and they can’t get off. Former President Ronald Reagan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former President Donald Trump — all icons on the right — whip up their followers into a froth of hysteria and promise that they will repeal and reverse most of these terrible trends.
But of course it never happens: When Republicans take power, they don’t actually repeal government programs that, in reality, are popular. Which makes the Republican base get more and more angry. And as their sense of betrayal grows, so does their desperation that American civilization is in imminent danger of collapse.
There is a great and honorable space in America for a party of limited and efficient government that values traditionalism and believes that social change should take place slowly and organically. But that is different from what has become a band of ideological warriors with apocalyptic vision that fears the ends of days, sees opponents as devils and traitors and believes that all methods are sanctioned in its battle to save civilization and itself.
In short, the Republican Party needs to have a nervous breakdown, get therapy and come to terms with the modern world.