I was watching an episode of “The Americans” recently when I was struck by a bit of historical irony.
In case you haven’t caught Joe Weisberg’s new thriller on FX yet, it’s about a family living in a Washington, D.C. suburb in the early 1980s. The only thing that distinguishes travel agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) from millions of other thirty-something middle class American parents is their secret life as deep cover spies for the KGB. By day they book vacations. By night they seduce unwitting midlevel American officials or their spouses, kidnap and kill Soviet defectors, and plant a bug in the home of the U.S. secretary of defense.
The drama plays out against escalating Cold War tensions following the election of Ronald Reagan. Soviet officials fear Reagan is a madman determined to destroy their homeland, and so the Jennings’ KGB overseers press them to take on ever more dangerous assignments, risking their exposure.
You have to feel a little sorry for the show’s protagonists. Unlike them, the show’s viewers have the benefit of hindsight. We know that the Soviet Union does indeed end up collapsing, not in a nuclear Armageddon triggered by the Republican icon but under the weight of its communist leaders’ own hidebound ideology. Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy could not fill bare store shelves, shorten bread lines or contain nationalist stirrings from East Berlin to Kiev. Nor could a regime that measured its success by how many tanks it could field in central Europe endure in a world where countries’ fortunes hinge less on military power than on technological innovation and economic dexterity. The Jennings’ heroic (or villainous, depending on which side of the Iron Curtain you’re viewing it from) efforts will all be for naught. It’s actually a bit depressing.
And that brings us to the historical irony that I alluded to earlier. Many of today’s Republicans continue to lionize their hero Reagan for “winning” the Cold War. But like the apparatchiks depicted in “The Americans,” Republican leaders seem oblivious to their own party’s growing irrelevance.
It’s not just that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Or that changing demographics are reducing the share of the vote coming from the party’s core constituency, white middle-aged men. Nor will “rebranding” and the addition of a few new faces to the leadership mix solve the GOP’s problem, any more than Glasnost or Gorbachev could fix the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The Republicans’ problem isn’t their messaging but their ideology, an incoherent jumble of plutocracy, jingoism, nativism, religious intolerance and male chauvinism. With income and wealth inequality near all-time highs, Republicans insist on protecting tax dodges for the rich and oppose raising the minimum wage. With Americans weary after more than a decade of war, Republicans push for an attack on Iran. With Hispanics making up a growing percentage of the electorate, Republicans oppose meaningful immigration reform and call for further militarizing our southern border. As equality for the LGBT community wins growing popular acceptance, Republican leaders continue to oppose gay marriage. And while the gender gap between Republicans and Democrats grows, GOP leaders reject pay equity and seek to dictate women’s choices about family planning and reproductive health.
It’s hard to imagine a more complete blueprint for political obsolescence.
Even the Republicans’ response to dissidents within their ranks is reminiscent of the Soviet purges of old (though without the firing squads and the Gulag). Apostates are crucified – just ask Chuck Hagel – and heretics are primaried, resulting in an ever more ideologically homogenous cadre. And while the GOP can’t quite claim the media monopoly that the Soviet communists had, it can boast its own versions of TASS and Pravda in Fox News and the New York Post.
Barring a dramatic change in its world view, the Republican Party seems destined for the dustbin of history (much like Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, who is credited with popularizing the phrase). Personally, my first reaction is to say “good riddance.” But then, one has to worry about whether the onetime Party of Lincoln will drag the United States down with it, the way the party of Lenin did the Soviet Union.
Despite fast becoming a permanent minority party on the national stage, the GOP retains many of the reins of national policy. It has a 32-seat majority in the U.S. House (thanks to gerrymandering, and despite losing the popular vote nationwide in congressional elections last year) and enough of a minority in the U.S. Senate to block almost any legislation. Republicans have complete control of 28 state legislatures and share control of five. They also hold 30 governorships.
All this means a national popular will increasingly at odds with the country’s elected leadership. It also means that policies that injure the United States at home and abroad – such as indifference toward poverty in the U.S., irrational bellicosity toward potential foes abroad and recklessness on global environmental issues – are likely to continue in force for a while, no matter whom we elect as president. The GOP may be in its death throes, but it’s still clinging desperately to the levers of power.
It sort of reminds me of one of those movies where the villain is about to fall off a cliff or a skyscraper and tries to pull the hero or an innocent down with him. You know, like Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis in “Die Hard”? Though I personally prefer the scene in “Blade Runner” where the homicidal replicant played by Rutger Hauer saves Harrison Ford from a fatal fall and then quietly lowers his head and dies after lamenting that his memories will be lost forever.
If only some screenwriter could pen a similarly graceful exit for the GOP.