A long-dormant judicial volcano belched some smoke and ash into the morning breeze earlier this week, leaving some of the villagers below more than a little bewildered: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas abruptly announced his support on Monday for broad and muscular government regulation of private business.
The case that motivated Justice Thomas’s opinion, Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia University v. Donald J. Trump, was a suit filed on behalf of citizens whom Trump had blocked from his Twitter page. The court saw no merit in the plaintiff’s First Amendment argument and dismissed the case. Justice Thomas agreed with the dismissal, but added a concurring opinion to the ultimate decision in order to pontificate on the merits of government regulation.
“If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude,” Justice Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion. He went on to argue, “As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms. The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions.”
Question: What kind of Republican advocates for vigorous regulation of private industry? Answer: A Trump Republican, if that industry is even peripherally seen as being hostile to the 45th president.
This is not Thomas’s first trip to this particular rodeo, mind you. In 2019, he attacked the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision because he believes the media is mean to conservatives. A year later, he was signaling his support for the coup. In this, the justice has actually become something of a trend-setter for his party.
Republicans have often gone for the culture wars jugular in the past. On that battlefield, at least, the loudest screamers have usually won the day if they were able to connect the offending issue to some sort of policy initiative. Not so much for that anymore.
“This new approach to the culture war is fundamentally different in that none of these issues can even be conceptually addressed through policy changes,” writes Steve Benen for MSNBC. “Kevin McCarthy cannot, for example, spearhead a legislative initiative to force Dr. Seuss Enterprises to publish old books with racist pictures. Similarly, Republicans can’t pass bills that regulate the branding of Potato Head toys. None of this falls within the purview of Congress. The old culture war reflected a party that prioritized a socially conservative policy agenda; the new culture war reflects a post-policy party that revels in cultural grievances with no meaningful solutions in mind.”
We see this everywhere now. The party whose primary purpose for decades has been the care and feeding of hyper-wealthy corporations suddenly wants to regulate those entities now because some dared to air an opinion contrary to party doctrine. The GOP has turned corporate America itself into a culture wars fight because a few major corporations have tepidly come out against Georgia’s brazenly racist new voting restrictions.
Not even America’s pastime is safe from right-wing outrage: Major League Baseball’s decision to withdraw the All-Star Game from Atlanta over those voting restrictions has inspired apoplectic responses from the right. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott denounced the decision and announced he would be boycotting baseball, but not before allowing the Texans to pack their stadium to full capacity last night. If COVID holds true, the night and those to follow will become super-spreader events prolonging this national nightmare.
“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” said Minority Leader McConnell in his statement yesterday. “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
As these dominoes continue to fall, it is made ever more clear that the Republican Party has undergone a dramatic change in recent years. Nothing so well-funded as the GOP will be dying anytime soon, but this new beast is rocking a whole new set of stripes. Ginning up the mob was once a means to an end for them. Now, the party is focused solely on applying sandpaper to scabs, about eliciting anger and discomfort to distract and dismay. The party has no solutions, not even to the cultural issues they denounce. The GOP has, in sum and substance, become nothing more than an unnatural noise.
Why, in the end, go this route? White supremacy, period. “The central strategic imperative of Republicans is scaring the living shit out of white people,” writes Dan Pfeiffer on Message Box. “America is always changing. Politics has always been a battle of framing that change. Elections hinge on whether the fear of an unknown future eclipses dissatisfaction with a known present. Because of the omnipresent dominance of social media, the pace of that change has seemed faster — and scarier — in the last decade or so. Republicans have weaponized this fear with relentless precision.”
For decades now, going all the way back before Nixon, the GOP has coddled its radical right-wing base because they are the most reliable voting block in the country. Roundabout Newt Gingrich’s time, those angry white power “populists” began taking over the party at the ground level. One by one, insufficiently right-wing GOP officeholders were defeated in primaries against party insurrectionists who transformed from Newt’s people to Tea Party activists, and then into loyal Trump voters in the fullness of time. For this not-so-new breed of Republicans, and for the voters who sustain them, the noise is the point of the exercise, and the only club left in the bag.
“Trump was a master of this,” explains David Corn for Mother Jones. “And the Trump wannabes are doing their best to emulate the scoundrel. That’s why leading Republicans have made cancel culture their rallying cry. Their message is, it’s not about Dr. Seuss, it’s about you. In a fundraising email he recently zapped out, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the infamous fist-pumper of January 6, explicitly made this case: ‘The Left has become UNHINGED. They want to cancel Mr. Potato Head. They want to cancel Dr. Seuss. They want to cancel the American Dream. They want to cancel President Trump. And most disturbingly they want to CANCEL YOU!”’
The result is plain enough. After decades of Republicans seeking and taking government gigs on a platform of denuding government itself, few of them today actually know how to draft and push policy anymore. It’s like bringing your Honda to a mechanic who hates cars and threw his ratchet set into a lake so he could “own the libs.” He’ll tell you all about it at the top of his voice, but your car ain’t going nowhere.
This article has been updated.