On The Trail: The era of big government Republicanism

Republican governors and legislators have embarked on new campaigns to restrict the rights of their constituents and punish those who voice dissent, flexing the power of government run by a party that once pledged to keep government out of private life.

On issues ranging from transgender rights to cross-border trade and private business decisions related to the coronavirus pandemic, Republican lawmakers have advanced measures this year that insert government into many facets of American life.

Twenty-six years after a Democratic president declared an end to the era of big government, that era is back — but now it’s being driven by the Republican Party.

“As the right moves into post-liberalism and away from what traditionally has been defined as conservative, it is much more comfortable with wielding state power to own the libs,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center and author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.” “They would say the state is the only major institution in American life that conservatives now control — they have to make full use of whatever power is available to them.”

Legislatures in Alabama approved measures barring doctors from providing medical care to transgender youth, over the objections of every major medical association in the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an order classifying the provision of gender-affirming care — including the use of puberty-delaying hormones — as child abuse.

Supporters of those measures focus on — and, in one recent case in Michigan, even fundraise off of — gender-affirming surgeries, glossing over provisions that would restrict a doctor from prescribing common medicines for treatment.

Lawmakers in two states have sought to ban people from seeking treatment in other states: An Idaho bill that died in the state Senate would have made a felon of anyone who helped a transgender child travel out of the state to seek treatment. A Missouri lawmaker has proposed a similar penalty for those who help women obtain an abortion in another state.

Republican opponents of abortion access have long carved out exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or that endanger the life or health of the mother. Measures dropping exceptions for rape or incest have passed in Oklahoma and New Hampshire this year; the Utah Republican Party has proposed eliminating exceptions for the health of the mother in its official platform. The Oklahoma measure makes it a felony to perform an abortion.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last month signed legislation that will bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in front of young children, a bill opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Officials in other states, led by Texas Gov. Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), say they will make a similar measure a priority when legislators reconvene next year.

When the Disney Corporation voiced its opposition to the Florida law, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to punish the company by eliminating its special tax district  — which may have the unintended consequence of providing Disney a massive tax break at a cost borne by Florida taxpayers.

Abbott, playing on fears of a tidal wave of migrants poised to cross the southern border, offered his own big-government plan to add new checks on cargo coming into his state. Eight days of inspections cost Texas consumers and businesses an estimated $4.3 billion in lost revenue and turned up no drugs and no undocumented immigrants.

Historians say it is not uncommon for parties to alter their views on government intervention when it suits their purposes. Eric Foner, a political scientist at Columbia University and author of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” a history of the ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War, said the era marked a similar shift among Southern Democrats.

“Before the Civil War Democrats advocated limited government. Yet when it came to protecting and expanding slavery they insisted on vigorous federal action — for example the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the strongest federal intervention in the states of the entire era,” Foner wrote in an email.

Other Republicans showed no qualms about the exercise of federal power. Kabaservice, of the Niskanen Center, pointed to Theodore Roosevelt, who used the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company.

More recently, Republican presidents who dared stray from small-government orthodoxy were attacked as apostates. George H.W. Bush suffered the slings and arrows from the libertarian right when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. His son, George W. Bush, called himself a “compassionate conservative” — and took heat from Republicans who opposed a Medicare expansion measure that bitterly divided his own party.

Today’s Republican Party is more influenced by former President Trump, whose ideological inconsistencies have never troubled his most ardent fans and imitators. Trump never offered a paean to limited government, if power could be used to punish blue states and political opponents.

Kabaservice said he saw parallels between the recent Republican exercises in power and the McCarthy era, when conservatives like William F. Buckley and Brent Bozell “approved of McCarthyism because they saw it as a template for a much more thoroughgoing government repression of dissent,” Kabaservice said in an email.

“They wanted to use the state as an instrument of coercion to enforce social conformity, to regulate and control human behavior, and to drill into Americans the principles of duty, order, obedience and authority,” he wrote.

Rick Wilson, the onetime Republican strategist-turned-Trump critic, said Trump revived the clash between small-government conservatism and the inclination of those who hold power to exercise it.

“Trump’s natural leanings toward authoritarianism merged with the post-libertarian moment of conservatism. As nationalism and populism replaced it, the argument against using the power of the state for ideological ends became weaker and weaker,” Wilson said. “I fear that once the demon is out of the pentagram, it’s hard to put it back.”

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2022 elections.