Politics

“Doing What an Angry 3-Year-Old Would Do” Is the Only Remaining Republican Principle

Abbott is seated in a cramped room at the end of a table of men wearing cowboy hats. He himself is not wearing a hat, though.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott leads a meeting of the state’s powerful Hat Council on July 10 in Austin. Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

Republican politicians have long been willing to set aside certain conservative principles for the good of the in-group. Their concerns about deficits don’t apply when the deficits are created by upper-bracket tax cuts, while their concerns about government spending don’t apply to spending directed to contractors, like those in the defense industry, that often hire former Republican officeholders.

The MAGA era, though, has accelerated the abandonment of Actual Conservatism to the point that there is almost none of it left animating the party’s decisions. Republicans have long argued, for instance, that “big government regulations” are a problem and that local officials should have as much autonomy as possible. They’ve dabbled in ignoring that idea when, say, a blue city in a red state wanted to increase its minimum wage. But the notion of local control has been completely abandoned during COVID as one Republican state government after another has tried to ban cities and school districts from setting public health standards. This week, for example, the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis imposed a $3.57 million fine on one county for violating the state’s law against “vaccine passports.”

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An even more shocking betrayal has befallen business owners. One of the Republican Party’s most consistent historic missions across all branches and levels of government has been to support the right of businesses, small and large, to impose conditions on their employees without interference from regulators or unions. But no longer: This week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning private companies in his state from requiring that their employees be vaccinated. Sen. Ted Cruz has made slightly more trivial and grating news in the same vein by issuing statements of support for NBA guard Kyrie Irving, whose own employer (the Brooklyn Nets organization) just announced that it will not be letting him participate in games or practices until he proves he’s been jabbed.

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As the Texas Tribune explains, Abbott’s edict conflicts with federal COVID rules for many employers and will almost certainly be challenged in court; two Texas-based airlines with preexisting vax requirements (American and Southwest) have already simply said that they do not plan to change their policies. (A judge in Texas just extended a restraining order against a different airline, United, which is seeking to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave; that ruling is unrelated to Abbott’s order.) But it’s a symbolic attack on the prerogatives of business owners that is especially notable given the heat South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has gotten from Trump-aligned media outlets and activists for refusing to issue a similar ban.

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If local governance and the rights of business owners are no longer core Republican priorities, what are? The standard, half-joking answer is that the party’s main mission in the MAGA era is simply to own the libs, which in practical terms means attacking any policy or value associated with Democrats. And to some extent, that’s the operating logic when it comes to COVID. As recently as late August, Abbott was firmly defending the right of private businesses to mandate or not mandate whatever they wanted. But that was before President Joe Biden announced that some employers would be compelled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require vaccinations. The Republican position has therefore become that employers must not do that, even if they would like to for practical reasons like return-to-office plans, hiring needs, or customer preferences.

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But Republicans have long campaigned on the premise of giving the middle finger to progressive know-it-alls. What’s arguably different now is that the group of know-it-alls has expanded to include anyone who tells an agitated MAGA supporter “no,” even if that person is the proprietor of a business, an election official in a county Trump won, or an actual MAGA-aligned elected official like Noem. This position is draped in rhetoric about personal choice and bodily autonomy, but Republican politicians are only celebrating individuals who make the choice to avoid vaccination. This rejection—like the refusal to acknowledge adverse events such as the 2020 election, or even adverse thoughts about, for example, the role of racism in U.S. history—is the value they actually feel that they need to prioritize. In this light, the near-deification of Donald Trump—a businessman who is not actually good at running businesses, and who typically ends projects in disputes with his lenders, contractors, and customers—is appropriate. The one thing Trump is truly good at is being rude.

Those who have young children will recognize the party’s behavior as “defiant” or “oppositional.” It doesn’t have any goal except the demonstration of authority, but the fact that it’s substantively nonsensical doesn’t make it any less powerfully felt, easier to manage, or less destructive. You suggested having ice cream, and for that reason only, they hate ice cream, and what’s more, three boxes of just-sorted toys have been dumped on the floor. There’s a reason that, until now, we haven’t put 3-year-olds in charge of entire states and countries.

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