Bookman: Can Georgia’s brand of conservatism survive the GOP’s rush toward extremism?

The outline of a Georgia map with the GOP red white and blue elephant in the center

by Jay Bookman, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]


June 1, 2023

The future of the Republican Party is being fought out right here in Georgia; you can already see the battle lines forming. But it will be years before we know the outcome.

The usual setting for that intra-party struggle would be the upcoming presidential primary season, which is when parties traditionally define themselves and establish their identities going forward. Not this time. The two leading candidates for the 2024 GOP nomination, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, may differ in personality but they share a reliance on empty, bizarre, culture-war posturing as well as a scorched-earth, power-by-any-means approach to politics so destructive that it could pose a challenge to the survival of democracy itself. 

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In Trump’s case, we saw that, definitively, on Jan. 6, in the attempted insurrection. We see it as well in DeSantis’ record in Florida, in the book bans and attacks on gay and minority Americans, in the assault on academic freedom, in the bullying of Disney and in his pledge last week to “destroy leftism in this country.”

That’s eliminationist rhetoric, rhetoric in which opponents are rendered as so evil that compromise or even co-existence with them is impossible. As one expert defines it, eliminationist rhetoric treats political opposition as “a cancer on the body politic that must be excised—either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination— to protect the purity of the nation.” That describes Florida under DeSantis all too well, and if Republicans don’t want to recognize the power of that threat because it is not directed at them, imagine a major Democratic figure campaigning on a promise to “destroy conservatism in this country.” 

In short, neither Trump nor DeSantis has any interest in changing the dangerous, nihilistic trajectory of today’s Republican Party, and are instead competing to accelerate it. 

If they do so and win the presidency in 2024, we as a nation are headed down a very dark path. If they do so and lose again, if the general electorate again rejects the performative cruelty and authoritarianism that now marks the GOP, then perhaps conservative hearts and minds will reopen to a new course. 

There’s a strong contingent among the Georgia Republican base still fully enamored with the direction that Trump and DeSantis are taking it, that not only likes such rhetoric but demands it and wants it acted upon. In 2020 and 2021, a good number of prominent Georgia Republicans – much of its congressional delegation, its two Senate candidates, its party chairman, the current lieutenant governor – demonstrated their willingness to ditch the Constitution, declare the votes of Georgia citizens null and void and re-install Trump in the White House not as president but as de facto dictator. 

As we know, however, a number of Georgia Republicans refused to walk that path to the dissolution of the republic. Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger each resisted demands from Trump and much of their Republican base to abuse the power they had been given.

Kemp is now a lame duck governor, Duncan has been forced to retire from active politics and Ralston has died too young, yet their strain of reality-based conservatism still has power in this state. Some Democrats get angry at such descriptions, pointing out that Kemp’s record on guns, abortion and other issues can be extremist. They’re right to make that point, but also wrong.

Look outside Georgia’s borders. Look south, to Florida, and north, to Tennessee. Look west to Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas, and east to South Carolina. In deep-red states all around the country, legislators and governors are caught up in a media-induced mass hysteria that is producing ridiculously cruel public policy untethered to reality. It’s as if they have lost their ever-lovin’ minds.

So it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a distinction between what is happening in those states and what has happened so far in Georgia. “So far,” because I’m not confident that it’s a long-term situation. Hysteria spreads quickly, particularly when ambitious politicians see how easily it can be provoked and how effective it can be in juicing the base. State borders are no bulwark against it. 

There’s a brand of conservatism that is extreme in many policies it seeks but is willing to pursue those policies while remaining respectful of democratic norms and rule of law; there is unfortunately another, even more extreme brand willing to bulldoze any norms or laws that might stand in its way. Georgia is one of the few states, perhaps the only major state, where both brands still struggle for supremacy. I know which side I’m rooting for.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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