Gov. Larry Hogan said recently there will be a “real battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next couple of years.” A noted historian, Matthew Dallek, wrote a few weeks ago that the “Republican Party is searching for its soul.” President Biden campaigned for a year around the theme that the 2020 election was about the soul of America.
Soul. That ineffable quality that makes stuff what it is – the quiddity, or whatness, of a person, place or thing. Simply put, a book is a book, not because somebody decided to call it a book, but because of its “bookness.”
The ancient Greek philosophers concluded that the soul resided in the psyche. Rene Descartes, a 16th century philosopher-mathematician, pinpointed the soul as inhabiting the pineal gland, a tiny blob at the center of the brain.
Many of those with a religious bent believe that the soul is a spiritual something that, upon the body’s expiration date, will wing off, leaving its earthly carrying case behind, to account for what it did with what it had and spend eternity accordingly.
Or, to quote auteur Woody Allen with another point of view, “I’m sure heaven is a lovely place, but frankly, I’d rather be in my kitchen eating a steak.”
So what is the stuff that imbues the Republican Party, that gives it the mysterious “whatness” that is now the subject of a massive manhunt, or that elusive spirit that defines the nation that Biden spoke of?
Republicans first. They’ve come to a fork in the road and don’t know whether to take it, to paraphrase that eminent philosopher, Yogi Berra.
Or, in a more literary trope, To Trump, or to Reagan, that is the question.
The Republican Party, from, say, Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, traditionally has stood for, well, something, when forced to – free markets, pro-life, pro-gun, deregulation, balanced budgets and always the Darwinian notion that screwing each other improves the breed.
Under Donald Trump, the GOP became a cult of personality built around a single man, kind of like Jim Jones and his Kool Aid kids in the Jonestown Massacre, only this one accidentally subscribing to a new theology of Christian Nationalism that translates forbiddingly to white supremacy.
It is a radical, fumbling, stumbling admixture of Voodoo and nonsense, of QAnon and Evangelism, of conspiracy theories wed to the Bible and the Confederacy. It’s fundamentalist Bible-belt, trailer-park stuff.
Trump is an expert on the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything he touches turns to dreck.
But wait. There’s something wrong with all this soul-searching.
Barack Obama has soul, Donald Trump does not.
Joe Biden has soul, Joe Manchin does not.
Alexandra Cortez-Ocasio has soul, Marjorie Taylor Greene does not.
Jill Biden has soul, Melania Trump does not.
Jamie Raskin has soul, Andy Harris does not.
Ted Kennedy had soul, Ted Cruz does not.
Ashley Biden has soul, Ivanka Trump does not.
Bill Clinton has soul, Ronald Reagan did not.
Joe Neguse has soul, Josh Hawley does not.
Soul is Obama launching into “Amazing Grace” at the funeral services of the nine shooting victims at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina.
Soul is Joe Biden saying, “C’mon, man, gimme a break.”
Soul is Ray Charles belting out his heavily cadenced version of “America the Beautiful.” Or Aretha Franklin sending out thunderclaps of gospel scolds. Elvis had soul, maybe not as much as James Brown. Pavarotti and Sinatra had soul, Donnie and Marie Osmond don’t.
Swagger is different from soul. Swagger is boorish. Soul is cool. Signifying is worse than lying.
Sorry, Republicans, you just don’t have it, and if you do, you’re looking in all the wrong places. Soul bounces up from the asphalt. It can’t be taught at Junior League teas or debutante balls. You either have it, or you don’t.
If you want examples of soul-less, look no further than Melania Trump. For her, being first lady was an endless fashion show. But her most soul-less manifestation during four years as White House chatelaine was to dig up and replace the beloved Rose Garden that had been so lovingly designed and cultivated by Jacqueline Kennedy.
Republicans have been through this soul-searching melodrama before, usually following election loses or other psyche-jarring events – Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Watergate, George H.W. Bush and “Read my lips, no new taxes,” George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, Donald Trump and, well, Donald Trump.
In the 1950s-60s, for example, the Republican Party was bedeviled by the John Birch Society and its “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” Today’s GOP is smudged by Marjorie Taylor Greene and the anonymous, perhaps a prankster, QAnon and conspiracy theories such as that of the D.C. pizza parlor that was a front for Democratic pedophiles who drink the blood of children.
Hogan, in his lantern-like search, would like to take the nation back to the somnambulant era of Ronald Reagan when the White House workday ended at five o’clock and the nation’s problems were solved over martinis at happy hour with Tip O’Neill. Believe that myth and there’s a bridge for sale.
Though Hogan has made no effort to conceal his contempt for Trump, it is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), until recently an enabler of the former president, who picked a nasty, public fight with the Trumpster. After he voted to acquit Trump, McConnell delivered a speech in which he held Trump personally accountable for inciting the mob that sacked the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump shot back in the only way he knows – the personal insult – wherein he characterized McConnell for a “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality.” For good measure, Trump’s statement added that McConnell is a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack.” The really nasty stuff about McConnell’s appearance, mind you, was reportedly edited out of Trump’s blistering screed.
It should be remembered, too, that McConnell, trying to have it both ways — blocked the impeachment of Trump until he was out of office and then declared it unconstitutional to impeach a former president who is no longer in office. That little dipsy-doodle is not taught at Harvard Law School.
And now McConnell is trying to get a grip on power, and Trump refuses to let go.
Thus, the red line was drawn between the traditional Republicans, who want to broaden the party to attract more voters, and the neo-fascist and white supremacist groups that march under the MAGA banner (and ball caps) of Trump. They include the QAnon, the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Bois, among other misbegotten fringe groups.
The GOP standoff is more about Trump voters than Trump himself and, in the short view, the attempt to reclaim Republican hegemony in the 2022 midterm elections. McConnell blames Trump for the two losses in the Georgia runoff elections that cost the GOP control of the Senate.
Joe Biden’s search for the soul of America is simple by contrast. Put the sum total of everything that is America into a blender, buzz it a few seconds, and the result is a homogenized blur of pure American soul.
Biden has beliefs. Biden is decent and empathetic. Biden has soul. And for Democrats, everything is a deal – New Deal, Green New Deal, Newer New Deal, Better Deal, Big Deal. Any deal the Democrats compose beats Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” Trump couldn’t close a door, let alone a deal.
Republicans can search for their lost soul ‘til the cows come home. But keep a wary eye trained on Trump. Losers go through life worrying about getting even.