Grassley’s leap, Bannon’s irony, and why traditional Republicans are like BLM at the NRA

(Originally published here on October 12, 2021 in the South China Morning Post.)

The dominoes are falling fast in the American Republican Party.

The latest one to tumble under former US president Donald Trump’s influence is Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the formerly traditional conservative who now appears to have joined the most dangerous of the Republican Party’s three factions.

For those who might have been avoiding developments in the disintegration of the American political order, let’s have a quick refresher on the party’s three-way split.

Group A comprises those who insist without evidence that the 2020 election was stolen and defend the January 6 insurrectionists as patriots. Group B are those who may not buy the baseless election-fraud narrative, nor condone armed attacks on the American government, but who will not speak their minds in the interest of holding onto, or regaining, power.

Group C, the smallest, comprises figures like Liz Cheney, vice-chair of the House committee investigating the January 6 riot, and Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who along with Cheney and eight others among dozens of Republicans in the chamber, voted to impeach Trump for inciting the attack.

We can also consider Group C to be the vestiges of the Republican Party that waxed more than waned in terms of policy influence from the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, the one that made Ronald Reagan the centrepiece of their mantle.

While Group C once appealed to a wide swathe of political moderates in the American electorate, and managed to get majorities in the popular vote, they are now treated within the party like a Black Lives Matter activist at a National Rifle Association rally.

Grassley, who in an earlier incarnation would have been appalled by the kind of lies that groups A and B are allowing to permeate the party, demonstrated how spry an 88-year-old lawmaker can be by leaping from Group C to A in a single bound.

Although he had insisted immediately after the Capitol riot that “everyone must take responsibility for their destructive actions yesterday, including the president”, he appeared alongside Trump at a rally this past weekend.

At this point, I need to acknowledge that this column often returns to the same theme: the Republican Party’s sharp turn towards election lies, voter suppression and violence as justifiable means to an end presents Beijing with an opportunity that’s more significant than anything that the Chinese can pull off themselves.

Since taking office, US President Joe Biden’s administration has poured much effort into shoring up support for a global order that puts democracy, equality and human rights first, as it tries to move on from the Trump years, when the White House turned a blind eye to incidents like the poisoning of Russia’s Alexei Navalny or the butchering of Saudi Arabian journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.

The theme might be repetitive, but Trump’s lies about the election have only gained more purchase within the Republican Party, as Grassley’s shift demonstrates.

While some thought that the certification of Biden’s win hours after the ransacking of the Capitol would be the beginning of the end for Trump, the opposite has occurred, making the Biden administration’s power tenuous at best.

Meanwhile, group A and B Republicans will defend the likes of noted anti-China hawk Steve Bannon, who have been asked to testify before congressional committees about Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Bannon, the architect of a political strategy that demonised political elites, returned to the headlines after he was pulled off a yacht owned by fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui by federal agents on charges of swindling donors who were told by the former top White House adviser that their money was going towards a wall on the Mexican border.

An August 2019 press release about Claws of the Red Dragon, a film produced by Bannon, which claims to reveal “ties between Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party”, helps explain why Beijing should be rooting for today’s Republican Party.

A quick look at the film on YouTube makes clear why it never had any impact. Let’s just say it’s about as subtle as a China Central Television drama.

The background on Bannon in the release is more interesting. It touts his founding of two groups: Citizens of the American Republic, “a non-profit that advocates populism and economic nationalism”, and The Movement in Europe, South America, and Asia, “which supports populist nationalist ideas and activism across the globe”.

It’s not hard to spot the irony of a China hawk pushing “economic nationalism” and “populist nationalist ideas”, which are also at the heart of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s domestic strategy.

But when a man who sicced a mob on the seat of American government solidifies his standing as leader of one of the country’s two political parties, there are too many other looming consequences to ponder irony.

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