Throwback Thursday: Get back to the Republican Party of yesteryear

May 6, 2021 4:43 am

Legislative leadership meet for a press conference after the end of the 67th legislative session. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

Now that the Legislature has (mercifully) ended, and we’re recollecting our wits, the one thing that was consistent from start to end was a sentiment that followed this course: Hmm, these don’t seem like the Republicans I remember.

True, they’re not the old laissez faire Republicans who loved the status quo, and distrusted anything too terribly new.

As I have thought about it, I have tried to come up with the defining characteristics of the state’s GOP in the Legislature, but most of my thoughts have been like a box containing jigsaw puzzles from many other boxes — an odd conglomeration of pieces that don’t quite fit or make a cohesive picture. Libertarians are lumped in with people who don’t believe in masks and others who want lower taxes and no abortion are grouped with people who believe the state has the power to review and accept federal executive orders. It’s difficult to find a unifying principle or set of commonly shared values.

It used to be a party of local control, but the efforts to take away from local government the power to make health decisions or what is being taught or even if marijuana becomes legal isn’t local control, rather state control. And control was grabbed right out of the hands of the state’s regents when it came to higher education matters and policy.

Conservative economic principals weren’t exactly a guiding star as they threw together policy that would have 20 percent of Montanans paying more income tax, as well as taxing tips and unemployment benefits.

Personal freedom and choice aren’t even worth considering when you see all the different bills against transgender youth, all the laws and regulations proposed about abortion, and championing a bill that would allow discrimination in the name of deeply held personal religious beliefs.

Lessening government interference didn’t exactly go down a conservative path either as state government added more rules around voting that will surely mean more regulations to enforce and a new set of acceptable and unacceptable documents for registration.

Nope, this is not your daddy’s Republican Party anymore.

Instead, the Republicans’ one unifying theme is distrust. They distrust the government will protect their religious views, even their apparently God-given, God-mandated rights to discriminate. They distrust schools so much that they want state money to fund their own, where their children may not be burdened with such trivial subjects like science and where nary a word would be taught about atrocities of European settlers who brutally and systemically subjugated people of color. They distrust judges who don’t seem to rule in a way that matches how Republicans feel, not what the law says. Those same judges apparently have the audacity to demand facts and proof of voter fraud instead of believing there was no way Donald Trump could lose.

The problem with distrust is that it is like anger — ultimately, not a very satisfying or beneficial emotion.

Distrust leads us to questioning, Distrust causes us to rethink our positions and what we’ve been told – not necessarily bad things. However, distrust left unchecked ultimately cannibalizes itself by undermining faith in anything. In other words, eventually, you’ll not trust anything. The distrust becomes the only thing these politicians trust.

It reminds me of the old saying: When all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts looking like nail. When all you have is distrust, then the entire world needs fixing, and a reordering to your own personal view.

The judiciary? Corrupt and liberal.

Doctors? Too much faith in science, not enough in God.

Local control? Why even bother when they could just act against us.

As the world — and shifting demographics — began causing change that came closer and closer to Montana, Republican leaders, many of them older white men, became increasingly distrustful of anything that didn’t look, sound, or believe like them.

Yet, the fear which drives the distrust has morphed the Republican Party into a death cult, that insists on personal freedom even if it flies in the face of commonsense, reason or safety.

You know the logic: I should have the right to drink, raw possibly contaminated milk, even though science says differently.

I should have the right to carry guns wherever, even if the percentages of an accidental death are exponentially higher than a random act, like a mass shooting.

I should not have to wear a mask because it offends my liberty while protecting the rest of the community.

It seems like this personal freedom is taken to such an extent that it allows some Republicans to believe zealously that it’s their God-given right to act recklessly, even if it means their freedom to get sick and possibly die.  For a party that claims to cherish life, it would seem like they would be the first ones to suggest vaccines and masks. For a party that abhors abortion or even physician-assisted suicide because of the sanctity of life, they seem cavalier about protecting their own or that of their loved ones.    

The good news here is that these same men and women who led the Republican Party in Montana have a roadmap of how to rebuild the party. It’s actually very simple: Believe in personal freedom instead of legislating. Trust that the same freedom that allowed our state to prosper was by putting faith in some institutions like local school boards and boards of health, and especially the judiciary. Trust that those institutions while not perfect, served as foundations for prosperity, and understood that government was there to operate efficiently, but operate it must in order to help people.

It’s time for the Republicans to turn retro. It’s Thursday, folks, time to throw back to the Republican Party that once was.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.