You must feel for Charlie Baker.
The incumbent Massachusetts governor must feel like Lisa Vanderpump, the matriarch of reality television’s Vanderpump Rules. Described in a New Yorker profile as “elegant and inscrutable,” for six seasons she has remained, observers say, above the debauchery and debris of a drama based upon the shenanigans of its wayward and intoxicated cast. Vanderpump is a kind of detached and absolved participant. Likewise, for four years, the thoughtful and reserved popular political patriarch has witnessed the unhinged vaudeville repertory that has become the Bay State GOP. Another dreadful drama: Vanderpump Republicans.
Sensible observers must feel that Republicans will never again be in the majority in Massachusetts.
For political reality is something incomprehensible to local arrested development agitators -- and their national cousins -- who have hijacked with hijinks the Party of Lincoln. And they have abandoned authentic conservative values (guiding principles, core philosophies) for hate-mongering, willful ignorance and fact-free ideology. All in the name of the Party of Trump.
President Trump, supposedly "draining the Washington swamp '' but actually drowning in his own, has done something remarkable in American politics. He has hyper-nationalized and simultaneously hyper-factionalized the Republican Party. In Massachusetts, Baker governs but Trump presides.
How else to explain the rise of Bay State Republicans Ron Beaty and Scott Lively?
Beaty, a tidal wave of bombast and bluster, is a Barnstable County commissioner who is running for the state representative seat in the 5th Barnstable District. He is challenging Republican incumbent Randy Hunt, a genuine conservative and the antithesis of Beaty. Hunt is civil, intelligent and, given the dearth of like-minded public servants, probably lonely; he is also not a convicted felon.
Beaty, whose Facebook and Twitter accounts boast his laughable conservative credentials, spent more than a year in federal prison for threatening to kill President George H.W. Bush and other politicians in the 1990s. A Trump wannabe, he recently asked if David Hogg, a Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor, was a “fascist wannabe.” And, last October, Beaty tweeted that the #MeToo movement was “nonsense.” There is now an effort to recall him from his Cape Cod seat.
Then there is the fire and brimstone pastor from Springfield who is also a fire starter.
Knowing full well in advance his shameful acidic past, Republicans at their state convention last month still gave Lively enough votes to challenge Baker for this fall’s gubernatorial primary. They encouraged, in the words of Boston Magazine, a “world-renown homophobe,” and author of The Pink Swastika, to assert the ludicrous claim that he “represent[s] the full-spectrum conservative perspective of Republicanism” in Massachusetts. Whatever that means.
Lively, an anti-abortion, anti-tax, pro-Trump vulgarian, bizarrely wrapped himself in the drapery of Ronald Reagan who, Lively said, “stood for social and fiscal conservatism.” (Who will tell him that Reagan also signed into law in 1967 California’s Therapeutic Abortion Act (becoming pro-life later on) and, in the 1980s, created massive federal deficits?) Still, Reagan possessed a certain grace and temperament unknown to Lively, who touts himself as an “authentic conservative” and a “true Republican.” Well.
Beaty’s and Lively’s respective resumes and outbursts should automatically disqualify their candidacies. Instead, acquiescent Republicans essentially affirm them. And their values-systems. At their peril.
The official voice of Massachusetts Republicans, massgop.com, says, with the breezy élan of a tourist brochure, that it promotes “our conservative values.” What exactly are those values? Baker is respectable and a gentleman but no conservative. In fact, Baker never says he is a conservative. The others, meanwhile, emphatically and repeatedly proclaim they are conservatives. Absent loud denials, the inclusion of the word “conservative” by the state party implies endorsement for Beaty and Lively.
In her May 10 email bulletin, MassGOP Chairman Kirsten Hughes makes no mention of Beaty and Lively. She prefers to silence them. Bullies need to be confronted, not silenced. (At least WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti, to her credit, challenged Lively; and Baker sharply rebuked Lively after the convention vote.) No worries. Hughes happily finger points, like an admonishing adolescent, by transferring blame to the “Democrats’ toxic culture,” and how they will be “held accountable” for “tolerating” and “creating” this kind of “corruption.” So there… That settles that.
Beaty, Lively, and Hughes -- and others masquerading as conservatives -- need a history lesson.
Today, Trump self-identifies as a conservative; therefore, he must be a conservative. As a consequence, conservatism lacks definition, like a giant amoeba. Now, conservatism is what you say it is. As many of Trump’s 52 million Twitter followers, born of political mitosis, defensively attest. We’ve devolved from when political identification was rooted in philosophy and principle, which informed policy. In 2018, it’s mostly about personality.
Who needs reason when you’ve got emotion? And social media?
The long arc of modern conservatism began with Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and likely ended with William Buckley (1925-2008). For many Republicans today, they never existed.
Burke was deliberative, restrained by a sense of morality, and was suspicious of radical reforms. He espoused the virtues of prudence, moderation and character. And he would write of the Trump Revolution as he did of the French Revolution: “The levelers therefore only change and pervert the natural order of things.”
For all of Buckley’s accomplishments -- and there were many -- biographer Alvin Felzenberg writes that he “took special pride in the success he had in keeping that movement free of ‘kooks,’ ‘crackpots,’ racists and anti-Semites.” Ten years after Buckley’s death, his movement has seemingly collapsed and fractured: Extremists are dismantling accepted ethoses after their hostile takeover.
Greg Weiner, contributor to the journal Law and Liberty, brings much needed clarity to these recent developments. In the summer of 2016, he wrote of a Republican Party that underwent a “lurching metamorphosis” from its commitments to “constitutionalism, free trade, and chivalry” to “royalism, protectionism, and vulgarity.” He also anticipated that the “good sense” of the institutional Republican Party would be tested to constrain the future president. “A premise,” he concluded, “that the party’s leaders like principles more than they like power, especially as the latter is embodied in the Presidency.”
That premise is lost on those who embrace the likes of Beaty and Lively.
The last time that both chambers of the Massachusetts General Court were controlled by Republicans was in 1954, three years before candidate Lively was born. Sixty-four years later, party leaders -- and their ilk of faux-conservative enablers -- will not see so much as a slight reversal of their Republican super-minority status in 2018. That may be fitting as residents rightly associate the party with Beaty and Lively, whose presence complicates the efforts of a party desperately searching for members and voters.
Baker may have angered conservatives for acting moderate -- his original sin? --in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by three to one. But he acts as a mature realist, too. (Buckley called conservatism “the politics of reality.”) Some say the rise of local fringe candidates is a form of protest, expressing an anti-Baker sentiment. Arguably, though, it reflects more of a pro-Trump sentiment. Trumpism has become a sort of liberation theology for pretend conservatives who see themselves as the oppressed class among establishment Republicans. And Trump is their liberator.
Baker's re-election seems certain but no one should be surprised if Republicans lose legislative seats in Massachusetts this year. Having long ago discarded fundamental truths, and with the probability of losing more electoral power, what’s left for the pitiful Bay State GOP?
Vanderpump Republicans should be cancelled before Vanderpump Rules.
James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former banker. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, newenglanddiary.com, insidesources.com, golocalprov.com and nationalreview.com.