Greg Abbott’s extreme moves on abortion and vaccines tell us everything about where the Republicans are headed

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott (AP)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (AP)

In 1996, commentator and author Pat Buchanan launched an ill-fated campaign for president where he characterized himself as the leader of a political revolution of "peasants with pitchforks."

Buchanan’s campaign sputtered after a surprising New Hampshire Primary win. Still, Buchanan’s campaign, built around the energy of vocal and passionate supporters, planted a seed. At the time, Buchanan railed about "the establishment," fanned the flame of culture wars, and mocked George Will as a "yapping" poodle.

It may have taken 25 years, but Buchanan’s vision of the Republican Party is coming to fruition – and that much is clear in the latest move by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, something nearly unthinkable in what might be called the “Before Trump” Republican era: an executive order banning Covid-19 vaccine mandates even among private entities. It follows an earlier executive order prohibiting private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

By the Republican standards of even a few years ago, this is far beyond the pale. For the longest time, the GOP operated under the philosophy of “let the market decide”. Republicans rallied around the cause of Hobby Lobby refusing to offer several birth-control methods to employees as part of their healthcare coverage. They took up for Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who declined to create cakes with messages he said violated his religious beliefs.

Two years ago, Abbott signed a law dubbed the "Save Chick-Fil-A Law" that prohibits "adverse actions" against companies because of religious beliefs. The law came from the San Antonio City Council banning the construction of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in the municipal airport, citing the company’s "legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior."

But today, to quote Bob Dylan, "The times they are a-changin."

Besides the vaccine executive order, Abbott signed a "social media censorship" bill into law in September. The law restricts the ability of social media companies to ban users at will, and forces them to disclose moderation policies and open up an appeals process. The law also allows private individuals to file lawsuits to compel platforms to reinstate them.

Taken together, these measures are indicative of a major shift in the GOP from a business-centric, market-based ethic to a more populist one that favors government regulation as a means to political ends. This transition has been stark and rapid – and 2024 presidential hopefuls like Abbott have no choice but to follow suit.

While Donald Trump could easily win the GOP nomination if he chose to run again, the field will wide open if he decides (or is forced) to sit out. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has emerged as a putative successor, taking action after action to shore up his populist credibility; he has signed a social media bill into law, prohibited a private business from verifying vaccination statuses, and banned mask mandates in public schools.

Abbott is operating from the same playbook. Despite an upcoming reelection campaign for 2022, he is looking beyond the governor’s mansion in Austin towards the big neoclassical house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

The question is whether or not such tactics work beyond the GOP’s hardcore base. These voters are amenable to the idea of expanding government power not just for business and financial ends, but in order to secure cultural preferences. It is challenging to say whether or not these moves will draw support in a general election, when Republicans will depend heavily on the direction the Democratic Party takes.

President Biden won a handy victory over Trump by running as a “moderate” candidate who would “unite” the country. Instead, since his inauguration, he’s run so far to the left on everything from spending to taxes that he’s managed to alienate two reliable Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

With his legislative agenda in trouble and the GOP well-placed to take back the House in 2022, Biden can’t afford any mistakes. If he and his party fumble things badly, he will open the door to a GOP challenge with some momentum behind it.

Abbott may well be facing a stiff challenge in next year’s gubernatorial race, most likely from fomer Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke. If O’Rourke manages to eke out a win, then all bets will be off – but should Abbott triumph easily despite his flurry of radically populist legislation and executive orders, he will have a fargreater chance of success in what will be a likely crowded GOP field in 2024.

If Trump doesn’t run, that is.

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