One of the most common misperceptions about the Republican Party is that it really wasn’t that bad until crazy far-right voters put Donald Trump into the Oval Office. That is not only a lie, it’s a dangerous rewriting of history that serves the purposes of a GOP that is starting to come to grips with the vision of their party after Trump is removed from power.
Short version: if Trump loses in November, they plan to pretend that they had nothing to do with his career of catastrophic decisions and actions — hell, they barely knew the guy — and to go right back to the racism, misogyny, and insane economic policies they have pursued since most all of us have been alive.
It’s on us not to let them do that. One of the best weapons in our arsenal is information. When you know your history, you are less likely to repeat it.
Strap in. I’m going to take you on a brief history of Republican demagoguery. Skip down if you already know all this.
“Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy
The transformation of the GOP into an authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-Constitutional party began in 1950, when GOP Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Nazi) told an audience that he had a list of “known Communists” working in the Truman State Department. No, he didn’t. It was a demagogue move, similar to the huge number of lies told by Trump (“Obama spied on my campaign!” No, he didn’t.)
McCarthy is quoted as saying:
The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.
Well, that wouldn’t be hard to check. What did the Secretary of State have to say about it? Where’s the list? Let’s check those State Department employee’s backgrounds. The truth was, only 65 of the purported Communists on that list were still in the State Department at the time of McCarthy’s bloviating, and their background checks came back commie-free.
McCarthy was a lying bastard. He had no idea who was actually a “Communist.” He lied about his brief and inglorious term as a district judge before running for the Senate. He lied about his war record to get elected. He smeared his Democratic opponent to get into the Senate. Sound familiar? A political party with a shred of integrity wouldn’t have let McCarthy get away with any of it. The party leaders would have shut him down immediately. But, even in the 1950s, this is the GOP we’re talking about. Already, that party had become fascinated with far-right, venom-spitting demagogues. So the party pushed him to the forefront, and for a few giddy years McCarthy, along with cohorts Roy Cohn (Trump’s first political mentor), Richard Nixon, and others, helped engulf the nation in a vicious roil of anti-Communist and anti-homosexual sentiment and repression. But by 1954, media figures like Edward R. Murrow and Leroy Gore, who started a “Joe Must Go!” recall movement, along with outraged U.S. Army officers, tanked McCarthy. The Senate censured him, the GOP turned its back on him, and McCarthy finished his Senate career in a sinkhole of irrelevancy. In 1957, he died of cirrhosis and morphine abuse.
So, the GOP learned its lesson, right? Are you fucking kidding me? Of course not. Nixon became Vice President in 1953, riding the wave of McCarthyite authoritariansm, and, after narrowly losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960, won the presidency in 1968. We all know the level of corruption Nixon sank to.
Still, the GOP didn’t learn its lesson. During the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Republicans opened their arms to welcome inverterate racists and misogynists from the Democratic Party, which no longer wanted them (at least not the “loud and proud” ones). And in 1980, they rebounded from the Watergate debacle by promoting the presidential candidacy of former movie star and California governor Ronald Reagan.
Reagan built his political career with the same anti-Communist rhetoric of his predecessors. In 1961, he released an audio recording of him condemning the idea of Medicare as “socialism” and “communism” that would destroy America:
Pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him.
It didn’t hurt his standing with the GOP that he had served as an informant to the FBI, naming “Communists” in Hollywood, and rode his popularity as a TV host into a political career. Sound familiar?
He aligned himself with the far-right fringe of the party, first serving as a spokesperson for the 1964 Goldwater campaign. He won the California governorship in 1967 by promising to “clean up” the streets of Berkeley, which were then the scene of powerful anti-war protesters — what Donald Trump and his minions now call “violent anarchists.” He applauded the 1972 Kent State massacre, calling the student protesters “cowardly fascists.”
In 1967, he said,
If it takes a bloodbath [to end the protests], let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.
That same year, he sent the California Highway Patrol and then the National Guard to quell the protests in Berkeley. He got what he wanted: at least one dead student, hundreds of injured, and a forced “calm” on campus. Sound familiar?
In 1980, he rode his “law and order” credentials into the presidency. Speaking primarily of blacks, he called people who received welfare benefits “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” He held a rally in Mississippi just seven miles from Philadelphia, where the “Freedom Summer” murders of 1964 took place and railed about “states rights,” a dog whistle to racists everywhere, especially in the South. Sound familiar?
Reagan delivered on his promises. He ravaged the US economy, directing trillions of government and private dollars to the wealthy and creating a festering swamp of economic chaos for poor whites, blacks and Latinos alike. He continued his policies of racism and misogyny even as he spoke charming platitudes about a “shining city on a hill” where we can all live in a capitalist Utopia in racial and economic harmony.
During the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years, the GOP groomed a demagogue in the House, Newt Gingrich, for stardom. Gingrich had no interest in doing his job, and instead picked fights with Democrats and establishment Republicans alike, shoved his face into every TV camera he could find, and specialized in giving incendiary speeches to an empty House chamber that were so extreme and inflammatory that the news networks couldn’t wait to give him a larger audience.
By 1988, he had a loyal cadre of young GOP hotheads behind him. He issued memos like 1990’s “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” where he advocated that Republicans not merely characterize Democrats as “the loyal opposition” who were often “misguided” about various policies, but instead use words like “sick,” “traitors,” “bizarre,” “self-serving,” “shallow,” “corrupt,” “pathetic,” and “shame” to characterize them. Ever get tired of being called a “bedwetting liberal?” Thank Gingrich for that.
Democrats caused a South Carolina woman to murder her children and blame a non-existent black man for the crimes, Gingrich told reporters. Democrats cheered when film director Woody Allen had an incestuous affair with his adopted underaged daughter, Gingrich said. Clinton White House staffer Vince Foster didn’t commit suicide, he insisted, but instead was assassinated by nefarious forces within the Clinton administration. Sound familiar?
Gingrich also originated, or revived, the legislative practice of blocking every piece of legislation he and his fellow House radicals could, in order to deny Clinton any legislative victories. That also sounds familiar. As Speaker, he specialized at weaponizing government shutdowns and passing stunt bills designed to thrill and inflame the Republican base even as they died in the Senate or from Clinton’s veto. He led the charge to impeach Clinton over his affair with an adult White House staffer, and left the House shortly thereafter after being blamed for the GOP’s reversal of fortunes at the polls (and found to have had a series of affairs himself). Since then, he has continued his advocacy for destruction and blind opposition, and has helped shape the GOP as we now know it. Of course he is a staunch Trump supporter.
George W. Bush
We saw more of the same during the George W. Bush era. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were all hallmarks of the Bush Jr. presidency, along with the usual catastrophic economic decisions and mindless warmongering that have become hallmarks of GOP “leadership.”
The Tea Party and Donald Trump
Trump, a failed businessman and successful reality-TV host who followed the McCarthy/Gingrich example of shoving his face into every TV camera he could find and incessantly promoting himself as a paradigm of American capitalist exceptionalism, began building his presidential campaign by reviving the scurrilous, discredited accusations that Barack Obama was not a legitimate American citizen.
The Republicans were already giddy over the prospect of new racist and economic insanity from 2009’s astroturf Tea Party. Starting in 2010, when the Tea Party Republicans drove the recapture of both houses of Congress, the far-right wing of the Republican Party has tightened its grip on the GOP. And if you aren’t willing to toe the line, you don’t get to continue being a Republican lawmaker. Ask Justin Amash, a former Tea Party darling who left the party in 2019 before they could excommunicate him.
After obstructing everything possible from the Obama administration (on Gingrich’s advice, though he had an eager crew ready to do just that, led by Mitch McConnell), the Republicans, once again using the Gingrich playbook, painted the Obama administration as corrupt and useless, painted the 2016 presidential candidate as a walking disaster, and disgusted so many voters that the GOP’s base was able (with Russian assistance) to eke out an Electoral College victory for the single worst candidate they have ever fielded, Donald John Trump.
That’s enough history. Get something cold to drink and come back for the second part of this missive.
The Harsh Reality of Now
Two days ago, Max Boot, who was once one of the most virulent voices for the GOP, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that makes the same argument I am making.
After defending the “Never Trumper” political organization The Lincoln Project, Boot argues correctly that the small number of old-school Republicans like the lobbyists and political operatives that make up the Project are not just disgusted with Trump, but with what the party has become under Trump:
In fact, the Lincoln Project’s founders have impeccable Republican credentials, but they are thoroughly disenchanted with the Party of Trump.
Then he cites an upcoming book by Project staffer Stuart Stevens called It Was All a Lie, where, Boot writes,
[H]e makes no attempt to paint Trump as an aberration. Rather, he sees the president as the distillation of decades of GOP dogma.
As quoted by Boot, Stevens writes:
How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy, and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held.… [I]t had always been about power. The rest? The principles? The values? It was all a lie.
and calls Republicans who have leapt into bed with Trump cowards who willingly accepted the “leadership” of a mentally infirm criminal and pretends that Trump is not only fit to lead, but the best leader America has ever seen. The GOP leadership, Stevens says, has been overtaken by “paranoids, kooks, know-nothings, and bigots.”
If we are ever again to have a sane and sober center-right party in America — something we desperately need — then the Trumpified GOP must first be demolished. That is what the Lincoln Project is trying to accomplish, and more power to it. By leading the charge against the Republican Party, its founders have shown greater fealty to conservative principles than 99 percent of elected Republicans.
And he’s not wrong. But we are not going to help them rebuild the GOP to Reagan/Bush era standards. Back in April, I wrote a piece called The Enemy of My Enemy is My Ally. For Now. “For now” means “until the election.”
Maybe Stevens and Boot and their compatriots have seen the light. Maybe they want to help create a new and improved GOP, free from the racism, misogyny, homophobia and economic enabling of the wealthy that have been hallmarks of the party since before I was born. But even if they have, I doubt their ability to create such a thing.
If Trump does lose in November, she current Republicans will attempt to paint Trump as a momemtary, unimportant aberration. “He was never one of us,” they will cry, and will pretend that their four years of slavish dedication to his every whim, their unquestioning support of the economic and social degradation of America, the decision to put kids in cages and mercenaries on our streets, and the treason committed by Trump and his minions both in the White House and in Congress, never really happened. Or, since it did, they had nothing to do with it. They just watched in horror as everything unfolded, and, well, did nothing to stop it.
Lies. Bald-faced, outrageous lies. Every one of them, from Matt Gaetz to Lisa Murkowski, did every single thing they could to enable and further his crimes. The 53 Republicans in the Senate voted 105-1 (two articles of impeachment, two votes per senator) to acquit Trump of the impeachment charges they admitted he was guilty of. They cheered the cages. They cheered the tear gas attacks on peaceful protesters. They celebrated when Trump signed their massive tax giveaway for their wealthy patrons into law. They were there for it all, and in every single instance they did every goddamned thing they could to push Trump forward.
It’s what the GOP has done since at least 1950. So, no, Max Boot and Stuart Stevens. We are thankful for your help with the Lincoln Project and other “Never Trumper” initiatives. But we are very, very leery of your plans for a GOP resurgence in 2021. We’re going to press our gains and transform this country into something Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Mitch McConnell would never recognize. If you want to be part of that, fine. Prove it. But we’re not going to cede an inch of ground to you in the interest of some kind of political camaraderie because you joined us in trying to remove a megalomaniac from power.
The Republican party has backstabbed us, and this nation, for 70 years or more. We’re done with it.