February 6, 2023
State of the GOP: origins
Commentary on the fallen state of the Republican Party is unanimous that the decline did not begin with Trump, that he merely amplified tendencies already present. Accounts vary, though, as to when the slide began, or when a crucial change occurred. Recent books and columns illustrate this. David Corn, in American Psychosis, sees a turning point in the hostility to Nelson Rockefeller by Goldwater supporters and John Birchers at the 1964 GOP convention. He refers to “two mobs,” the hecklers at that convention and the rioters on January 6, 2021. “What happened on Capitol Hill was a continuation of the Republican Party’s decades-long relationship with extremism.” Dana Milbank, in The Destuctionists, dates the change to 1994 and the influence of Newt Gingrich, who emphasized attacks on the opposition and moved politics toward tribalism.
In a New York Times column last month, Charles Blow traced it to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008: “Palin exposed a dangerous reality about the Republican base: that it was starving for disruption and spectacle, that it would cheer for anyone who annoyed liberals, that performance was far more important than competence.” David Von Drehle, in a Washington Post column in December, pointed to 1992: “Many Republicans remember it as the year Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot flew a suicide mission into George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign. But the first fatal blow to Bush Sr. was dealt by hard-right pundit Patrick J. Buchanan. His angry populist campaign carried all the way to the convention, where he traded a grudging endorsement of Bush for influence over the opening-night program. Buchanan anchored an evening of hatreds and resentments that presaged the politics of today.”
Another sign of decay was the absence of a Republican Party platform in 2020. There might be several reasons for that. They might have looked at the 2016 platform and concluded, as I did, that it was an extended statement of why the GOP should not be in charge of government. That’s not likely, but they might, in an unusual burst of understanding, have realized that a majority of voters would so decide. Again, not likely; self-awareness has not been characteristic of the Party in recent years. They might have decided that there was no point. Party platforms often are ignored in practice and, with Trump as President, no statement of principle would have much significance. They may simply have confessed that the only goal of the election was to hold power, not to govern, so why bother with a statement of principles when you have no intention of recognizing any? In that sense, the absence of a platform could be regarded as a rare burst of candor.
Some of the specific claims made by Trump were echos. Republicans had made claims of voting fraud during the 2000 and 2008 elections. They long have exploited grudges, fears and imagined oppression of ordinary folk while serving business. Gingrich referred to an America in trouble and to a catalogue of catastrophes; Trump spoke of American carnage.
Most of the accounts note that elements of the present attitudes on the right have even older roots, including the hunt for communists by Joseph McCarthy and others; a recurring theme is the claim that liberals —you know, socialists (now “globalists”) — are not real Americans.
It’s been a long slide.
6. American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy (2022).
7. The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party (2022)
8. “The Burn-It-All-Down Republican Caucus,” Jan. 4, 2023
9. “The GOP is stuck in a doom loop begun 30 years ago,” December 2, 2022