The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party
t began where it ended, on the West Front of the United States Capitol.
On January 6, 2021, a mob incited by President Donald Trump smashed barriers, overpowered police, and stormed the steps of the Capitol on the side of the Rotunda facing the Washington Monument across the Mall. The insurrectionists scaled the scaffolding that had been erected on the West Front for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration en route to sacking the U.S. seat of government for the first time since the War of 1812.
Sent with instructions from Trump to “fight like hell” and a call from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani for “trial by combat,” the mob halted Congress’s certification of Biden’s victory, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives and hiding under desks. At least seven people died in the riot and its aftermath, and more than 140 police were hurt. Some 800 insurrectionists, many with ties to white supremacist or violent extremist groups, faced charges.
The bloody coup attempt shocked the nation. But a sober view of history might have lessened the shock. For the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier—twenty-six years earlier—in that same spot on the West Front of the Capitol.
On September 27, 1994, more than three hundred Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates gathered where the insurrectionists would one day scale the scaffolding. But on this sunny morning, they assembled for a nonviolent transfer of power.
Bob Michel, the unfailingly genial leader of the House Republican minority for the previous fourteen years, had successfully ushered Ronald Reagan’s agenda through the House. But he had now been forced into retirement by a rising bomb thrower who threatened to oust Michel as GOP leader if he didn’t quit.
Newt Gingrich had almost nothing in common with the man he pushed out. Michel was a portrait of civility and decency, a World War II combat veteran who knew that his political opponents were not his enemies and that politics was the art of compromise. Gingrich, by contrast, rose to prominence by forcing the resignation of a Democratic speaker of the House on what began as mostly false allegations, by smearing another Democratic speaker with personal innuendo, and by routinely thwarting Michel’s attempts to negotiate with Democrats. He had avoided service in Vietnam and regarded Democrats as the enemy, impugning their patriotism and otherwise savaging them nightly on the House floor for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers.
“My friends, I’ll not be able to be with you when you enter that promised land of having that long-sought-after majority control of the House of Representatives,” Michel said that morning to the gathered Republicans, who were within striking distance of a majority for the first time in forty years. “I can only stand with you today and see that vision from afar.”
Minutes later, that vision took on a distinctly dystopian hue.
“Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!” the candidates and lawmakers chanted. They waved miniature American flags. A pudgy fifty-one-year-old with a helmet of gray hair approached the lectern.
“The fact is that America is in trouble,” Gingrich declared. “It is impossible to maintain American civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t even read. This is a crisis of our entire civilization, and within a half mile of this building these conditions happen in our nation’s capital, and they happen in every major city, and they happen in West Virginia and they happen in most Indian reservations and across this country.” (The areas mentioned were all Democratic strongholds.)
The pejoratives piled up in Gingrich’s shouted, finger-wagging harangue: “Collapsing…Failed so totally…Worried about their jobs…Worried about their safety…Trust broke down…Out of touch…Wasteful…Dumb…Ineffective…Out of balance…Malaise…Drug dealers…Pimps…Prostitution…Crime…Barbarism…Devastation…Human tragedy…Chaos and poverty.”
“Recognize that if America fails our children will live on a dark and bloody planet,” Gingrich told them.
Somewhere in this catalogue of catastrophe, Gingrich signed the “Contract with America,” a ten-point legislative agenda proposing a balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits, and other reforms. “We have become in danger of losing our own civilization,” Gingrich warned. “Today, on these steps, we offer this contract as a first step towards renewing American civilization.”
Americans had seldom heard a politician talk this way, and certainly not a speaker of the House. But that’s what Gingrich became after the GOP’s landslide victory in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. The “Contract with America” made little headway—only three relatively minor provisions (paperwork reduction!) became law—but the rise of Gingrich and his shock troops fundamentally altered American government for a generation and counting, and set the United States on a course toward the ruinous politics of today.
The epic government failures of the last quarter century can all be traced back to Gingrich and the savage politics he pioneered: three impeachments; two botched wars and a botched pandemic response; several government shutdowns; a sevenfold increase in the federal debt; a market collapse and the Great Recession; and failure to address crucial matters such as climate change, inequality, and immigration. It’s no wonder that there has been a wholesale loss of faith in American democracy.
Today, Americans’ confidence in virtually all the pillars of a free society—Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, the media—has declined from where it was in 1994. One of America’s two major political parties has embraced the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump, and they have convinced two thirds of Republican voters—tens of millions of people—to accept this democracy-killing fiction. A ferocious, racialized, and sometimes violent partisanship has consumed us. White nationalist and antigovernment violence is spreading, and a significant chunk of the country is living in a parallel universe of “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories.
The CIA’s Political Instability Task Force ranks countries from the most autocratic (–10) to the most democratic (+10) to predict the likelihood of civil war. Using the same data series, political scientist Barbara Walter, who served on the CIA task force during the Trump years, calculated that the United States had dropped from +10 before Trump’s rise to +5, its lowest since 1801. The United States is now technically an “anocracy”—somewhere between a democracy and an autocracy—after a precipitous decline that puts us at greatly increased risk of civil war. “We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” Walter writes in her 2022 book, How Civil Wars Start.
Or maybe the war has already begun. To use one measure, in October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security—Trump’s Department of Homeland Security—concluded that white supremacist violence was the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” A study by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies found that white supremacists and like-minded extremists conducted 67 percent of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020, compared to 20 percent by anarchist, antifascist, and like-minded extremists. In one such case, members of an antigovernment paramilitary group allegedly plotted to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan.
How did we get into this mess? What led us from the moment when Republicans waved miniature flags with Bob Michel on the Capitol steps to the moment, a quarter century later, when Republicans in that same place used flagpoles bearing the American flag to beat police officers and smash windows? This book answers these questions—and in so doing, I hope, provides clues that can eventually help rebuild what we’ve lost. As I write this, in early 2022, six in ten Republicans say the 2020 election was fraudulent, and 40 percent think political violence can be acceptable, a Washington Post–University of Maryland poll just found. A Post tally found that at least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s election lies are running in 2022 to become senators, governors, or other statewide officials who would have sway over the administration of elections. At least five candidates for the House were at the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection and at least twelve of the top Republican House prospects have accepted the Big Lie. Embrace of Trump’s lie has become the primary prerequisite for winning Republican primaries.
Congressional Republican leaders have abandoned any attempt to punish, or even contradict, rank-and-file lawmakers who fantasize publicly about killing elected Democratic officials. Virtually the entire GOP boycotted events commemorating the first anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and some elected Republicans have joined the likes of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson in suggesting that the insurrection was a false flag operation perpetrated by the FBI.
Republican lawmakers and opinion leaders, amplified by Fox News, have overwhelmingly succeeded in deterring their followers from getting the Covid-19 vaccine by promoting disinformation about imagined dangers of the inoculations. As a result, the Covid death rate in the most pro-Trump decile of America (as measured by counties’ vote share for Trump in 2020) is now nearly six times the death rate in the most anti-Trump decile. The GOP has become a death cult.
While Republican lawmakers have refused to censure the violent or anti-Semitic words of their peers, those Republicans who dared to vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill have been branded “traitors.” Republican officials have made a pariah of Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and daughter of the former vice president, as punishment for Cheney’s rejection of Trump’s election lie. Since Trump departed office, Republicans in Congress have been fighting to rewrite the history of the January 6 insurrection as a “normal tourist visit” in which the insurrectionists were the victims and the police were the villains. Republicans killed a bipartisan commission to examine the attack and boycotted a House committee assigned the same task. The Republican National Committee approved a resolution that referred to the insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.”
States under Republican control have undertaken dramatic efforts to impose new voting restrictions in ways that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. A dozen GOP-controlled states have enacted legislation giving partisan figures more control over the counting and reporting of votes.
Some Republican lawmakers proposed an “America First Caucus” to protect “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” against immigrants who are putting the “unique identity” of the United States at risk. Republican members of Congress have been refusing security sweeps and mask requirements, brandishing guns on Capitol Hill, and adding warnings of “bloodshed” to their continued false claims of election fraud. Two House Republican lawmakers in February participated in a conference tied to white supremacists.
This has real-world impact. After a 73 percent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020 (when Trump spoke of the “Kung Flu” and the “China virus”), violence continued with a massacre of mostly Asian Americans at Atlanta-area massage parlors. Ferocious anti-mask activists have become antivaccine activists, leading to threats and actual violence against health care workers, flight attendants, and others. Republicans’ focus on the phantom menace of “critical race theory” has provoked threats and violence at school boards across the country, leading the National School Boards Association to plead for help from the FBI. Ten Black people in Buffalo, New York, were killed by a gunman motivated by the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory—a theory promoted by, among others, third-ranking House Republican leader Elise Stefanik, Fox News’s Carlson, and Gingrich.
Much has been made of the “polarization” in American politics, and it’s true that moderates are a vanishing breed. But the problem isn’t polarization. The problem is that one of our two major political parties has ceased good-faith participation in the democratic process. Of course there are instances of violence, disinformation, racism, and corruption among Democrats and the political left, but the scale isn’t at all comparable. Only one party fomented a bloody insurrection in the Capitol and even after that voted in large numbers (139 House Republicans, a two-thirds majority) to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 election. Only one party is embracing violence. Only one party has been promulgating a web of conspiracy theories in place of facts. Only one party is trying to restrict voting and discredit elections. Only one party is stoking animosity toward minorities and immigrants. Only one party is sabotaging the norms and institutions of American government.
Admittedly, I’m partisan—not for Democrats but for democrats. At the moment, they are one and the same. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy. There’s a perfectly logical, if deeply cynical, reason for this. Democracy is working against Republicans. In the eight presidential contests since 1988, the GOP candidate has won the popular vote only once, in 2004.
As the United States approaches majority-minority status (the white population, 76 percent of the country in 1990, is now 58 percent and will drop below 50 percent around 2045) Republicans have chosen to become the voice of white people, particularly those without college degrees, who fear the loss of their way of life in a multicultural America. White grievance and white fear drive Republican identity more than any other factor—and drive the tribalism and dysfunction in the U.S. political system.
There are many other contributing factors to the crack-up of the party. Concurrent with the rise of Newt Gingrich was the rise of Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, followed by the rise of Fox News, followed by the advent of social media. Combined, they created a media environment that allows Republican politicians and their voters to seal themselves in an echo chamber of “alternative facts.” Globally, south-to-north migration has ignited nationalist movements around the world and given rise to a new era of autocrats. The disappearance of the Greatest Generation, tempered by war, gave rise to a new generation of cultural warriors who came of age during Vietnam; by the end of Biden’s current term, the country will have been led by baby boomers for thirty-two years.
But the biggest cause by far is race. The parties re-sorted themselves after the epochal changes of the 1960s, which expanded civil rights, voting rights, and immigration, and the Republican Party made the fateful decision to pursue Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of appealing to white voters alienated by racial progress. In the years that followed, a new generation of Republicans took the politics of racial resentment to a new level and fused it with a new style of partisan warfare and dishonesty. This book describes how a few of these unprincipled leaders—Gingrich, Lee Atwater, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and others—repeatedly put short-term self-interest ahead of the national interest. These are the people who broke American democracy.
This book will show that Donald Trump didn’t create this noxious environment. He isn’t some hideous orange Venus emerging from the shell. Rather, he is a monster the Republicans created over a quarter century. He is a symptom of their illness, not the cause. Whatever else he is, Trump is a brilliant opportunist; he saw the direction the Republican Party was heading in, and the former pro-choice advocate of universal health care reinvented himself to give Republicans what they wanted. Sadly, because Trump is merely a reflection of the sickness in the GOP, the problem won’t go away when—if?—he does.
Before the Big Lie about the 2020 election, Republicans fabricated libels about Obamacare “death panels,” the false accusation that Saddam Hussein perpetrated 9/11, and an endless stream of conspiracy theories holding that Bill and Hillary Clinton were nothing short of serial killers.
Before the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, there was the “Brooks Brothers Riot” at the Miami-Dade elections board in November 2000, and a siege of the Capitol to intimidate lawmakers in March 2010.
A quarter century before Trump Republicans spread rampant disinformation about Covid-19, Newt Gingrich began the crusade against science by abolishing Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment.
Before Trump rose to power on a tide of vulgar insults, future Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh penned an obscene, sexually explicit line of questioning for Bill Clinton.
Before the antigovernment MAGA (Make America Great Again) rallies, there were the rage-filled Tea Party town halls of 2010 and the Republican Revolutionaries of 1994, advised by Gingrich to call Democrats “traitors,” “sick,” and “corrupt.”
Before Trump and his aides contorted the Electoral College to justify an attempted coup, Republican lawmakers contorted their constitutional authority to justify impeaching a president for lying about oral sex.
Before the shutdowns of 2018 and 2019 were the Republican-engineered shutdowns of 2013, 1996, and 1995.
Before the sedition of 2021 was the unpatriotic smearing of Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs fighting for his country, as an abettor of Osama bin Laden.
Before Republicans endorsed Russian propaganda about Ukraine during Trump’s impeachment trial, there was Darrell Issa’s false claim that Hillary Clinton ordered the military not to help besieged Americans in Benghazi, Helen Chenoweth’s paranoia about the government’s black helicopters, and Dan Burton shooting a melon to prove a Clinton aide was murdered.
Before Trump Republicans made common cause with QAnon and the Proud Boys, earlier Republicans cozied up to the antigovernment militia movements of the mid-1990s and 2010s and stood with rancher Cliven Bundy in his armed standoff with the U.S. government.
Before Trump spoke of immigrants as rapists and murderers and told Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to other countries, Republicans joined the effort to portray President Barack Obama as an African-born Muslim and embraced the racist pronouncements of Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and Steve King.
I aim to show how extensively Republicans and their allied donors, media outlets, and interest groups have been pulling at the threads of democracy and of civil society for the last quarter century—making the current unraveling inevitable.
The Trump phenomenon cannot be understood without its many antecedents explored in these pages: the Vince Foster “murder,” Ken Starr’s smut, the violence of the militia movement, the lies that started the Iraq War, the use of the “War on Terror” to impugn Democrats’ patriotism, the racism of the “Birther” movement, the antigovernment rage of the Tea Party, the lies about the Affordable Care Act, the politicization of the Supreme Court from Bush v. Gore to Citizens United—and much more. This is a story I have been telling, in one form or other, since I came to Washington in 1995, during the early months of the Republican Revolution. I began as a young congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. I later covered Bill Clinton’s presidency, and his impeachment, for The New Republic. I covered George W. Bush’s presidency as a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, and I’ve been writing a column about political Washington for the last sixteen years. This has provided me a front-row seat for the worst show on earth: the crack-up of the Republican Party, and the resulting crack-up of American democracy.
This book contains four roughly equal sections: the Clinton presidency (defined by the slashing style of Gingrich), the George W. Bush presidency (defined by the dishonesty of Karl Rove), the Obama presidency (during which democratic norms were assaulted from within by Mitch McConnell and without by Sarah Palin), and, finally, the ruin of the (still ongoing) Trump era. Interwoven throughout are the four ways in which Republicans have been hacking away at the foundations of democracy and civil society for a quarter century: their war on truth, their growing exploitation of racism and white supremacy, their sabotage of the institutions and norms of government, and their dehumanizing of opponents and stoking of violence.
In the process, they became the Destructionists: they destroyed truth, they destroyed decency, they destroyed patriotism, they destroyed national unity, they destroyed racial progress, they destroyed domestic stability, and they destroyed the world’s oldest democracy.
BACK IN OCTOBER 2015, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, spoke to a group of Georgetown University students about the man who would become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.
“Donald Trump will not be the nominee,” Romney said with confidence, because “when all is said and done, the American people usually do the right thing.” He went on: “I know there’s some skunks in any endeavor—business, politics—and they get most of the visibility, but there are also some really good people. The American people are a very good people and by and large find people of similar character to elect to the highest office in the land.”
Romney read to the students from a cautionary letter John Adams wrote to the political philosopher John Taylor in 1814. “Remember,” the nation’s second president wrote, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
This notion, that American democracy would someday murder itself, was very much on the minds of the founders. In his farewell address, George Washington warned of a moment when “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
James Madison, the author of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 55 that the survival of American democracy would depend on character: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind…so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
“We’ve beaten the odds,” Romney told the Georgetown students that day, “in part because we’ve had, I think, people of real character who have led our country as presidents…and the American people have risen to the occasion time and again and have in fact then elected good people.”
I was so sure Romney was right that I wrote a column that day saying I would “eat the page on which this column is printed” if Trump won the Republican nomination. And so, in May 2016, I sat down to a meal of newspaper-smoked Wagyu steak, fried fish wrapped in buttermilk-soaked newspaper, grilled newspaper guacamole, ground newspaper dumplings, and grilled newspaper falafel.
I had bet on the wisdom of the American voter, predicting that 2016 “won’t be the year American democracy murders itself.” I had to eat my words.
Romney soon found himself a pariah in his own party. So did John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee. And George W. Bush, the 2000 and 2004 nominee. Ronald Reagan, were he alive, would have been likewise excommunicated.
“There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party,” former Republican House speaker John Boehner, who retired as Trump seized control of the GOP, said in May 2018. “The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
But Boehner, who was one of Gingrich’s lieutenants in 1994, knows better. This isn’t a nap. The Republican Party, as we knew it, is dead.
For a quarter century, Republican officials invited Trump’s takeover of the party by trafficking in conspiracy theories, welcoming white nationalists, sabotaging the engines of government, and winking at violence. And in the process, they murdered democracy.
Chapter 1 Shooting at Melons
Chapter 2 Personal Destruction
Chapter 3 A Dysfunctional Family
Chapter 4 Black Helicopters
Chapter 5 Swift Boating
Chapter 6 Culture of Deception
Chapter 7 A Heckuva Job
Chapter 8 Bridges to Nowhere
Chapter 9 A Deep-Seated Hatred of White People
Chapter 10 Death Panels
Chapter 11 Don’t Retreat—Reload
Chapter 12 Wacko Birds and RINOs
Chapter 13 Truth Isn’t Truth
Chapter 14 Very Fine People
Chapter 15 Sabotage
Chapter 16 Trial by Combat
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