By Robert A. Vella – November 8th 2022
Today is Election Day for the 2022 midterms. With over 300 Trump loyalists running across the nation’s ballots, who continue to deny the legitimate 2020 election result and who represent real existential threats to American democracy, the stakes could hardly be much higher. Opinion polls project that most of these anti-democratic candidates will win and that the Republican Party is poised to retake control of Congress and win more governorships and other important state level offices. However, the polls have failed in recent years to include some demographic groups (e.g. young people) who are difficult to reach by phone or who resist responding honestly to questions. Furthermore, the polling appears to be weighted heavily towards Republicans (see: Republicans flood the zone with pro-GOP polls, bending models in their direction). Regardless, please do your civic duty today if you haven’t already voted.
I had seen myself as well-versed in history, at least in comparison to most people; and, while the latter is probably true, my presumption of the former has been proven false after reading a new book by veteran Washington D.C. journalist/political commentator and bestselling author David Corn. In American Psychosis – A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, I learned many succinctly detailed revelations about American history that I hadn’t known or had only scantily been aware of.
Although I have written much over the last two decades (on this blog and on other forums) about the GOP’s authoritarian and fascist motivations, Corn informs us that such repressive inclinations among conservatives precedes that starting point (in the mid-20th century) tracing back to the roots of the Republican Party (in the mid-19th century) and back further to the American Revolution and far beyond into the Colonial Period (of the 17th and 18th centuries). His thoughtful exposé reveals recurring outbreaks of mass madness, triggered by real societal stresses or by delusional inciters and false prophets, which are fervently exploited by bad-faith political actors.
The Salem witch trials are the earliest such example cited by Corn, followed by a virulent conspiracy theory suggesting a small cabal of English elites intent on destroying the British constitutional system and enslaving the American colonists, then by more fiery intrigues alleging complex plots by secularists (e.g. freemasons and the Illuminati) and democratic French revolutionaries (in cahoots with Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party) to undermine Protestant establishment of the United States as a “Christian nation” (an especially delusional idea because America’s Founding Fathers were mostly deists who specifically precluded any religious authority over the newly formed government via the First Amendment in the U.S Constitution). Corn then related the later hateful fear-mongering over Catholic immigration from Europe (which impugned the Pope as an evil mastermind), and over the granting of civil rights to freed slaves (who were demonized as subhuman beasts) that had literally torn the country apart and had given rise to severe discriminatory practices in the aftermath of the Civil War (e.g. Jim Crow laws) which is tragically resurfacing once again today.
The Whig Party, which emerged after the evaporation of the Federalist Party during the Jefferson presidency, was the forerunner of the modern Republican Party (first led by moderate Abraham Lincoln). It had divided over the issue of slavery and collapsed in the mid-1850s (note: Jefferson’s party had suffered a similar fate in the late 1820s over the issue of political partisanship, and various factions reformed into the modern Democratic Party under the firebrand populist Andrew Jackson). Although the definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” have always been in flux over time and with respect to political parties (for example: the conservative Federalists supported strong centralized government which was opposed by the liberal Democratic-Republicans, whereas in modern times it was liberal Democrats who supported it and conservative Republicans who opposed it), Corn’s analysis highlights a persistent schism within the GOP which has continually pitted far-right conservatives (i.e. autocratic authoritarians) against more principled and sensible moderates (i.e. adherents of democracy and rule-of-law republicanism).
This GOP schism became increasingly deeper and broader throughout the 20th century. The progressivism of President Theodore Roosevelt opened up the fissure which eventually split the party and allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the 1912 election. During the First World War, new prejudices were brewing in America sparked by radical developments in Europe. Anti-German sentiment spread in reaction to atrocities committed by the Imperial German army and navy. Anti-Semitism grew in concert with the burgeoning proto-fascist movements in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. Anti-socialism and anti-communism became evident after the labor unrest in Russia and Britain just prior to the start of WWI and after the violent Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Although the prejudice against Catholics and Germans slowly began to subside after the war, animosity towards Jews and an ever broadening range of the political spectrum continued to escalate and metastasize into grandiose conspiracy theories which implicated many more disparate groups.
After the GOP regained control of the White House in the early 1920s, conservatives drove the party back to the “Robber Baron” practices of the Gilded Age (1870-1900) when the interests of powerful industrialists essentially merged with the policies promoted by politicians and other government officials. However, this Big Business/Republican power structure came crashing down in 1929 along with the stock market and the banking industry. The resulting Great Depression handed presidential power over to the Democrats who held it for a remarkable 36-year span (under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson) with the exception of the two-term presidency of moderate Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.
But, the anti-left crusade of far-right Republicans only intensified. In a little remembered yet shocking episode which transpired over FDR’s 2nd and 3rd terms, various anti-Semitic and pro-fascist isolationist groups such as the America First Committee (which had many high-profile members including industrialist Henry Ford and aviator Charles Lindberg, and whose organizational moniker was reused for presidential candidate Donald Trump’s political movement in 2016), the Christian Front (which had planned an armed insurrection against the U.S. government), and the German American Bund, vigorously opposed America’s entry into the Second World War. A Nazi agent (George Sylvester Viereck), who was disseminating Adolf Hitler’s propaganda in the United States, was prosecuted by the Department of Justice along with other defendants in numerous criminal trials (e.g. The Great Sedition Trial of 1944). After several Republican members of Congress (who sympathized with this far-right movement or were allied with it) pressured the DOJ and some trial judges, the prosecutions were largely defeated; however, the sudden Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 unified the American people against the Axis powers and ended fascist dreams of keeping the U.S. out of WWII (for further reading, see: Nazis, Seditionists, and Gay Vampire Porn: Rachel Maddow Reveals Her New Podcast ‘Ultra’).
The first “Red Scare” of 1917-1920 was followed by a second iteration from 1947 to 1957 spearheaded by the demagogue U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. His rhetorical attacks were distinctly personal, vile, indiscriminate, and wholly unsupported by any credible evidence (Trump is still using these tactics today). McCarthy was very successful in influencing public opinion and policy for several years; but, when his aggressive assaults on Hollywood, President Eisenhower, and the U.S. Army were dramatically turned against him, his political career was quickly destroyed and he died shortly afterwards (probably from alcohol abuse). Vice President Richard Nixon, who had tried to restrain McCarthy, subsequently attempted to assume his role as America’s preeminent anti-left crusader.
However, Nixon’s climb to the pinnacle of right-wing extremism was interrupted by a deranged paranoid (Robert Welch, Jr.) and a small group of likeminded fanatics (including Fred Koch, father of the infamous Charles and David Koch brothers) who formed the notoriously ultraconservative John Birch Society in 1958. Welch believed that evil communists were ubiquitously infiltrating all sectors of American society and were cleverly subverting it through nonviolent means (in fact, membership in the Communist Party USA peaked at just 85,000 in 1942 and currently has only about 5,000; see: Communist Party of the United States of America); and, he directed the JBS to do the same as a counterstrategy. Because the Birchers’ preferred presidential candidate was U.S. Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater (who was equally ultraconservative, but quite rational in comparison to Welch), Nixon struck a deal with moderate New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller at the Republican National Convention in Chicago to garner the GOP presidential nomination for the 1960 election in which he closely lost to JFK. That electoral result served to compel Republicans to take the JBS very seriously, but the party establishment (including some ultraconservatives like author/political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of the influential editorial magazine National Review) was uncomfortable with the relationship because Welch was crazily accusing everyone (outside a narrow sliver of the Republican Party) of being a communist or a tool of communists (including one of McCarthy’s favorite targets, President Eisenhower).
During the 1964 presidential campaign, the tables were turned. The ranks of Birchers was swelling with an influx of far-right extremists from segregationist politicians and avowed white supremacists to fanatical Christian nationalists, anti-Semitic fascists, and armed militia groups. The notables among them (who had conveniently withdrawn their membership in the JBS or had never formally joined it) included polemicist Phyllis Schlafly, U.S. Senator from South Carolina Strom Thurmond, and actor John Wayne. With this growing support, Goldwater won the Republican Party nomination despite desperate attempts by Rockefeller and the moderates to stop the GOP’s hard lurch to the right while Eisenhower, Nixon (who had lost the 1962 California governor race), and Buckley acquiesced. Still, LBJ won reelection in one of the most lopsided landslide victories in American history. Corn offers the mainstream view that Goldwater’s defeat was primarily due to his public statements supporting an assertive use of nuclear weapons (as poignantly portrayed in LBJ’s famous “Daisy” attack ad) which frightened the American people; and, Corn presents the clear observation that the GOP’s extremist turn was not popular with most Americans. Curiously, Corn glosses over two momentous events which obviously affected the election outcome to a significant extent. The first was the assassination of JFK on November 22nd 1963 from which the public was still painfully grieving over and was quite aware of how much the far-right had hated him. The second was the passing of the Civil Rights Act (signed into law by LBJ on July 2nd 1964) which was overwhelmingly supported by northern Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Corn does, however, note another hugely important aspect of the election outcome; that is, the flipping of five southern states over to the Republican column from the Democrats’ old dependable “Solid South.” Senator Thurmond, who was one of the key leaders of this voting-block, and who ran for president as a “Dixiecrat” in 1948, was now a Republican.
Had these political dynamics remained in effect, the subsequent political history of the U.S. surely would have been very different. Moderates would have maintained their solid position within the GOP, and the right-wing would not have seized control of the “Party of Lincoln” so completely. What upset those political dynamics was the sociopolitical turmoil of the mid-1960s to early-1970s. Beginning in the autumn of 1964, civil rights and antiwar protests broke out on the University of California campus in Berkeley which soon spread across the state and the country (notes: White Southerners were violently oppressing Blacks in reaction to the federal government’s enforcement of equal rights, and President Johnson was massively escalating the Vietnam War ostensibly in response to the falsified Gulf of Tonkin incident). The following summer, the Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles after alleged police abuse during a traffic stop of a Black man (also partly due to the passage of Proposition 14 the previous year which had repealed the California Fair Housing Act of 1963) that had resulted in 34 deaths and $40 million in property damage. This turmoil triggered a backlash among middle class Whites (who were resentful of young peoples’ counterculture movement, conflicted over the practical application of civil rights, and had not yet realized the actual circumstances of the Vietnam War) which made them more amenable to the conspiratorial rhetoric of the far-right.
This new political dynamic allowed a fresh ultraconservative to enter the picture. His name was Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor of modest acclaim who possessed both a compelling style of communicating and an unusual talent for avoiding controversy. While moderate Republicans like U.S. Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen and U.S. Congressman from Michigan Gerald Ford were criticizing the leadership of the John Birch Society (i.e. Welch, but not its rank-and-file members), Reagan simply avoided the topic publicly even though he largely agreed with the JBS privately. In California’s gubernatorial election of 1966, he defeated the two-term incumbent (Democrat Pat Brown) in a rout. The stunning turnaround of political party fortunes in just two years was telling. It showed that a well-mannered, attractive candidate who masked extreme views behind a charismatic persona could become extraordinarily popular. It also revealed much more than that which Corn doesn’t elaborate on (probably because it’s outside the scope of his superb book), but I will do so here from my own perspective.
I was one of those idealistic young people in California at that time, not yet a college student but old enough to see what was happening around me. From personal experience, I can relate to you the terribly worsening divide between my parents’ generation (i.e. the “Greatest Generation”) and ours (i.e. the “Baby Boomers”). In many ways, it was surreal. They wore their hair short or tightly bundled up, we wore ours long and loose. They wore plain, modest clothing while ours were inventive and flamboyant. They drank alcohol and smoked tobacco quite heavily, and relied on prescription pep pills and sleeping pills to control their mood. We smoked marijuana and recklessly experimented with illegal drugs. They were traditionalists, we were avant-garde. But these aesthetic differences, even as troublesome as they were, paled in comparison to the irreconcilable differences over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and to a lesser extent women’s rights and environmental concerns. As disturbing incidents and factual awareness unfolded over the following years (e.g. the Kent State massacre in May 1970, and release of the Pentagon Papers beginning in June 1971), my parents’ generation shifted their opinions on these issues to varying degrees. On the war, the change happened quickly and eventually forced the U.S. to pull out of the conflict (via the Paris Peace Accords signed in January 1973). Likewise, their opinions evolved on the environment (with establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970) and on women’s rights (with the near passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s). On civil rights, my parents’ generation was at odds with itself. While they agreed intellectually that all citizens should have the same legal rights regardless of race or ethnicity, they reacted emotionally when faced with the prospect of sharing their neighborhoods and schools with people who didn’t look like them or who came from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds. This contradiction between support for civil rights in the abstract (i.e. objective) sense and opposition to civil rights in a personal (i.e. subjective) sense is not only hypocritical but also indicative of dissociative disorders which aligns neatly with Corn’s premise of an “American psychosis.” Therefore, it should be easier to understand now how the subtle packaging of right-wing extremism with an alluring figurehead/messenger can work well to sell the public something it consciously rejects but subconsciously accepts (i.e. to play to its fears).
1968 was a year of rapid-fire infamy. It began with the startling Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong against South Vietnam and U.S. forces. Although the military operation failed tactically, it was a huge success strategically. It forced President Johnson to acknowledge President Kennedy’s doubts about the thoroughly corrupt South Vietnamese government which was hated by its own people (see: The truth about JFK and Vietnam: Why the speculation is wrong-headed). This realization that the war couldn’t be won split the Democratic Party ahead of the presidential election. In the initial primary election (New Hampshire), LBJ performed badly against the antiwar candidate U.S. Senator from Minnesota Eugene McCarthy. Four days later, U.S. Senator from New York Robert F. Kennedy (JFK’s younger brother) entered the race and had strong support among Catholics, Blacks, and Hispanics. Also, the segregationist former and future Democratic governor of Alabama George Wallace (his wife Lurleen Wallace was the current governor) was running for president as a third-party candidate who was immensely popular with White Southerners. This dire political landscape spurred LBJ to announce to the nation that he would no longer seek reelection. In April, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, RFK was assassinated in Los Angeles. Riots broke out across the nation. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was overshadowed by more than 10,000 enraged antiwar protesters who were brutally suppressed by thousands more police and national guard soldiers at the behest of “Big City Boss” mayor Richard J. Daley. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination. It wasn’t an enviable victory.
For the GOP, the Democrats’ disasters and the national tumult should have left them a wide open door to the White House. It didn’t because Republicans were still trying to sort out a unified direction for their party. Reagan was a rising star, the loony Birchers were an undeniable force to be reckoned with, Goldwater and Thurmond were working hard to stop Wallace from stealing the Southern White vote, and moderates were determined to maintain their status in the party. The only candidate who might thread a binding needle between these contentious factions was Nixon who had been in the political wilderness for the last six years. The first thing he had to do was build an alliance which he accomplished by securing the Goldwater/Thurmond/JBS wing via a pledge to abandon the Northern Black vote in favor of opposing federal government enforcement of civil rights, by convincing moderates that this cynical ploy was necessary for electoral victory, and by consequence isolating the upstart Reagan. Nixon also surreptitiously scuttled a potential Vietnam War peace agreement shortly before Election Day which could have boosted Humphrey’s chances (see: Notes Indicate Nixon Interfered With 1968 Peace Talks). Nixon did win the 1968 election, but just barely. That the Democrats did as well as they had considering all their woes is rather amazing. I do recall a lot of public suspicion about right-wing involvement in the assassinations before the election, but I don’t know how much impact it had.
Corn examines the notorious Nixon presidency in a chapter aptly titled “Ratfucking.” Even if you don’t want to read this book in its entirety, you should get it just to read that truly amazing chapter. In it, Corn details Nixon’s dastardly plot to intentionally polarize the American people along cultural and ideological lines in order to secure the GOP’s hold on political power. The effort was spearheaded by Vice President Spiro Agnew who proudly proclaimed his love of “polarization” (and who was forced to resign in 1973 over criminal corruption charges) by saying: “It is time to rip away the rhetoric and divide on authentic lines.” When hundreds of “hard hat” construction workers brutally attacked peaceful antiwar demonstrators in New York City shortly after the Kent State massacre, Nixon blatantly embraced them (most NYPD officers present watched the assault without intervening, and the DOJ didn’t investigate the incident). Ultraconservatives also utilized the JBS and other far-right groups to revolutionize the Republican Party apparatus through organizational outreach, mass distribution of propaganda, and highly “creative” funding operations. While all this was going on, Nixon’s actual governmental policies were surprisingly tame in comparison to the ideology he was promoting (à la California Governor Reagan) in an apparent attempt to prevent the American people from seeing the GOP as rabidly extreme as they had in 1964. Although this strategy paid huge dividends in Nixon’s successful 1972 reelection campaign, all his prodigious dirty-dealing (which Corn enumerates very well) caught up with him in the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency.
When the new president (Gerald Ford, who had replaced Agnew as vice president) pardoned the disgraced and departed Nixon in 1974, it pretty much ruined his own reelection chances for 1976. Because the pardon was so widely condemned, because the economy was still reeling from the 1973 oil crisis, and because Ford’s bumbling image was routinely satirized on the popular comedy show Saturday Night Live, Ford lost to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat who was widely respected as an honorable and deeply religious man.
Carter’s integrity was certainly an asset in 1976, but it made his presidency naively vulnerable to the wicked realities of politics. His greatest success, the historic Camp David Accords of 1978 (which secured a lasting peace between former Middle East enemies Israel and Egypt), was quickly overshadowed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution (which deposed the corrupt American ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and instituted a radical Islamic theocratic republic) that triggered another oil crisis, inflationary spiral, and economic recession. Iran’s subsequent seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and its capture of 52 American hostages greatly weakened Carter’s political standing even further especially after a failed rescue attempt. Onto this battered and demoralized president pounced an aggressive and emboldened Reagan (who had defeated GOP establishment candidate George H. W. Bush – his eventual running mate – in the primaries) during the 1980 election campaign. Reagan perched atop a reformation of the “New Right” movement, an extensive coalition led by various right-wing extremist factions such as progenies of the old conspiratorial John Birch Society, warmongering national defense proponents, corporatist business interests, blue-collar workers (who were abandoning the Democratic Party over cultural issues), zealous white supremacists and anti-Semites, the increasingly militant Gun Lobby, and most notably the emerging political activism of the so-called “Moral Majority” Religious Right under the leadership of hyperbolic televangelist Jerry Falwell. In holding this volatile coalition together, Reagan was greatly aided by hardnosed yet skilled political consultants like Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes (who would later head the right-wing propaganda channel Fox News).
The 1980 election wasn’t close. Reagan served two terms followed by one term by Bush. The Reagan presidency was a tour de force of ultraconservatism, neoliberalism (i.e. consolidation of industries via corporatization, deregulation, and fierce opposition to collective bargaining, labor unions, and consumer activism), economic libertarianism (i.e. regressive taxation, and the dismantling of welfare programs), social intolerance (e.g. harsh criminal enforcement and incarceration), privatization (of public education and other sectors), imperialism (e.g. supporting far-right military dictatorships in Central and South America, and illegally assisting the Contra rebels against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua which resulted in the Iran-Contra Scandal), sectarianism (which assailed the secular separation of church and state written into the U.S. Constitution by America’s Founding Fathers), and the packing of the federal court system with ideological judges (who would, among other things, start to teardown the civil rights protections put into law during the 1960s). However, all this wasn’t enough to satiate the extremists in Reagan’s coalition particularly fanatical Christians who demanded the abolition of abortion and women’s other reproductive rights, censorship of speech in accordance to their subjective interpretation of the Bible, the persecution of homosexuals, outright war against secular humanists, and the transformation of the U.S. from a democratic republic to an authoritarian theocracy. Although Reagan did his best to appease these dangerous loons, he was also determined to get himself and his party reelected. He knew Americans could tolerate right-wing extremism but only up to a certain point, and he was intent on not crossing that line.
But, that line was crossed with increasing frequency if only rhetorically. The Religious Right, led by other televangelists (e.g. Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart), wouldn’t stop promoting their outrageous beliefs. Reagan and the Republicans were openly embracing brutal fascist dictators in Central/South America along with Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and even considered granting the Chilean ruler General Augusto Pinochet (who had waged a deadly CIA-backed terror and assassination campaign against his own people) political asylum in the U.S. when a mass uprising threatened his regime. Reaganites also cuddled with fascist and Nazi émigrés from Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. the Anti-Bolshevik Block of Nations and the World Anti-Communist League), and the President personally stunned observers when he visited the gravesites of Waffen-SS soldiers at a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany (the Waffen-SS was responsible for committing some of the most heinous Nazi war crimes during WWII). Similarly, Reagan publicly supported the racist apartheid government of South Africa, and he played dumb in front of TV cameras when confronted with revelations about his administration (particularly National Security Council staff member Oliver North, and CIA Director William Casey) selling military arms to Iran in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. While the American people were too slowly digesting all this corrupt behavior, the stock market crashed hard in October 1987. Nevertheless, the GOP political machine was still able to get Bush elected president in 1988 by dishonestly demonizing its Democratic opponent. Corn points to that election year as a defining moment in the history of the Republican Party when all its pent-up hatreds burst out into the open (from the likes of Robertson, Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, and the bombastic shock-jock Rush Limbaugh) and the GOP establishment started losing control. The crazies did not want tame policy debates, they wanted existential culture wars to divide and conquer the populace. The Democrats responded passively (as they still generally do today!) in the forlorn hope that Republicans would eventually come back to their senses. A Gingrich speech from that period reveals why such hope was and is sadly delusional: “[the battle against Democrats] has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.”
By the time of Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992, the far-right ranks of the GOP had swelled to include prominent paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan (a disciple of Joe McCarthy, and an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer) who opposed the Gulf War against warmongering Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and who challenged Bush for the party’s presidential nomination, White supremacist David Duke (a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard) who had begun a political career in Louisiana and would also challenge Bush in 1992, and Religious Right political activist Ralph Reed (who served as Robertson’s Christian Coalition executive director) whose ability to recruit successful Christian fundamentalist candidates for public office at the state and local level was causing great concern within the GOP establishment. Especially after Bush had reneged on his 1988 campaign promise to not raise taxes (“Read my lips: no new taxes,” he had proclaimed) in order to slash the massive national debt that had ballooned under Reagan, and after the country had slipped into economic recession, the beleaguered president had become a pariah to his own political party. Facing both a smooth-talking neoliberal centrist in Democratic Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton (whose campaign focused heavily on economic issues) and a fiery populist independent in eccentric billionaire Ross Perot (who opposed the Gulf War and the first major attempt at globalization called the North American Free Trade Agreement), Bush lost his reelection bid rather badly. In fact, he received a majority of votes from only two demographic groups: White evangelical Christians and wealthy people with annual incomes over $100,000. Buchanan’s nationalistic tribalism, Duke’s blatant racism, and Robertson’s divisive “spiritual warfare” campaign (which equated American politics as the apocalyptic final conflict between God and Satan depicted in the biblical Book of Revelations) – all combined – had backfired just as Nixon and Reagan had feared.
Had the GOP establishment not lost control of the party, the astonishing economic prosperity that mushroomed over the two terms of Clinton’s presidency would not have been so politically rancorous. But, it had lost control in a very big way. The sadistic attacks on the president (most of which were unjustly contrived), his wife Hillary, his top officials, the Democratic Party, and everyone else (including Republicans) who weren’t right-wing nuts, were launched systematically and continuously. Corn attributes the overwhelming Republican victories in the 1994 midterm elections to this contemptible strategy. However, in my opinion, there were three other factors which were far more impactful: 1) the Democrats’ failure to pass Hillary’s healthcare reform act of 1993 which disappointed a lot of poor and working class Americans, 2) the Democrats’ agreement to pass NAFTA (initiated by Bush) which angered the growing populist movement in America, and 3) the Christian Coalition’s massive achievement (which Corn had highlighted previously) in getting Christian fundamentalists elected to local school boards, city and country administrations, state legislative bodies, governorships, and to both houses of Congress, which caught the Democratic Party establishment as negligently flatfooted as it had the caught the GOP establishment two years earlier.
When domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (assisted by Terry Nichols) blew-up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19th 1995 killing 168 people (including 19 children) and injuring 684 more (in retaliation for the deadly 1992-1993 conflicts between federal government agents and a racist survivalist who defied a court order at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, and the Branch Davidians religious cult which defied a search warrant at a compound near Waco, Texas), the far-right of the Republican coalition (which was now allied with an increasingly militant National Rifle Association) was politically battered but remained steadfastly defiant. Gingrich, who was now Speaker of the House, made another unforced error by shutting down the federal government for six days in November because Clinton vetoed the Republicans’ stopgap spending bill which included regressive changes to Medicare and environmental regulations (but also because he had a personal grievance against the president, see: Gingrich Shut Down the Government in a Tantrum 23 Years Ago). The GOP presidential nominee in 1996, the elderly U.S. Senator from Kansas Bob Dole, resented being forced to cater to the extremist right-wing and he consequently ran a lackluster campaign that ended in an even worse electoral defeat than Bush’s in 1992.
Instead of learning from these mistakes, the far-right escalated their myriad attacks against Clinton. Independent Council Ken Starr’s numerous and fruitless investigations eventually were able to prove that the president had lied about having a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton in December 1998, but the President’s approval ratings jumped to 67% (73% in the Gallup poll) which weakened the resolve to remove him from office in the subsequent Senate impeachment trial and resulted in acquittal. Ironically, ethics charges and revelations about his own sexual affair caused Gingrich to first resign his speakership and then from his congressional seat in January 1999. The far-right was apoplectic. Paul Weyrich (cofounder of the “Moral Majority” movement, The Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council) lamented their defeat as resulting from the American people’s rejection of conservative values and urged the Republican Party to back away from the culture wars. It didn’t happen.
The GOP establishment sought to take back control of the party during the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush (eldest son of the former president) was its chosen candidate who promised “compassionate conservatism.” While that was his initial intent, a strong challenge in the primaries from moderate U.S. Senator (Arizona) John McCain compelled Bush to regain support among the far-right. In private, he sucked-up to the likes of the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the patently racist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and the aforementioned Senator Thurmond (who had hypocritically fathered a child with a 15 year-old black girl). In public, Bush downplayed his relationship with the far-right and tried to promote a mainstream image. This duplicity, however, did not go unnoticed. Most center-left Americans were wary of Bush, and ultraconservatives neither trusted him nor saw him as one of their own although they were faced with the dilemma of voting for him or for no one at all. On Election Day, Bush trailed his Democratic opponent (Vice President Al Gore) by 530,000 votes nationally, but he held a razor-thin 1,784 vote margin in Florida which would decide the contest in the (undemocratic) Electoral College. When recounts were conducted in that state to verify the results, a mob of rightwing henchmen and Bush activists (led by Republican congressman from New York, John Edward Sweeney) assaulted the election canvassing operation in Miami-Dade County (where Gore had strong support) and shut it down (i.e. The Brooks Brothers riot). In early December, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the recounting to restart. A few days later, the conservative 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court countermanded that order which effectively finalized the election outcome. Bush had “won” Florida by 537 votes and with it the presidency.
On September 11th 2001, the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda (Shiite) launched devastating suicide attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. The shocked country rallied behind its president. Bush immediately targeted the assailant’s home base in Afghanistan along with the ruling Taliban regime which was harboring it. At the same time, a reinvigorated far-right resumed its cultural war campaign which now included demonization of Muslims and the Islamic religion. To his credit, Bush attempted to counter this new wave of ethnic hatred; but, it soon inundated him. Then, he made the same foreign policy mistake that had doomed LBJ. The Bush administration was full of war-hawks (e.g. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Vice President Dick Cheney) who devised a plan to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein (under the false pretense that the Iraqi dictator was supporting al-Qaeda and was developing weapons of mass destruction) with the real intention of securing that nation’s oil supply (and also to avenge an apparent plot to assassinate Bush’s father which the CIA later determined was probably fabricated by the Kuwaiti government). The invasion in March 2003 and the capture of Hussein were conducted swiftly and easily; but, the fighting dragged on with increasing casualties and with diminishing prospects for installing a stable government friendly to the U.S., and the war had the adverse effect of destabilizing the Middle East which allowed the larger and more potent Islamic State (Sunni) terrorist organization to ruthlessly threaten the region.
By the time Bush ran for reelection in 2004, public awareness of the metastasizing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had not yet reached a critical stage. Bush’s opponent was Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts John Kerry, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who spoke out against the war during the Nixon administration. The far-right’s attack-dogs mobilized for action, shamelessly smearing Kerry’s patriotism and military record (i.e. via the concocted “Swift Boat” controversy) while branding him as a disloyal foreign agent working to destroy America. Political mastermind Karl Rove, Special Advisor to President Bush, utilized this underhanded strategy and Fox News gleefully disseminated it to its millions of viewers. Despite this, the race was extremely close. The election came down to Ohio which put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to outlaw same-sex marriage (another political strategy pushed by Christian fundamentalists). The amendment passed and helped give Bush a narrow electoral victory.
But, the wars continued to get worse and the public became more aware of the illegitimacy of invading Iraq. In 2007, the subprime mortgage crisis collapsed the U.S. housing market and triggered massive defaults in the financial industry the following year which sent the global economy reeling (i.e. the Great Recession). The economic tailspin occurred right before the 2008 presidential election and would’ve seriously hindered any Republican nominee running that year, and John McCain would find himself in that unenviable position. He well understood his handicap, however, and chose the fierce but egregiously unqualified Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. The move was intended to do to the new Democratic challenger (U.S. Senator from Illinois Barack Obama) what had been done to Kerry four year earlier. But, despite the GOP’s vicious demonization (Palin led the absurd charge that Obama was an un-American Muslim and not even a U.S. citizen), Obama soundly defeated McCain.
One month prior to that election, Bush rallied moderate Republicans and Democrats to pass a $700 billion bank bailout that saved Wall Street and the nation from utter ruin. The following February, President Obama and Democrats passed an $800 billion economic stimulus package (only three Republicans in Congress, all senators, voted for the bill) which prevented the recession from sinking into another great depression. The far-right was livid. It organized a new radical political movement called the “Tea Party” to oppose the Obama administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress, and even GOP “RINOs” (i.e. “Republicans in name only”) who were perceived as being disloyal to their cause. That cause had no resemblance whatsoever to the 1773 Boston Tea Party incident in which American colonists rebelled against being taxed without political representation by destroying an entire shipment of Chinese tea imported by the British East India Company. In contrast, these new “Tea Partiers” had political representation within a constitutional democratic republic and were incensed only because it was their side that had lost an election. Furthermore, their ideology (i.e. totally unregulated laissez faire capitalism combined with authoritarian enforcement of criminal and civil laws based on a Christian fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible) clouded but did not conceal their bigoted, racist, and theocratic motives. To the Tea Partiers, losers and victims of unfair economic competition deserved their fate, and only White evangelical conservatives were ordained to hold political power.
This misnamed rebranding of the far-right had new rhetorical mouthpieces added to its old ones, such as radio/television commentator Glenn Beck and real estate tycoon Donald Trump (who had his own political ambitions). The steady drumbeat of unfounded personal accusations against President Obama riled the GOP base into a boiling cauldron of hate which consumed irrational minds and sparked disquiet among the rational. Ohio Congressman John Boehner and his sidekick Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, establishment Republicans who would become Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader respectively, saw this unhinged movement as an opportunity to seize political power. They eagerly fed the Tea Party exactly what it wanted, a heaping helping of red-meat. In the 2010 midterm elections, they succeeded. Scaring the public about Obama’s signature proposal to provide affordable healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans (which was falsely accused as outlawing employer-based medical insurance and as mandating “death panels” for senior citizens), lying about the ramifications of the Democrats’ Wall Street reform and consumer protection bill, railing against the (unavoidably) slow pace of economic recovery and (temporarily) growing budget deficits, and hypocritically attacking Obama on bipartisan efforts at comprehensive immigration reform (which Boehner actually wanted to support), they triumphantly rode a giant red wave to the top of the congressional hierarchy. But because Boehner and Cantor weren’t able to achieve what the Tea Party wanted, because it trusted neither of them, and because the GOP establishment’s moderate presidential candidate (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had kissed Trump’s ass to secure the party’s nomination) had lost so badly to Obama in the 2012 election, the duo was forced out of Congress by the 2014 midterms which marked an intensified effort by the far-right to purge establishment Republicans from office.
This is the point in the story when David Corn makes his most salient observation, that during the 2016 primary elections the GOP establishment finally succumbed to the very rampaging monster it had nurtured nearly six decades earlier. The Republican presidential field had engorged to 17 candidates, the most in American history (Romney had withdrew his candidacy in January 2015 due to resistance from conservatives). It was comprised of four factions: establishment center-right candidates (i.e. former Florida governor and George W. Bush’s younger brother Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, former New York governor George Pataki, U.S. Senator from Florida Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham, Ohio congressman John Kasich, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina), establishment hardliners (i.e. U.S. Senator from Texas Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson), social conservatives (i.e. Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum), and a populist insurgent (i.e. Donald Trump). The campaign rhetoric, and especially the raucous formal debates, were dominated by the most foul behavior ever witnessed since at least the pre-Civil War period (Corn vividly summarized these disgusting exchanges). Even before the first state primary, five of the candidates dropped out. By early March, nine more fell by the wayside leaving only Cruz and Kasich badly trailing the victorious Trump. Those two gave up shortly after the May 3rd Indiana primary. Trump had secured the Republican nomination to the shock and dismay of the GOP establishment. He had dared to do what all his predecessors had refused to do, openly embrace the bigoted, racist, tribal, sectarian, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, and – quite frankly – fascist passions of the Republican base, and it had rewarded him most enthusiastically.
The ensuing campaign against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would rewrite the Republican play book. It would no longer prescribe legitimate policy arguments to shroud subtle moves to arouse the rabid Republican base. Instead, there would be no respectable debate over public policy, only the unrestrained expression of hostility and an endless barrage of lies (the bigger, the better) targeting the opponent. In such a tremendously polarized political environment, Trump knew there was nothing at all which could weaken his support among the base, not even his egregious sexual misconduct revealed by the Access Hollywood tape. He also knew that Clinton enjoyed no such immunity from scandal whether real or contrived. In June, Trump aides met with a Russian agent to discuss cooperation for the 2016 presidential election. Over the following weeks and months, WikiLeaks publicly released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta by Russian hackers. While Corn doesn’t attribute much contextual significance to the leaks other than being a series of embarrassing news stories against Hillary (which included a highly criticized decision by FBI Director James Comey to reopen an investigation into her improper use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State), I must disagree. The progressive base of the Democratic Party, which I consider myself a part of, had become disenchanted with Clinton by 2016. The first big blow was her support for Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement which would have exempted transnational corporations from the national laws of the signatories (Clinton had backed off her support during her presidential campaign, but the damage had already been done). This made her very unpopular with blue-collar workers, particularly in the upper Midwest “Rust Belt,” and the leaked emails revealed unfair treatment of Bernie Sanders’ progressive campaign during the primaries by both the DNC and the Clinton campaign. The resulting outrage was palpable and cannot be marginalized even in hindsight. Trump defeated Clinton in the Electoral College by a mere 77,744 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin even though Hillary won more votes nationally. Yes, Russia – led by autocratic strongman Vladimir Putin – had interfered in the election; but, the leaked emails had not been fabricated (notes: documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had predicted that Trump would win, and I had repeatedly warned on this blog that Democrats were making the fatal mistake of running an establishment candidate when the electorate’s mood was clearly populist).
Corn does an excellent job of reviewing the disastrous Trump presidency in which America suffered through a four year-long nightmare of deadly racial animus (e.g. the Charlottesville White supremacist rally), inhuman immigration practices (e.g. the “Border Wall” project, separation of families, and rough handling of detainees), further collusion with Russia (e.g. Trump’s shady meetings with Putin and Russian officials, his traitorous pro-Putin/anti-NATO policies, and the criminal convictions/pardons of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone), the corrupt firing of James Comey (who was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election which was later completed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller), Trump’s malicious attacks on John McCain and other Republican moderates, nuclear saber-rattling with North Korea (followed quickly by a love-fest with its despotic leader Kim Jong-un), a damaging trade war with China, illegal hush money payments to a porn star (exposed by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen), a costly government shutdown, adoption of the bonkers QAnon conspiracy (e.g. “Pizzagate”), the attempted coercion of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (which resulted in Trump’s first impeachment), the entirely botched COVID-19 pandemic response (which resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths than is estimated to have occurred with a competent response), a huge “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms which booted the GOP from control of the House of Representatives), an explosion of political and racial violence across the country (e.g. mass shootings targeting schools, Black churches, and Jewish synagogues), the nefarious suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement, a resounding reelection loss in 2020 to Democrat Joe Biden (the former vice president), and finally to Trump’s orchestrated coup attempt to overturn the election result by sending a furious armed mob to take-over the U.S. Capitol (which got Trump impeached a second time).
That January 6, 2021 attack (which resulted in 5 direct and 4 indirect deaths, well over 140 injuries including at least 138 Capitol and Metropolitan police officers, plus $30 billion in property damage and security upgrades) was led by two main pro-Trump militia groups (the anti-government Oath Keepers and the white supremacist Proud Boys) who had intended to prevent a joint session of Congress from counting the Electoral College votes to formalize the 2020 election outcome. Vice President Mike Pence, who had only a ministerial (i.e. ceremonial) duty under federal law in this process, had refused Trump’s order to replace the official votes of several states with an illegitimate slate of votes which would’ve declared Trump the winner. As the rioters broke into the Capitol building, after erecting gallows and chanting “hang Mike Pence!” outside, Pence was evacuated to a garage where he declined to be taken away in a Secret Service vehicle because he didn’t personally know those agents (apparently, he was suspicious) and wanted to remain at the Capitol to complete the vote count (and to stop Trump’s coup). Previously, Trump had unsuccessfully tried to overturn the election 60 times in federal court, had illicitly pressured state officials to “find” more votes for him (e.g. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who rebuffed him), and had been thwarted (by top DOJ officials) in his attempt to appoint a new Attorney General (lackey Jeffrey Clark) who would declare that the 2020 election was fraudulent. If this blatant and violent attack on American democracy doesn’t remind you of the totalitarian tactics used by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, it certainly should.
Corn concluded his book with a brief account of the early Biden presidency, historical perspectives of Americans’ affinity for authoritarianism and pretentious conspiracies (e.g. the “Grand Replacement” theory which asserts that White people are being deliberately replaced with non-White peoples – via immigration, interbreeding, and legalized abortion – by a secret cabal of global elites and Jews), a logical assessment of today’s Republican Party as nothing more than an inherently dangerous cult of personality devoted to one (megalomaniacal) leader, and a warning about the imminent threat it poses to the United States of America as a democratic constitutional republic.
I highly recommend this exquisitely written, resourced, informative, and timely work of nonfiction.
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