I turn now to The Destructivists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party, by Washington Post writer Dana Milbank. Milbank concentrates on the period since 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidency. That was a big political turning point, since Republicans had won the previous three presidential elections, and five of the last six. But from 1992 to 2020, Republicans won the popular vote in only one presidential election out of eight (2004), although they eked out two more electoral college victories, one with the help of the Supreme Court (Bush vs. Gore in 2000) and the other with the help of Russian hackers (Trump vs. H. Clinton in 2016). Republicans have remained competitive, but they no doubt miss the Reagan years when the national mood in general was more conservative.
Although Milbank acknowledges the polarization of American politics in this period, he does not take the easy route of just bemoaning uncivil or undemocratic behavior on both sides. His critique is much more pointed and provocative:
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…
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 threat to democracy is not imaginary or merely rhetorical. The same scale that the CIA uses to rank countries around the world can be used to show that the United States has slipped from a +10 (most democratic) to a +5 (only moderately democratic). A zero would be midway between democracy and autocracy, and a -10 would be completely autocratic.
Milbank regards Donald Trump as a latecomer to this story. He is merely an opportunist who “saw the direction the Republican Party was heading in and…reinvented himself to give Republicans what they wanted.”
Milbank identifies four different ways that Republicans have been undermining democracy since the 1990s:
…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.
In this post, I’ll discuss two of these threats to democracy—the war on truth and the dehumanization of opponents.
The war on truth
During Bill Clinton’s first year in office, a deputy White House counsel named Vince Foster committed suicide. Although numerous investigations, including one by a bipartisan Senate committee, confirmed the suicide, the story that Foster had been murdered by the Clintons circulated widely. The proliferation of right-wing talk shows, with Rush Limbaugh’s radio show the most popular, fueled the rumor. Wealthy donors like billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife were also supporting the effort to dig up damaging information about the Clintons. Milbank sees the Vince Foster episode as a prototype for what was to come. “Republican leaders and allied media figures had discovered that if they embraced a fringe conspiracy theory, they could convince millions to believe a lie.”
Also funded by Scaife, a politician named Newt Gingrich rose to prominence and became Speaker when Republicans took over the House in 1995. He used the same technique of “proclaiming falsehoods with righteous certainty.” Not only did he promote the Vince Foster conspiracy from the House floor, but he had lied about his opponent in order to get elected to Congress in the first place, and was also known to lie about the provisions of bills that he opposed. He was also noted for his shameless hypocrisy, calling out Bill Clinton and other adversaries for their sexual misconduct, despite his own record of extramarital affairs.
The George W. Bush presidency was noted for the political machinations of Bush’s principal advisor, Karl Rove, a veteran of Republican dirty tricks from the Watergate era. His biographers described him as “American politics’ most talented, prolific and successful dissembler.” Candidates who ran against Bush experienced smear campaigns, including the heavily promoted rumor that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child and the trashing of John Kerry’s military career. The Bush administration’s most ambitious foreign policy venture, the Iraq War, was promoted with disinformation that Iraq had collaborated with al Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Although many in the mainstream media failed to report the truth in a timely fashion, right-wing media led the way in promoting whatever fake news the administration disseminated. By this time, Fox News had come on the scene, and its viewers were “more likely than viewers of other networks to believe the falsehoods.”
The Obama administration’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was almost derailed by Republican lies, notably the rumor started by Sarah Palin that government “death panels” would decide which of the elderly would be denied medical care. (What the bill actually called for was financial help for seniors to get counseling on end-of-life choices like hospice care, but Democrats had to scrap that provision because of the distortion, which PolitiFact designated the “Lie of the Year.”) Here are some other notable Republican contributions to the health insurance debate:
Obamacare, in Republicans’ telling, was “as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850” (New Hampshire state representative Bill O’Brien), “a racist tax” (Representative Ted Yoho of Texas), the “end of prosperity in America” (Glenn Beck), “the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed” (Representative John Fleming of Louisiana), America’s “final death knell” (former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania), and something from which “we will never recover” (Steve King) that “literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens” (Michele Bachmann) and means “you’re going to die sooner” (Tom Coburn).
Then there was the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which Republicans and right-wing media blamed on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the consistent finding that security decisions had been made at lower levels. Hearing after hearing after hearing failed to substantiate the accusations. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy boasted: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Apparently the political ends justified the dishonest means.
Perhaps the most dangerous form of Republican disinformation in these years has been denial of climate science and its forecasts of potentially disastrous climate change. The accumulating facts have forced many Republicans to moderate their views, but not yet to the point of actually supporting legislation to address the issue.
By the time Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Republicans had already created a world of alternative facts to support the positions they were having trouble defending with more factual and rational arguments.
The triumph of disinformation had been a long time in the making. Since the Vince Foster “murder” in the 1990s, Republican leaders had been feeding their voters a steady diet of fabrications: Troopergate. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Black helicopters. Death panels. Benghazi. Hillary Clinton’s brain damage. Birtherism. They, and their allies on talk radio, the web, and Fox News, had conditioned their supporters to disbelieve anything that came from the media, from scientists, from experts, from Democrats, and from the U.S. government.
Detailing all of Donald Trump’s lies would require another book, or more likely many books, and those books seem to be coming by the boatload. Several kinds of deception deserve special mention. The first is President Trump’s failure to take the pandemic seriously, which delayed the government’s response and discouraged his followers from getting vaccinated and wearing masks. Some medical researchers regard as many as 40% of American Covid deaths as preventable, with the most pro-Trump counties having the highest death rates. In Milbank’s eyes, that makes the GOP a “death cult.” The second is the pattern of lying to authorities conducting legitimate investigations, which led to criminal charges against associates Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos. Trump himself enjoyed presidential immunity against indictment despite the damning evidence of his obstruction in the Mueller Report, and he rewarded his cronies with presidential pardons. Of course, the biggest lie of all is that he won the 2020 election in a landslide. The fact that such a large portion of the party—leaders and followers alike—claim to believe that reveals how out of touch with reality the party has become.
Milbank also traces the habit of dehumanizing the opposition back to the politics of the 1990s. In addition to having a troubled relationship with the truth in general, Newt Gingrich led the effort to demonize Democrats. His political action committee provided Republican candidates with a list of sixty-five words and phrases to be used when speaking of Democrats, including such labels as “anti-family, radical, incompetent, and anti-jobs.”
The George W. Bush administration—and Karl Rove in particular—tried to paint opponents of the War on Terror and Iraq War as traitors.
Barack Obama experienced many of the harshest attacks. The “birther” conspiracy theory claimed that he was not a legitimate president because he wasn’t really born in the United States. On Fox News, Glenn Beck often compared him to Adolph Hitler and claimed that the White House functioned like the Gestapo. House Speaker John Boehner, who retired after becoming frustrated with the right wing of his own party, later wrote that the party had been “radicalized by blind Obama hatred… Every second of every day since Barack Obama became president I was fighting one batshit idea after another.”
The incessant and increasingly strident attacks took their toll on the views of Republican voters. Milbank cites a Pew Research Center poll showing that the percentage of Republicans with a “very unfavorable” view of the Democratic Party rose from 21 percent to 58 percent between 1994 and 2016.
As MAGA supporters took over the party, the demonic portrayals only became more bizarre. Hillary Clinton was now said to be the leader of a child pornography ring that abused and murdered children. Trump supporter Alex Jones, who heavily promoted the theory on his InfoWars website, said, “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her.”
My next post will deal with Milbank’s other two accusations: that Republicans have been sabotaging the institutions and norms of government and exploiting racism and white supremacy.