Richard Striner, a professor of history at Washington College, is the author of many books including Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.
At what point in the historical development of today’s Republican Party did it move to the “dark side?”
Does this question appear to be nothing but a partisan slur? If so, then consider a different sort of question: why do all the neo-Nazis take their “alt-right” principles in the Republican direction instead of peddling them to the Democrats? What is it about the Republican Party that attracts them?
In Lincoln’s time, it was the other way around: it was the nineteenth-century Democrats who touted race theory and prided themselves on their “whiteness.” True, there were bigots in the early Republican Party, but the Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were visionary advocates of racial equality and for years it was the “Lincoln Republicans” who held the allegiance of blacks.
Blacks quite properly regarded the Democratic Party as bad news for them.
The Democrats remained the “white man’s party” for the rest of the nineteenth century — and indeed through the age of Woodrow Wilson. But in the 1930s a tremendous change was ushered in through the leadership of people like Eleanor Roosevelt. By 1948, the Democrats were beginning to embrace civil rights, and by the sixties, racist southerners were leaving. By the twenty-first century the Democrats, and not the Republicans, would be the party to put the first African American president in office.
And so our parties changed and evolved.
In our own generation, the Republican Party has changed and transformed itself beyond recognition: it has moved in a direction that is overwhelmingly and catastrophically sinister. But perhaps it can still be redeemed.
Millions of Republicans today remain decent, rational, and ethical. The Republican governor of my own state, Maryland, provides a good example of their leadership. He is friendly to those who disagree with him. He prides himself on working cooperatively “across the aisle.” He was just re-elected with strong bipartisan support. His name is Larry Hogan and his counterparts exist all over the country.
But do people like my governor typify the way that the Republican Party is projecting itself to America — and the world?
The Republican Party put Donald Trump in the Oval Office and there is no use mincing any words about what that has meant for millions of us.
Nothing like this has ever happened in America before. We have had some bad presidents, mediocre presidents, crooked presidents, but never before has the White House occupant given us a daily torrent of hallucinatory abuse, spewing insults in every direction. It is almost as if a cave man — a Stone Age man — had been placed in the presidency, a position that requires the utmost tact, the most delicate finesse, the most exquisite poise to calibrate the interests of all the millions of people who depend upon the United States of America for protection.
Protection? It is almost laughable to think about America playing that role any longer in the age of Donald Trump.
He is interested in protecting certain kinds of people — himself, the members of his selfish family, the rich, the powerful, the tyrants like Vladimir Putin who subvert the democratic process. But the weak — the victims of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the refugees who come here seeking asylum, a haven, a chance to contribute to America — he subjects to a level of abuse that is completely insane. He ridicules, vilifies, persecutes, and demonizes them with a sadistic kind of relish that is almost in itself demonic. And the members of his “base” just love it.
Republican leaders in general are terrified of this “base,” so they conform and evade their civic duty.
There have been some notable exceptions, of course: conservatives like George F. Will who have left the Republican Party, patriots like the late John McCain who refused to participate in Trumpism, Jeff Flake and some other Republican mavericks who have been honest enough to see Trump for what he is, and some moderates like Susan Collins who dissent in meek and quiet ways.
But the “base” and the politicians who stoke its appetites continue to define the Republican agenda.
What is it that motivates this “base?” Mindless power lust mostly, along with the hellish satisfaction of cruelty. Domination gets the members of Trump’s base excited, especially when they get to watch the lives of helpless people ruined. The militant so-called “evangelicals” within the movement take particular pleasure in turning the principles of the Sermon on the Mount upside down and then feeling self-righteous. Like Milton’s Satan, their motto appears to be “Evil, be thou my good.” Roy Moore was their poster boy last year. “Christians” they call themselves.
These are the kinds of people who would like to make the social and political rules for the rest of us. Donald Trump is what they want to be themselves. They believe that they and their hero are entitled to order the rest of us around.
They are turning the party whose leaders once portrayed it as the party of wholesome traditional values — of motherhood and apple pie, as it were — into the party of the thug in the alley and the vengeful kick below the belt.
How on earth did such a thing happen?
It took a long time. It started in the nineties when Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey tried to nullify the presidency of Bill Clinton with their scorched-earth tactics. The same thing was done to the presidency of Obama by the so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the House. Sarah Palin made far-right lunacy a breakthrough force in American politics when John McCain made the dreadful mistake of putting her on his ticket in 2008. It started a contagion: suddenly conspiracy theorists and crackpots of all descriptions were spreading their sickness.
In the Senate, Ted Cruz made the politics of far-right extremism so corrosive that he became a pariah. But that didn’t really matter to him since he represented the force that was taking over the Republican Party. The Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said that Cruz was “Lucifer incarnate.” That was after Boehner had decided to resign and give up on politics.
Scores of Republican moderates began to give up on politics — in despair. As they did so, the Koch Brothers poured their endless millions into targeted campaigns to get rid of the moderates who were left.
Fox and Breitbart “News” provided powerful platforms for strange new fanatics like Sean Hannity and Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, the first African American presidency triggered a reflex in thousands of racists, who emerged from deep in the woodwork. The “alt right” began a revival of neo-Nazi ideas. They took over from the isolated “skinheads” who had pioneered the work in the nineties.
The trend reached critical mass in election year 2016 when a rich degenerate with no inhibitions showed the world what a strategy composed of shameless ranting can do to the electoral process — ranting that continues without intermission and that ramifies day after day through the new technological catastrophe known as “social media.” An eruption of primitivism from nameless underground sources began to contaminate our public life. “Trolls,” as people called them, were empowered and began to call the shots.
And so America was given a president who in other circumstances would have had all the credentials for becoming a fascist dictator. He was fenced in quickly by our long-entrenched system of checks and balances, augmented and supported by the patriotic sacrifice of people like James Mattis and John Kelly, who occupied some key power positions to keep them out of the hands of others.
Trump was fenced in, so his explosive frustration and rage — his rage at being unable to act out every brutal whim — was poured into a never-ending torrent of moronic “tweets” that rubbed salt in the wound of every civilized person in America. And now he has an assistant, an echo, a shadow: after his first press secretary left, that job was taken over by the zombie who is currently the mouthpiece of Trump: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who indignantly defends the indefensible.
And the rest of us? For two miserable years we have simply prayed for relief — prayed that the incubus lurking in the White House will shut his stupid mouth for a while so the nation can heal.
We have seethed and suffered for two wretched years, but at last the Republicans have lost control of the House. So impeachment is now a real option. The Senate, of course, will refuse to convict — unless the Mueller probe reveals such a shocking abundance of criminality (or treason, if Trump’s secret deals with Vladimir Putin crossed a fundamental line) that even the most amoral of the Republican power brokers, the ruthless Mitch McConnell for example, will see the advantage of dumping this berserker.
If Trump can be impeached, removed, and sent to prison — yeah, lock him up — what future awaits the Republicans?
The decent members of the party — and there are millions of them, ordinary people who refuse to believe that such degeneration can happen in a party that they and their families have supported over so many years — may awaken, rub their eyes, and see that only people like themselves can give us back the party of Abraham Lincoln, of Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Do they feel powerless? If so, they must begin to consider all the ways in which decent people can empower themselves.
Stranger things have happened in America. But the cleansing of the once-magnificent Republican Party may take a long time.