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Subject It Didn’t Start With Trump: The Decades-Long Saga of How the GOP Went Crazy
Date January 25, 2023 1:10 AM
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[The modern Republican Party has always exploited and encouraged
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David Corn
October 1, 2022
Mother Jones
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_ The modern Republican Party has always exploited and encouraged
extremism. _

, Guillem Casasús


In May, during an Aspen Institute conference, House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi told the audience, “I want the Republican Party to take back
the party, take it back to where you were when you cared about a
woman’s right to choose, you cared about the environment…This
country needs a strong Republican Party. And we do. Not a cult. But a
strong Republican Party.” Her comments echoed a sentiment that Joe
Biden had expressed during the 2020 campaign: If Donald Trump were out
of the White House, the GOP would return to normal and be amenable to
forging deals and legislative compromises.

Both Pelosi and Biden have bolstered the notion that the current GOP,
with its cultlike embrace of Trump and his Big Lie, and its acceptance
of the fringiest players, is a break from the past. But was the
GOP’s complete surrender to Trumpism an aberration? Or was the party
long sliding toward this point? About a year ago, I set out to explore
the history of the Republican Party, with this question in mind. What
I found was not an exception, but a pattern. Since the 1950s, the GOP
has repeatedly mined fear, resentment, prejudice, and grievance and
played to extremist forces so the party could win elections. Trump
assembling white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Christian nationalists,
QAnoners, and others who formed a violent terrorist mob on January 6
is only the most flagrant manifestation of the tried-and-true GOP
tactic to court kooks and bigots. It’s an ugly and shameful history
that has led the Party of Lincoln, founded in 1854 to oppose the
extension of slavery, to the Party of Trump, which capitalizes on
racism and assaults democracy.


In my book _American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the
Republican Party Went Crazy_, I lay out this sordid history in great
detail. But even a highlight reel makes it clear that the GOP has
bowed to, depended on, and promoted far-right extremists and
conspiracists for the past 70 years. Trumpism is the continuation, not
a new version, of Republican politics.

The General and the Scoundrel

Dwight D. Eisenhower surrendered to Joe McCarthy on a train.

In October 1952, Ike, the heroic World War II general who nabbed the
GOP presidential nomination running as a moderate, was campaigning in
Wisconsin with the nation’s No. 1 Red-baiter. Two years earlier,
Wisconsin’s junior senator had claimed he possessed a list of 205
Communist Party members “working and shaping policy” in the State
Department. That was a lie. But McCarthy helped trigger a national
panic over supposed commie infiltration and became a powerhouse within
the GOP. His reckless conspiracy-mongering reached a new height in
1951 when he accused the Truman administration of scheming to deliver
the nation “to disaster” with an “immense” conspiracy. And
McCarthy fingered the ultimate villain: George Marshall, the secretary
of defense who had helped create the postwar recovery program for
Europe known as the Marshall Plan. McCarthy alleged that Marshall was
deliberately weakening the United States so it would fall to the
Soviet Union.

This conspiratorial nuttery—designed to prey on Cold War
paranoia—struck a chord with millions of voters, and McCarthy was
lionized at the GOP convention the following year. Eisenhower believed
McCarthy to be a dangerous demagogue and fabricator, and he especially
seethed at the attack on his friend Marshall. Yet in the 1952
campaign, Ike was expected to campaign side by side with—and
legitimize—this scoundrel who was up for reelection.

Eisenhower considered a public strike against McCarthy and had asked a
speechwriter to add a short riff to a major speech in Wisconsin that
would defend Marshall and assail McCarthy’s attack on him.

When top Republicans on the campaign train caught wind of Ike’s
intention, they became alarmed. McCarthy had millions of supporters.
Many were Catholic, which gave the GOP an opportunity to break the
Democrats’ hold on the Catholic vote. Plus, the party might need
Wisconsin to win the election. A senior Eisenhower adviser explained
this political calculus to Ike. “Are you telling me this paragraph
should come out?” Eisenhower asked. Yes, the aide replied. “Take
it out,” Eisenhower commanded.

That night, in his speech, Eisenhower cautioned against the “spirit
of violent vigilantism” in the fight for freedom. But he decried
left-wing “contamination” in “virtually every department…of
our government” and called for “the right to call a Red a Red.”
Rather than assail McCarthyism, he sounded as if he were defending it.
The _Milwaukee Journal_ observed, “The general went far toward
surrendering ethical and moral principles in a frenzied quest for

Eisenhower, who decisively won the election, would later regret his
decision to cut the anti-McCarthy paragraph. As president, he
continued to loathe McCarthy, but refused to directly confront
him—though behind the scenes he encouraged criticism of the senator.
Eventually, McCarthy’s own excesses did him in, and he was censured
by the Senate and lost his power and influence. Eisenhower snickered
that McCarthyism was now “McCarthywasm.”

But Ike was wrong; others in his party, including his vice president,
Richard Nixon, would keep Red-scare hysteria alive. The demagogic
promotion of unhinged paranoia had become baked into the GOP’s DNA.

The Senator and the Birchers

On March 27, 1961, Sen. Barry Goldwater, the libertarian Arizona
Republican and conservative hero, wrote a letter to William F. Buckley
Jr., the 35-year-old editor of the _National Review_. Goldwater wanted
Buckley to go easy on the far-right kooks gaining sway within the GOP,
in particular the John Birch Society. Founded three years earlier by
former candy manufacturer Robert Welch, a loon who believed the
commies had fully infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life,
the society had quickly become a key force on the right and a source
of volunteers, organizers, and donors for conservative Republican
candidates. Some Republicans feared that these extremists, with their
bonkers conspiracy theories, could discredit the party, a concern that
intensified when the _Chicago Daily News_ revealed Welch had claimed
that Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist

In his letter to Buckley, Goldwater wrote, “Let’s keep together on
this John Birch thing and I would suggest as of now that we allow it
to go along for awhile before we take any other steps.” Mr.
Conservative was asking the guru of the rising right to abide
Welch’s conspiratorial nonsense, even permit it to spread. And in
public, Goldwater was supportive of Welch’s group, noting he was
“impressed by the type of people in it.”

In January 1962, Buckley and other conservative luminaries met with
Goldwater at a Florida hotel and further discussed what to do about
the Birchers. Goldwater insisted the group contained both “kooks”
and decent conservatives and was opposed to slamming it. Others in the
room wanted to excommunicate the Birchers from the conservative
movement. They cooked up a compromise: denounce Welch but not the
society. A month later, the _National Review _blasted Welch’s views
as “far removed from common sense.” But the magazine hailed the
society for being the home of “dedicated anti-Communists.” Two
weeks after that, Goldwater declared that Welch should resign.

This joint Goldwater-Buckley effort to delegitimize Welch while
praising the society was disingenuous. The fundamental mission of the
Birchers was to promote crazy McCarthyistic conspiracy theories
(Fluoridation was a Red plot!). They were allowing this lunacy to
spread, even encouraging it.

When Goldwater ran for president in 1964, Birchers enthusiastically
donated and volunteered for him. A big boost came from Phyllis
Schlafly, a secret member of the society, who had written a book
extolling Goldwater. Her slim volume became a key component of the
Goldwater campaign. With all this assistance from Birchers and other
far-right extremists, Goldwater secured the nomination, and, in his
acceptance speech at the GOP convention, famously thundered that
“extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

President Lyndon Johnson used Goldwater’s embrace of extremism to
thrash him in the general election, and pundits claimed the GOP and
the conservative movement were all but finished. But Goldwater had
brought a flood of radicals into the Republican Party—and they
weren’t leaving.

The Southern Strategy

In 1968, Nixon had a problem, actually two: George Wallace and Ronald
Reagan. Having lost the 1960 presidential race, Nixon was again trying
to capture the White House. Nixon worried that Wallace, the
segregationist and former Democratic governor of Alabama running as a
third-party candidate, would be a magnet for conservative voters and
deny him the electoral votes Goldwater had won in the South. Even more
immediately, Nixon feared that Reagan, the onetime B-movie star who
had won the California governorship in 1966 by exploiting white
backlash to the civil rights movement and social unrest, might swipe
the nomination from him.

This led him into the arms of white supremacists. At a May gathering
of Southern Republican officials, Nixon pandered, saying he opposed
forcing the pace of integration, especially busing to redress school
segregation, and favored conservative Supreme Court justices (who
would be skeptical of initiatives to advance the rights of Black
Americans). He asked the group how to deal with the Wallace threat.
You need Strom Thurmond, the arch-segregationist senator from South
Carolina, he was told.

The next day, Nixon met with Thurmond and repeated his song-and-dance
routine. Thurmond signed on. He would help Nixon campaign against
Wallace and keep Southern delegates from stampeding toward Reagan at
the GOP convention.

In subsequent weeks, Nixon contemplated how best to capitalize on
racism. He told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that Nixon could do
well with “ethnics,” naming “Irish, Ital, Pole, Mex,” because
“they’re afraid of Negroes,” and that he intended to ignore the
“Jewish and Negro vote” and “go for” Catholic and Wallace
voters. At the convention, Nixon instructed his campaign manager, John
Mitchell, to tell Southern party leaders that he would choose a
running mate acceptable to the South and would “lay off pro-Negro
crap.” This was the birth of Nixon’s Southern strategy.

With these assurances—and with Thurmond leaning on the Southern
bosses—Nixon blocked Reagan and won the nomination. He chose
Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, an experienced race-baiter, as his running
mate. Nixon proclaimed, “I won the nomination without paying any
price or making any deals.” That was false. He had won the
nomination battle by kneeling before the segregationists and adopting
racism as a key ingredient in the GOP’S recipe for electoral

Reagan’s Allies of Hate

Reagan eventually got his turn. After being nominated at the GOP’s
presidential convention in July 1980, his first campaign stop was in
Philadelphia, Mississippi—where 16 years earlier the Ku Klux Klan
had murdered three civil rights workers. At a county fair, he gave a
speech declaring, “I believe in states’ rights”—the mantra of
Southern segregationists. It was an unambiguous sign that Reagan would
continue the Republican practice of appealing to racists. A couple
weeks later, Reagan deepened his alliance with another extremist

The Christian right had recently emerged as a political force,
particularly after TV preacher Jerry Falwell founded the Moral
Majority in 1979. Falwell had a long history of hatred. In a 1958
sermon, he had railed against integration. More recently, he had waged
a crusade to demonize homosexuals, who he contended literally
threatened the existence of the United States. Gay people, he said in
1977, would “kill you as quick as look at you.”

Throughout the campaign, Reagan courted the new religious right. At
the end of August 1980, he appeared at a Dallas gathering of thousands
of Christian fundamentalists, including 4,500 pastors, which was
underwritten partly by oil tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt, an ardent
Bircher. The speakers’ lineup was a who’s who of the far right:
Falwell, Schlafly, televangelist Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye (a popular
evangelist who had been a John Birch Society member), and others.
Christian broadcaster D. James Kennedy warned the faithful that
“1980 could be America’s last free election.” Speakers urged
pastors to join a voter registration drive, with an obvious goal:
elect Reagan.

Reagan advisers Michael Deaver and Edwin Meese fretted over what the
fiery Pastor James Robison, an organizer of the event, would say when
he spoke just prior to Reagan’s address. They urged Reagan to wait
offstage. But the candidate strode onto the stage and sat behind
Robison. “There is no possible way that you can separate God from
government and have a successful government,” Robison thundered. He
blasted liberals, homosexuals, and communists, lumping them all
together into one giant threat to American families. “We’ll either
have a Hitler-type takeover, or Soviet dominion, or God is going to
take over this country.” The Christian right had adopted the
inflammatory conspiratorial paranoia of McCarthyism, adding liberals
and gays to the list of subversive internal threats to the nation.
Throughout Robison’s speech, Reagan nodded and applauded, and when
it was his turn to speak, he threw the crowd a gigantic rhetorical
wink: “I know that you can’t endorse me, but…I want you to know
that I endorse you.” The crowd roared.

During the campaign, President Jimmy Carter tried to call attention to
Reagan’s ties to extremists. But the political press accused Carter
of being mean and divisive. Reagan’s courtship of Southern racists
and religious fanatics never became a major issue, and he beat Carter
decisively. “Reagan would have lost the election by one percentage
point without the help of the Moral Majority,” pollster Lou Harris
observed. After the election, Falwell entered a victory rally at his
Liberty Baptist College, while “Hail to the Chief” played in the

Satan’s Useful Idiot

On September 11, 1992, President George H.W. Bush appeared before the
Christian Coalition and lauded founder Pat Robertson for “all the
work you’re doing to restore the spiritual foundation of this
nation”—even though the previous year, Robertson had alleged Bush
was part of a Satanic plot. Literally.

Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network, had competed
for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. During that race,
Robertson encouraged his fanatic followers to burrow into state party
apparatuses, which they did, gaining control of local party mechanisms
in some states, and he promoted a variety of conspiratorial notions,
accusing Bush of being allied with a diabolical cabal of international
bankers. After Bush triumphed in the primary contest, the GOP handed
Robertson a primetime speaking slot at its convention.

The GOP’s embrace of Robertson became a bear hug after he formed the
Christian Coalition in early 1990. Though Christian Coalition
candidates challenged Republican regulars in local races, GOP bigwigs
quickly came to appreciate its organizing might and strategically
ignored the inconvenient fact that its leader was a crackpot. Top
Republicans, including Vice President Dan Quayle, flocked to the
organization’s first conference in 1991 to hail Robertson and his

There, Robertson advanced the far-right trope that America was being
annihilated from within, claiming “elites” were trying “to
destroy the very society from which they drew their nurture.” He
added, “There will be Satanic forces…We are not going to be coming
up just against human beings to beat them in elections. We’re going
to be coming up against spiritual warfare.” According to Robertson,
the political foes of the Christian Coalition and the Republicans were
directly in cahoots with the devil.

Two months earlier, Robertson had published a book, called _The New
World Order_, that merged some of the battiest conspiracy theories of
the ages. He claimed that secret societies and schemers—occultists,
communists, and elites—had for centuries conspired to lock the world
in a godless, collectivist dictatorship. The Federal Reserve, J.P.
Morgan, the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, the United
Nations, Henry Kissinger—they were all in on it. So, too, were
“European bankers” and the Rothschild family (long a target of
antisemitic conspiracy theories). George H.W. Bush, he asserted, had
“unwittingly” carried out “the mission…of a tightly knit cabal
whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under
the domination of Lucifer and his followers.”

George Bush, Satanic dupe—that was Robertson’s claim. The _Wall
Street Journal_ called his book a “compendium of the lunatic
fringe’s greatest hits.” Yet in search of votes, Bush and the GOP
validated this antisemitic and paranoid zealot and signaled to his
followers and the world that he and his ideas were worth heeding.

Robertson’s troops could not save Bush when he ran for reelection.
But the Christian Coalition would become further integrated into the
GOP and help Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gain control of the
House in 1994. Six years later, Robertson and his group would rescue
Texas Gov. George W. Bush when Sen. John McCain threatened to defeat
him in the Republican presidential primary. W. welcomed the assistance
of the nut who had pegged his dad as Satan’s useful idiot.

Joining the Tea Party

In the fall of 2009, a House Republican backbencher summoned
conservative activists to the Capitol for a protest and ended up
fusing the GOP to a new manifestation of far-right extremism.

Earlier in the year, the Tea Party movement had emerged in response to
Barack Obama’s election as president. Nominally, its adherents were
against his stimulus measure to buoy the economy after the calamitous
housing and banking crash. But the Tea Party was shot full of
paranoia, racism, and rage. At rallies, attendees waved Confederate
flags and claimed Obama was a secret Muslim born in Kenya who was in
league with shadowy elites and purposefully trying to destroy the
nation so he could impose a totalitarian regime. Tea Partiers, led by
Sarah Palin, the defeated Republican vice presidential candidate,
falsely claimed Obama’s health care reform bill would set up
“death panels” that would determine whether the elderly and the
ill should be allowed to perish. (PolitiFact branded this the “Lie
of the Year.”) Republican officeholders echoed this charge. They
also legitimized Fox News host Glenn Beck, an unofficial Tea Party
leader who suggested Obama was a “full-fledged Marxist” who hated
white people, was setting up concentration camps for his political
foes, and was creating a “fascist” state. Beck was peddling
Bircher-like apocalyptic paranoia, and GOP stalwarts were happy to go
on his show and help him sell it.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, another leader of this unhinged
movement, suggested the Obama administration was using census
information to establish internment camps, and in early November 2009,
she urged Tea Partiers to protest the health care bill at the Capitol.
Thousands showed up. They carried signs depicting Obama as Sambo. One
placard read “Obama Takes His Orders From the Rothschilds.”
Another equated Obamacare with a Holocaust death camp. At the mention
of Democrats’ health care plan, the Tea Partiers shouted, “Nazis!

Yet this crowd was welcomed by the top leadership of the GOP. Present
were House Republican leader John Boehner, Reps. Eric Cantor and Mike
Pence, and other House Republicans. Boehner, who calculated he could
ride Tea Party ire into the House majority and the speakership,
affirmed the crowd’s fear and paranoia, proclaiming the health care
bill “the greatest threat to freedom I have ever seen.”

The GOP failed to block Obamacare, but the Republican Party reinforced
and utilized the anger of the movement to seize control of the House
in 2010. And Boehner did become speaker—only to find that the new
Tea Party–allied Republicans in the House were far-right fanatics
who blocked his efforts at cut-the-difference dealmaking on deficit
reduction and immigration reform. Five years later, Boehner retired,
just steps ahead of a conservative mutiny against him. He had been
devoured by the extremists he had exploited to attain power. Boehner
and other Republicans had emboldened a nativistic and tribalistic
right-wing force that would soon provide a political base for
Trump’s jingoistic, racist, and demagogic campaign.

There’s a well-established record. For more than 70 years, the
Republican Party has stoked animus and conspiracies, often
capitalizing on unfounded apprehension about internal enemies
subverting the nation. In the 1950s, the foe was Reds. In the 1960s
(and beyond), it was Black people demanding social justice and
societal change. In the 1970s, the New Right and the religious right
claimed liberals and Democrats (and gays!) were plotting to destroy
the nation. Tea Partiers asserted Obama headed a sinister cabal bent
on turning the United States into a socialist hellhole. Trump and his
devotees say the same about today’s Democrats.

From McCarthyism to the Southern strategy to the New Right to the Tea
Party—the GOP told Americans they were being victimized and that
their nation was being sabotaged by their fellow citizens. The
Republican Party encouraged Americans to believe the worst, and it
affirmed the worst beliefs held by Americans. It operated a feedback
loop that caused and reinforced animosity. It bred extremism; it
cynically profited off extremism.

There is a great body of academic literature exploring why people
believe conspiracy theories, hold fast to false premises, and are
susceptible to tribalism and drawn to authoritarians. In 1970,
sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote, “Right-wing
extremist movements in America have all risen against the background
of economic and social changes which have resulted in the displacement
of some population groups from former positions of dominance.” Four
decades later, political scientists Christopher S. Parker and Matt A.
Barreto concluded, “People are driven to support the Tea Party from
the anxiety they feel as they perceive the America they know, the
country they love, slipping away, threatened by the rapidly changing
face of what they believe is the ‘real’ America: a heterosexual,
Christian, middle-class, (mostly) male, white country.” In an
analysis of Trump’s 2016 victory, political scientists John Sides,
Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck reached an identical conclusion:
“He capitalized on an existing reservoir of discontent about a
changing American society and culture.”

The GOP hasn’t been all extremism, all the time. Goldwater, late in
his career, railed against the religious right and supported
reproductive rights. As president, Nixon challenged assorted Cold War
assumptions and created the Environmental Protection Agency. George W.
Bush warned against anti-Muslim bigotry following 9/11. But since at
least the 1950s, the party has consistently boosted extremism,
prejudice, paranoia, and rage. Sometimes this has led to the GOP
prevailing in political battles. In other instances, voters have
beaten back this cynical gambit.

This dark side of the Republican Party has often been obfuscated,
allowing Biden, Pelosi, and others to suggest there was once a day
when the GOP was an honorable entity. Yet the history is undeniable:
The party has consistently sought to exploit the worst of America and
foment hate and suspicion. Trump didn’t invent this malevolence. He
merely turned it into the party’s brand. 

_Adapted from David Corn’s _American Psychosis: A Historical
Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy
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which will be published by Twelve in September._


* The Republican Party; McCarthyism; Southern Strategy; Anti-Obama
Tea Party; Racism;
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