Home » Why the GOP Can’t Quit Donald Trump (Hint: Look at Its History)

Why the GOP Can’t Quit Donald Trump (Hint: Look at Its History)

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If only the Republicans could get rid of Donald Trump, it could return to normal. This is a common refrain they you often hear from pundits and members of the political class, or maybe from a relative or friend. Trump, in this view, is a dangerous aberration, and all that is needed to de-Trumpify the GOP is for Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and other establishment Republicans to display some guts, coalesce behind another GOP 2024 contender, and give the indicted ex-president the boot. Such a sentiment is both magical thinking and ahistorical. 

It’s a fantasy because a majority of the Republican base—tens of millions of Americans—remain enthralled with Trump. Have you seen the “Trump or Death” banners? These cultists cannot be herded by GOP graybeards into another camp. For them, Trump is a theology, and you can’t challenge faith with facts. After the Trump-incited January 6 riot, McConnell and McCarthy took baby steps toward nudging the party out of Trump’s clutches, but they soon realized their voters were sticking with Trump and his lies about the 2020 election and everything else. They turned tail. As recent polls show, a majority of Republicans desire a Trump restoration. For the GOP deep state, resistance is futile. To move against Trump would ignite a civil war within the party. That’s not a battle the Washington sticks-in-the-mud would likely win. And they certainly are not martyrs.

The dump-Trump-and-return-to-your-father’s-GOP sentiment is also an affront to history. I can say that with confidence, having written American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, New York Times bestseller that is coming out this week in a new and expanded paperback edition. One key point of the book is that your-father’s-GOP is largely a myth. Trumpism—or a version of it—has been a critical part of the Republican Party for seven decades. As American Psychosis shows, since the 1950s, the GOP has always encouraged and exploited extremism. Through McCarthyism, Barry Goldwater’s alliance with the nutjobs of the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy partnership with racists, the New Right and the Religious Right, Reaganism, both George Bushes’ embrace of antisemitic conspiracy-monger Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Sarah Palin, the tea party, and, finally, Trump, the party has long nurtured a relationship with far-right radicals, bigots, fundamentalists, and, yes, kooks. It did so by recklessly and relentlessly stoking the paranoia, fear, resentments, and grievances of conservative voters.

Often this was considered a side-hustle by the GOP establishment, an action necessary to achieve electoral victories that would then allow its officials to govern in a more respectable manner. Court the wingnuts during the campaign but then return to Washington as responsible statesmen. Think of Mitt Romney in the 2012 race enthusiastically accepting Trump’s endorsement, even though Trump was best known politically at the time as the champion of the racist birther conspiracy theory. (A former Romney aide tells me that seeking Trump’s embrace was considered a necessary evil to bolster Romney’s standing with right-wing GOP voters and that after it was secured the campaign wanted nothing else to do with Trump.) But then Trump came along as a candidate in 2015 and tossed all pretenses aside. He made outreach to the extremists a central component of his campaign. He even went on Alex Jones’ show to talk directly to the wackos. 

TL;DR for American Psychosis: The GOP’s relationship with hatred and conspiracism did not begin with Trump. Consequently, yearning for the good ol’ days—like when the House GOP made Rush Limbaugh, a super-spreader of fear and loathing, a honorary member of its caucus?—is misplaced nostalgia. Put another way, the roots of the GOP’s present troubles—which bore the poisoned fruit of Trump—are deep and have long been in place. There is no clean ground to which to return. 

When the book was first published last year, I knew that the Trumpers wouldn’t pay it any attention. But I wondered how the small band of anti-Trump Republicans would receive it. Could they concede that many of the elements of the Trumpified GOP that they now despise were present decades before Trump seized control of the party? After all, nothing comes from nothing. Trumpism was not the political equivalent of the Big Bang. 

As I made the rounds of talk shows and podcasts, I found that some recovering Republicans were able to acknowledge that there had been a rottenness within the GOP that predated Trump and that he was able to deftly exploit. Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative talk show host and author, called American Psychosis “a searing and deeply reported account of how a major political party binged on crazy pills for decades,” endorsing its core theme.

I was especially interested in how Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, would react. A former Republican House member from Florida who served during the so-called Gingrich Revolution, he had been a consistent critic of Trump and had said goodbye to the GOP in 2017. How would he take to the notion that the road to the Trumpism he deplores was paved by crass and cynical GOP actions over the years that fueled hatred and validated extremism for political gain? 

On air with him, I  laid out this basic thrust of American Psychosis. Scarborough responded, “I’m going to get around to agreeing with you at the end but be patient with me at the beginning. You’re going to think I’m preaching a moral equivalence. I’m not.” I prepared for battle. Usually when someone says they are not about to engage in moral equivalence, that’s precisely what they are about to do. I thought that he was going to resort to the simple—and wrong—argument that “the other side does it, too!” That is, the libs and Dems can be just as nutty and extreme as Trump Republicans and their devotees.

In the book, I countered that argument and showed that there has been an asymmetry in American politics. No prominent national Democrats have ever engaged in anything like McCarthyism, embraced an outfit as extreme and irrational as the John Birch Society or the tea party, or promoted paranoia-driven conspiracy theories that demonize and dehumanize political opponents. In my mind, I began to compose a retort to Scarborough.

He continued:

But I am saying that we have been a nation over the past 50, 60, 70 years that has been paranoid whether it’s conspiracy theories around JFK’s assassination or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon or Democrats saying that George H.W. Bush and the CIA took crack into inner cities to harm Black people or whether it was the truthers after 9/11. We have dealt with this. And sometimes it’s come from the left and sometimes it’s come from the right.

Okay, here we go, I thought. Show me one Democratic president who encouraged any of this. Or one who welcomed into his political coalition a group that included leaders who declared Americans who engaged in private conduct that they deemed immoral should be executed—as Ronald Reagan did when he forged a close relationship with the Moral Majority, which was led by ministers who said that under “God’s word” gay people could be killed for engaging in homosexuality. I kept listening:

What disturbs me so much now are the very people that I knew best, the people that worked with me on my campaigns, starting in 1994…were people that actually…they watched news. They saw the news. You could have a conversation with them. They might say something crazy to you, and I’d say, “Well no, no, you need to read this.” And they’d read it, and they’d be fine. Now I talk to those people, and they say, “I don’t read the news anymore. I just don’t follow it because you just can’t trust the mainstream media.”…They get [their information] from QAnon. They get it from Chinese religious cult websites. They get it from the most bizarre places… We are now in a post-fact world. I can’t even talk to a lot of friends and family members and people I care so much about and I have for my whole life… Tell me about that development because, by the way, I’ve been in the Republican Party until about five years ago. It was never this bad. How did it get this bad?

A tone of pain was in Scarborough’s voice, as he shifted course to note that the conservatives and Republicans in his world had gone bonkers or become captured by fringe conspiracism. I wanted to make sure that no viewer could interpret his initial comments as an argument of equivalence and explained that though conspiracy theories and wacko ideas have existed on both the right and the left, the GOP, not the Democrats, had taken advantage of this for decades.

I agreed with him that “things have gotten worse” on the Republican side but added that one could look to the 1950s and McCarthyism to see that this embrace of irrationality and paranoia has long been part of the Republican brand. Given the history covered in my book, present-day Republicans cannot portray recent developments in the party as an exception. There needs to be accountability for how the GOP has long galvanized extremist forces.

Scarborough cut in and noted that not a single Democratic leader fed the 9/11 conspiracy theory that George W. Bush was behind that horrific attack or allowed it to happen. He then referred to an episode that kicks off an early chapter of American Psychosis: When Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president in 1952, he spent a day campaigning with Sen. Joe McCarthy in Wisconsin, McCarthy’s home state. He considered adding to a speech he would give that evening a brief denunciation of McCarthy and his reckless Red-baiting. Yet top GOP officials, horrified at the idea of castigating a Republican whose outlandish and fact-free conspiracism was resonating with millions of fearful voters, persuaded Ike not to do it. Instead, Eisenhower delivered an address that echoed McCarthy’s demagoguery.

Scarborough noted that Eisenhower passed on the chance to condemn McCarthy and McCarthyism: “Ike is a hero of mine… [He] refused to say a damn thing about it, and there are parallels to that and where we are today.”

Bingo. I pointed out that this Eisenhower moment might be considered the “original sin” of the modern GOP, when a leader went along with craziness that he knew was both wrong and dangerous for the nation because of “political transactionalism.” Scarborough agreed. “And after that point,” I added, “it happened again and again and again in the party you once loved.” Scarborough replied, “Yep.”

The conversation moved on. (You can watch the entire exchange here.) So Scarborough had been correct in his prelude. He had not resorted to a false argument of moral equivalence. He did not challenge my charge that decades of Republicans accommodating and exploiting extremism led to the triumph within the party of Trumpism.

Comprehending this history is crucial for understanding the present moment and the political crisis that grips America. Crisis? Yes, it’s a crisis. A fellow who tried to overturn an election, who incited insurrectionist violence to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, who has called for suspending the Constitution, who has endorsed the batcrap crazy QAnon conspiracy theory, who has vowed to lock up his political foes, and who has declared his authoritarian intentions is at this moment an even-money bet to win the 2024 election. Despite this peril, there persists within the political media world that notion that it might be possible to bounce Trump, flip a switch, and return the GOP to its days of presumed non-craziness. American Psychosis shows that is improbable. There has never been a time when the modern GOP was free of hateful and irrational extremism. 

Two years after the Trump virus caused a violent eruption that threatened American democracy, little has changed within the party—and its base. Millions of Trump-worshipping Republicans still believe that the 2020 election was rigged and that January 6 was a false flag operation. Should Trump disappear from the scene today, this irrationalism—this psychosis—will not vanish. He’s not the cause of the GOP’s sickness; he’s the symptom. If that is not fully recognized, there will be no effective treatment or cure.

This essay was adapted from an article that appeared in David Corn’s Our Land newsletter. You can sign up for a free trial subscription at www.davidcorn.com


September 2023