How We Got Here

I have been pretty scornful of the MAGA crowd and its belief in “the good old days”–its nostalgia for a time that existed (if at all) for a very small subset of White, middle-class, male Americans. But if I’m honest, I’ll admit to a similar, albeit far more limited, nostalgia: a time when being Republican simply meant adherence to a philosophy of limited government and free-market economics.

My recollections are admittedly as selective as those of the MAGA crowd. In both cases, a reality that was true for some limited number of people ignored a much larger–and less rosy– picture.  Those fondly recalling the 1950s– “mom’s baking cookies!”–somehow fail to mention the discriminatory practices that gave mom her underpaid household “help,” and the desperation over women’s subordinate status and economic dependence that often had mom drinking in the kitchen.

Similarly, the nice Republicans with whom I worked rarely noted the “fringe” elements on the Party’s far right;  when they did, they typically sneered. It was okay to use “those elements” to do partisan grunt-work , but the more genteel and intellectual “movers and shakers” would set the policy agenda.

Little by little, of course, that fringe–the Evangelical “Christians,” the Birchers, the Neo-Nazis and other assorted racists, cranks and anti-Semites--became the GOP.

As a recent book review in The New Republic put it, the GOP establishment (naively) believed it could appeal to its extremist fringe without succumbing to it. The review was of a book by Nicole Hemmer, titled “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” and Hemmer evidently  focuses on the “moment the Republican Party lost its ability—or desire—to keep its fringe at bay.”

It prefaced the description of the book with some history:

Although some of the most prominent Never Trump pundits—such as William Kristol, editor at large at The Bulwark, and New York Times columnist David Brooks—remain shocked by the obliteration of a more cerebral conservatism, the media-driven partisanship that dominates U.S. politics today is hardly new. Since advertising professionals entered the political consulting business in the 1950s, political messaging has been designed to translate ill-formed, often unconscious, ideological predilections into conservative voting majorities by ever more intense appeals to voters’ emotions and grievances.

Those appeals always circulated on the extremist right. For mainstream politicians who wanted to win these voters, the rule of the game—one that infuriated activists like Phyllis Schlafly—was to disavow the fringe, while signaling to its members. In 1964, even as Barry Goldwater denied that the John Birch Society was promoting his candidacy and deploying canvassers for him, his campaign slogan—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—was designed to reassure those activists that Goldwater embraced their values. The nature of campaigning in the 1950s and ’60s required hiding extremism’s dark side. Television and radio ad buys on channels governed by the Fairness Doctrine made it not just possible, but almost compulsory, to court voters outside the party: A successful campaign could not purposely make itself noxious, as campaigns do today. And although alternative political media provided platforms for extremism, mainstream news outlets did not.

The article traced the trajectory from Goldwater’s campaign through Nixon’s Southern Strategy, through the coded slogans employed by Reagan and George W. Bush, to their  “populist descendants”—Patrick J. Buchanan, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and the Tea Party—still believing that party leaders could contain the ambitions of the “pitchfork politics” voters to whom they pandered.

The review describes Hemmer’s book –which I intend to read–as focusing on the question

how did one of America’s two major parties become dominated, not just by vicious, public attacks that used to be the province of undercover dirty-tricks specialists, but by a proud rejection of democracy itself? How did virulent nativism, homophobia, and racism spread from the far-right, where the Republican Party successfully contained it for decades, to take over a whole political party? When did culture wars, promoted between both right-wing pundits acting like politicians and right-wing politicians acting like pundits, stop simply motivating voters and shift the center of gravity in the GOP to conspiracism and illiberalism?

The review is lengthy, and situates Hemmer’s explanation in a political history that is familiar to those of us of a certain age. But here we are. The Democratic Party is far from perfect, as commenters here predictably remind us, but it remains a traditional political party. The GOP, however, has abandoned policy and embraced emotion, primarily racism and resentment; the refusal even to create a party platform marked its surrender of any pretense to care about governing.

The GOP is now the pitchfork party–and those of us who once saw it as something else need to come to terms with that reality.


  1. These are the folks that did all they could to stop Social Security and Medicare and almost any measure to improve the lives of regular Americans. I find little to admire in the OLD Republican party. They only existed to do the bidding of the wealthy and powerful. But they needed voters so they appeal to the Rubes and Boobs that are easy to stir up. The LOW information voter who will vote against his own best interest just to piss off others.

  2. While the destruction of the Republican Party began back in the 1950s, for me it started the day that the Nixon Administration put forth its policy toward the civil rights movement. That policy was publicly stated as “Let it die of benign neglect”. One might say that the culmination of that policy occurred the day that the Republican Supreme Court took the civil right of women to control their own bodies away from them.

  3. I think an argument that Trumpism is a natural outgrowth of Ronald Reagan or GWB is a reach. They could not be more different. Saying they’re not, undercuts the argument that Trump and his brand of politics is a unique, existential threat to American democracy.

    The true father of Trumpism is former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Trumpism is a natural outgrowth of Gingrichism, with some Pat Buchanan mixed in for good measure.

  4. Whether We believe in intelligent design or evolution, science tells us we are all related in some form or fashion. A gene that has only been carried by women or matriarchally that is referred to as the Eve gene, carries the mitochondrial DNA necessary for all women on the planet today.

    So, why is there so much turmoil on this planet or hatred concerning race or nationality or language or skin color or anything anyone deems different from themselves?

    Biblically, why did Cain kill Abel? Jealousy! So even if there’s a commonality in human origin, the same flaw existed from the beginning.

    The identity issue, which has evolved into every aspect of human existence, politics, religion, government, power, and many more can be added, is one of the main driving forces.

    A human trait that can never be overcome by humanity alone. Because, it’s been tried and it has failed for millennia.

    Currently, Republicans kill Republicans, Democrats killed Democrats, Catholics slaughter Catholics and Protestants slaughter Protestants, white folks kill white folks, black folks kill black folks, every single country kills their own before they go out and kill others!

    Humanity always tries to create its own pinnacle, it’s own hierarchy, it’s own pecking order, they’re always has to be a top and they’re always has to be a bottom. There is and never has been EQUALITY in the human race.

    Love your neighbor? Love your fellow man? Very rarely do we see examples of that. Humanity would rather attempt to kill its way out of its problems or conquer its way out of problems not cooperate its way out of difficulties self-created.

    It’s the rear view mirror gazing, good old days, no matter what spot or stripe a person claims to be. Those days have been just as bad as the present and probably just as bad as the future will be. That is, until time runs out or something else dramatically happens.

    Is it any wonder that The lives of those considered peacemakers are cut way short historically?

    A unified and inclusive society will never happen because the human craving for power is insatiable! Those lawless ones will always blow up anything that will prevent an authoritarian control on society. The narcissistic and self-agrandized cannot coexist in peace. And therefore, those men of lawlessness will spread their smarmy slime non-stop through eons of humanity.

    The sad thing, is they do it in the open, they don’t do it from a hidden bat cave somewhere, they come right out and convince the weak minded how they’ve been mistreated and that those others are at fault. Historically, those others must be enslaved, those others must be conquered, those others don’t know what’s best for them, those others are vermin, those others are wasting resources, those others are three-fifths human, those others need to be eliminated! I think this is a very accurate take on the situation, so, if I’m wrong, I’ve never seen it in history! America is a microcosm of the world, and E pluribus unum will never work in this country because it’s never worked globally. Jesus Christ said the whole law hangs on love God, and love your neighbor! If that actually happened, you would have E pluribus unum! But, the human capacity for that type of revolutionary evolution is non-existent.

    Having a good uncorrupted conscience is a very good beginning, unfortunately, those are few and far between. I’d rather go against the grain of the past endless millenia, because going with the grain has been useless. I regularly consult with my bag of hammers, ‘as most others see it,’ and they’ve never steered me wrong yet, lol!

  5. Theresa is so right in her comments regarding the Nixon Administration putting its knee on the neck of the Civil Rights movement and ensured further proof of “Let it die of benign neglect.” by fully repealing the law preventing health care from being “for profit” which led to the health care massive corporation take-over of more than abortions. I don’t believe we have seen the full culmination of the policy on the religion based anti-abortion SCOTUS decision; our full rights are not yet ended but are still gasping its dying breath. And the GOP is still coming after women of all ages on all issues, minorities, LGBTQs with those pitchforks and flaming torches like the villagers after the Frankenstein monster, a drastic example of “projecting”. The monster they created; do not make the mistake of counting Trump out because DeSantis “appears” to be taking the lead from him regarding the head of the GOP. It ain’t over till it’s over and the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. This morning on MSNBC Michael Steele talked about the powers ahead for Marjory Taylor-Greene as being the woman-behind-the-man, McCarthy, should he become Speaker of the House. We have no time to waste and we cannot rest on our laurels because our future has yet to be decided; the Tuesday Georgia runoff election is one of the deciding points as to which direction this country can or will go from here.

  6. Paul’s comment about newt Gingrich reminded me that I’ve always thought that the country would have been much better off if Newt had gotten tenure at the small college in Georgia where he taught history. Lacking a job, he ran for the House of Representatives, and we all know the consequences of that.

  7. It’s pretty clear to anyone who knows history how we got here. What isn’t clear and what we need to know is how do we fix it? We are abut to be barraged with meaningless “investigations” regarding everything Joe Biden or any of his family have ever said or done. In a pinch they can always open a new Benghazi investigation. I expect we might see a “What About Her E-mails?” investigation as well. The Dems need to work closely with the few rational Republicans left in the House to counter the lies that will be spewed over the coming two years. They need to be vocal and call out every lie. And we all need to stop characterizing lies as misinformation. It is either a lie, or it is wrong.

  8. And here we are…this morning headline in Ohio:

    “House passes bill to block cities from stopping gun sales during riots
    Republicans in Ohio House passed a bill that says local governments can’t close gun stores or confiscate firearms during riots or emergencies.”

  9. John. “Love your neighbor? Love your fellow man? Very rarely do we see examples of that.”
    Actually, I see examples of that every day. So many examples I hardly know where to begin. Doctors Without Borders? Gleaners food banks? Neighbors who dog sit? Small and large, there are literally billions of people carrying out billions of acts of kindness every day. It amazes me that you can be blind to them.
    Of course, there are acts of violence and greed and jealously, etc. But they are not the sum of humanity.

  10. Lester. Their next logical step is to pass a law requiring every person to carry a loaded firearm at all times.

  11. I tend to agree with Sharon, though John Sorg’s indictment of human behavior has much merit throughout history. As many of us have contributed before, it’s the 25% of miscreants that create 90% of the mayhem. TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT. So, in our country of 330 million, that means 82.5 million people are creating the dystopia we so often read and hear about. EIGHTY-TWO MILLION.

    That number is larger than the entire population of both Koreas, about the same size as the United Kingdom. What does anyone think about the prospects of reducing that number to a “manageable” amount? As Sheila pointed out the “old” GOP tried to ignore them. Nixon gave rise to Reagan and Reagan gave us supply-side bullshit, aka Reaganomics. Small government and deregulation by Republican Congresses and Presidents worked ever so hard to fulfill Marx’s prophecy of self-destruction. Why would they do that? Twenty-five percent doesn’t care whether or not your an elected something-or-other, whether your a dumpster diver or a cop.

    More to John’s point – don’t laugh: Those annoying little seals on jars and bottles? Try peeling one of them off of a bottle of syrup without good fingernails. They’re there – at additional cost to the manufacturer, but more profit for oil companies – because back in the 70s some disgruntled factory worker in the food industry decided to add “foreign” substances to the pill bottles and food packages. How’s that for caring for one’s fellow man? I don’t remember if the perpetrators of those crimes were ever caught, but the small government thing went out the window when the FDA finally got the “small-government” blokes to pass the laws that sealed everything off from the 25% who work on the packing lines.

    Even though Sharon’s comments serve the 75%, it won’t stop the 25% from destroying things. Why? Because it takes longer to build and re-build than it does to tear down, and the 25% are very ambitious when it comes to tearing down.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  12. I believe there are those who have dire need to destroy with no knowledge, experience or intent to rebuild. There are fewer headlines extolling the virtues of sustaining what has been built for the greater good.

  13. Norris, perhaps this “need to destroy” originates out of a society where so much is disposable and believed to be instantly replaceable. We are a spoiled people for sure.

  14. It seems lives such as most Americans live depend on entertainment to be our source of cultural heroes and myths. Politics is no longer leadership but entertainment suited to the current fashion. Bring on the clowns and caricatures and commercials so we can while away the hours not taking life too seriously.

    It was different when life on the average was more about survival than pleasure. When enough was barely enough and not plenty.

    Do we need for times to get harder to get better? Maybe.

    If that’s true, better times are coming as these times conspire to bring about future shortages as our royal transformation of limited natural resources into waste empties earth’s shelves of all we take for granted now.,

  15. Sharon,

    Did the Crusades show love for one’s neighbor or fellow man? Did the middle ages? Did every war in history? Look at the magnitude of the Civil war, then look at the magnitude of the first World war, then look at the magnitude of the second World war, then look at the magnitude of the Korean conflict, then look at the magnitude of Vietnam, then look at the magnitude of desert Storm, and the magnitude of desert shield, and on and on and on. There are 30 something shooting wars going on right now! Is that love for your neighbor? Is that loving your fellow man? Dog sitters? Really? Doctors without borders, really? That’s your example? Not very good.

    If you want to go further back, we could talk about the Mesopotamian slaughters, the Babylonian slaughters, the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks, The Egyptians, the Romans, the Carthenians. All the bodies built into the Great Wall of China from the forced labor, and the blood lust from their various dynasties, let’s not forget the Mongolians, or the Ottoman empire! How about the Holocaust, or the killing Fields of Cambodia! Millions upon millions upon millions slaughtered for their beliefs. And let’s not forget Joseph Stalin, and the tens of millions he slaughtered in his own country! The Chinese imprisoning the Uyghurs, and the Russians slaughtering Ukrainians! Shall I go on?

    I don’t know, with all this love going on between neighbors, I don’t know if I could take it! I wonder how many atheists celebrate Christmas? And then I wonder how many of those atheists actually know where those holidays came from in the first place? Love and hypocrisy, compassionate condemnation, empathetic narcissism, do these all go hand in hand?

    The climate is changing, the world is on the cusp of a global famine, and you have people arguing about stupid stuff. If humanity was concerned about itself, wouldn’t they be building desalinization plants so that the water doesn’t run out? Would they make sure cropland was ready for irrigation? What about flooding the deserts with fresh water and letting vegetation grow thereby lowering the temperature of the planet itself. Plus, increasing carbon consumption by adding more plant life.

    Yes there are positive things out there, there are good things happening, but not enough to change the trajectory, not by a long shot!

  16. John, you do seem to have total faith that the end is near. I wonder why you are wasting your time writing about it. Shouldn’t you be out having fun in the few minutes we have left? Or maybe doing good works to secure your place in heaven? Surely there is something you could do rather than spending time feeding despair and fear. But it is your choice. You see what you want to see and no amount of evidence can change your mind. To repeat what I said yesterday, faith is impervious to evidence. Happy Holidays anyway.

  17. Rachel Maddow’s podcast in 8 segments, “Ultra”, names names, places, and events. It starts in the late-30’s and early-40’s, and connecting its dots to our current dots provides a great parallel. It’s a stunner, dark and sinister. While I really miss Rachel in her regular TV slot, her podcast is sooo very necessary!

  18. Well I have some good news for a change. My Filipina wife has been approved for a US tourist visa. We will visit the US one final time in conjunction with a ship’s reunion at Lake Tahoe. Then a visit with friends in Las Vegas and Richland WA. Then a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Seattle to LAX and back to the Philippines.

  19. John – I recommend you visit the Holocaust museum in DC or better yet, Yad Vashem (take a vacation). Skip the exhibits on the brutality and go straight to the exhibit on the “Righteous of All Nations”. If that doesn’t remind you that there is love for one’s fellow man, that there are truly men and women who believe in loving kindness, nothing will. That’s how I felt.

    Sheila – You have one half of the equation on how we got here. You missed another part. We have three branches of government that, in theory, keep things in balance. We did, during the “good old days” have three loci of power: the government, the unions, and the wealthy/corporations. There was some balance, but if you remove some of the parts, well, nature abhors a vacuum.

    The love for “small government” meant that the GOP weakened the federal government’s ability to deal with problems of a national scale. We are no longer an agrarian society with miles between neighbors. The GOP (thank you Reagan) declared war on unions and greatly weakened them. I should also mention their attack on corporate liability and class action law suits.

    With two sources or Democratic power weakened (unions and PI attorneys), the Southern Strategy/Welfare Queens attracting Reagan Democrats, the rest of the Democrats, under Clinton, embraced Wall Street like never before. Weak government, weak unions, and Citizens United gave us the dream of vulture capitalism. No more gentlemanly competition; go for the jugular and ignore all of the rules.

    That is why corporations love “divided government”. No rules to restrain them. “Ah, small government”.

    Sorry – time for remedial reading for me – life is not all “red in tooth and claw” – need to reread Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”, his boring catalog of cooperative behavior meant as a rebuttal to “social Darwinism”.

  20. Len,

    I regularly go to the Holocaust museum in Skokie Illinois just north of Chicago. It is one of the largest or the largest in the United States. And believe me, if we want to talk about humanity and compassion, the United States turned away shiploads full of Jews back to Germany when those refugees were trying to escape their certain death. So yeah, we can talk about compassion, but most of it is faux compassion.

    Were there individuals that risked their lives to save the innocent ones? Absolutely, but even those countries that were supposed to be fighting against the Nazis and axis powers, many of those soldiers had issues with Jewish soldiers and soldiers of African descent. Now that’s a fact!

    Bigotry is what’s in the heart, it is not political! I know plenty of bigots who hide what they are, and it would be more than you would think!

  21. John,
    I am not disputing the facts. Your post just left me feeling down, and if you felt the same way, I thought that sharing that I find it cheering to remember that amidst all of the hate, and being the hated group for two millennia reminds me of how much, it is good for the spirit to remember those that are the opposite.

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