I hadn’t planned to post about Trump’s latest indictment–the media has been all over it, including his trip to turn himself in and the mugshot (which perfectly captures this demented and hateful man’s affect). But the day after that unprecedented event, two newsletters that I regularly receive–from Heather Cox Richardson and Robert Hubbell–when read together, told the story of how we got here and where we are.
Richardson, of course, is an acclaimed American historian–someone well equipped to trace the trajectory of the once-Grand Old Party from Lincoln to Trump. And that is what she did.
In the 1960s, Republicans made a devil’s bargain, courting the racists and social traditionalists who began to turn from the Democratic Party when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to make inroads on racial discrimination. Those same reactionaries jumped from the Democrats to create their own party when Democratic president Harry S. Truman strengthened his party’s turn toward civil rights by creating a presidential commission on civil rights in 1946 and then ordering the military to desegregate in 1948. Reactionaries rushed to abandon the Democrats permanently after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, joining the Republicans at least temporarily to vote for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who promised to roll back civil rights laws and court decisions.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the final straw for many of those reactionaries, and they began to move to the Republicans as a group when Richard Nixon promised not to use the federal government to enforce civil rights in the states. This so-called southern strategy pulled the Republican Party rightward.
In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan appeared at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, a few miles from where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 for their work registering Black Mississippians to vote, and said, “I believe in states’ rights.” Reagan tied government defense of civil rights to socialism, insisting that the government was using tax dollars from hardworking Americans to give handouts to lazy people, often using code words to mean “Black.”
Since then, as their economic policies have become more and more unpopular, the Republicans have kept voters behind them by insisting that anyone calling for federal action is advocating socialism and by drawing deep divisions between those who vote Republican, whom they define as true Americans, and anyone who does not vote Republican and thus, in their ideology, is anti-American.
The bottom line is the transformation of a once-responsible political party into a racist cult. I would actually quibble with one part of Richardson’s summary–the GOP’s policies haven’t “become unpopular,” they’ve vanished. It is impossible to identify “policies” espoused by the party’s current iteration–unless racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-semitism can be considered policy positions.
And that brings me to the concluding paragraphs of Robert Hubbell’s newsletter.
Trump’s mugshot will become the defining image of Trump for all time. His facial expression conveys equal parts menace, anger, and defiance. There is no hint of a soul behind the eyes, only animal grievance and feral resentment at being cornered. It is astounding that a mugshot could capture the essence of evil that resides beneath the surface in Donald Trump.
The photo is also a mugshot of MAGA extremism. It captures the hostility and meanness that animates most of the GOP’s “agenda”—including policies that demean and discriminate against Blacks, women, LGBTQ people, educators, scientists, and immigrants. Trump’s mugshot will likewise become the defining image of MAGA extremism for all time. Tens of millions of MAGA adherents will celebrate and glorify the image—confirming the virulent strain of authoritarianism that has infected the MAGA base.
Not just authoritarianism; hatred..raw hatred for the people who have stolen their preferred vision of America–a vision in which straight White (pseudo) Christian men rule the roost. Virtually every Republican candidate, local, state and federal, is pandering to the angry and fearful members of a MAGA cult that has replaced a once respectable party.
Hubbell focuses on the rest of the electorate.
By making this gargoyle of hate the “face” of the 2024 GOP campaign, Republicans are reinforcing the suspicions and fears of tens of millions of Republicans and swing voters who are looking for a reason not to vote for Trump—or to stay home. (As they did on debate night by boycotting his Tucker Carlson interview.)
Against the deeply unsettling MAGA mugshot, Democrats will feature the kindly face of Joe Biden as he reaches to pet a rescue dog or hug a survivor of the Hawaii wildfires. Joe Biden may be older than some would like, but his face exhibits kindness and wisdom. We should not underestimate visceral reactions to human decency—or lack thereof—in our leaders.
I sure hope he’s right.