Dick Polman: Lest we forget, Republicans were un-American long before Trump

By: - December 23, 2020 7:11 am

In this January 2019 file photo from the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (3rd R) speaks to members of the media as (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) listen. McConnell has urged Trump to reconsider vetoing a bill that would rename military bases named for Confederates. |Alex Wong, Getty Images

MAGA’s last failed gasp – the moronic lawsuit that tried to argue Texas has the right to nullify the will of the people in key states that swung to President-elect Biden – was actually the culmination of the authoritarian impulse that has long been metastasizing inside the Republican party.

Trump didn’t inject this disease. He’s merely unleashed its most deadly elements.

Thirty years ago, Republicans began to nurture the belief that they had a divine right to rule and that the Democrats (buoyed by lots of voters who weren’t white) were, by definition, less than legitimate.

As historian David Greenberg pointed out, a conviction took hold of Republicans during the Reagan-Bush years that they were somehow the “majority party” and had a lock on the White House.

“When Bill Clinton debated whether to run for president in 1992, Hillary Clinton warned him that the Republicans considered themselves ‘anointed,’ almost entitled by natural law to win the presidency every time,” Greenberg wrote in the Atlantic last month. “Clinton’s victory did not dispel the resentment: Throughout Clinton’s presidency, Republicans branded him as ‘illegitimate’.”

Their big beef at the time was that Clinton had won only 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992. The fact that it was a three-person race, and that Clinton won a solid majority in the Electoral College, didn’t budge the GOP. And four years later, when incumbent Clinton was on the ballot and gliding to victory, Republican candidate Bob Dole publicly railed that dark forces in “the media” were trying to “steal the election.”

Flash forward to 2008. As Barack Obama gained momentum, the Republican right began to whisper that he was a foreign-born Muslim and therefore an illegitimate candidate. This was long before Trump, the failed casino magnate, began to exploit the lie on Twitter.

The whispers got traction with the willfully ignorant. In one focus group, seven out of 12 participants falsely said that Obama was Muslim. This was Melinda, clearly the GOP’s dream voter: “I just really feel like he’s not a people pleaser as in the Americans, but the other people who don’t necessarily need to be pleased, the other, the enemies if you will, I don’t know. I’m just not real positive on that.”

This attitude got worse during Obama’s first term, with the rise of the tea party. At one rally, an Idaho Republican congressman was wildly cheered when he said, “I’m fortunate enough to be an American citizen by birth, and I have the birth certificate to prove it!” When Republican House Speaker John Boehner was pressed to condemn such talk, he merely replied, “The American people have the right to think what they think.”

Then consider this assessment of the GOP, written by two nonpartisan Washington observers:

Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country…at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. (Republicans have become) ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition…all but declaring war on the government.”

Sure sounds like Trumpism. That was written this week, yes?

Nope. Veteran political scholars Norm Ornstein (headquartered at the conservative American Enterprise Institute) and Thomas Mann (at the liberal Brookings Institution) penned that conclusion eight years ago.

They correctly traced much of the Republican rot to Newt Gingrich, the 1990s rhetorical bomb-thrower, whose “attacks on partisan adversaries in the White House and Congress created a norm in which colleagues with different views became mortal enemies.”

Most notably, Ornstein and Mann said that most Americans were not aware of the GOP’s dangerous evolution because the mainstream press was not reporting it. Alas, they said, there was “a reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence” – at a time when Republican hostility to facts and science had no Democratic equivalents.

And when you factor in the racial component, it’s clear that today’s authoritarian behavior has deep roots. Trump is no outlier. He rose from the same swamp where Republicans have long chosen to swim. He has merely given them permission to indulge their un-American id.

So what we’re seeing, on the cusp of the Biden-Harris era, is their last-ditch attempt to overthrow democracy and peremptorily install a home-grown thug in the spirit of Putin and Erdogan.

At this point, only one major party is still committed to small-d democracy. If anti-MAGA Republicans don’t fight back during the next four years, it bodes ill for us as a nation.

Opinion contributor Dick Polman is a veteran national political columnist. His work appears in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, our sister publication.  

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Dick Polman
Dick Polman

Dick Polman is an opinion contributor at the Advance's sister paper, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. He is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania.

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