Coffee with Clancy 3: The Radicalization of the Republican Party

Clancy had promised at our last coffee that he would focus on the political side of the picture rather than the sociological and cultural side, which we had been talking about. I turned to him and said, “Ok, so how does politics enter into the picture of what  you described as the ‘Great Alienation’?”

Clancy put down his coffee and eagerly responded. “Well, as we have been discussing, Trump is more  a symptom, than a cause. We have talked about the reasons—lingering racism, the feeling of losing ground by so many in the white working class and others, how technology enables us to listen to only our side of the story and confirms our own biases. Trump has keen marketing instincts, saw an opportunity, and jumped in. But all this did not start with Trump. You have to go back a a long way.”

“Like how long?”

“Like the Civil War. Yes, the North won that war but within only a decade or so the South had clawed back with Jim Crow laws, and lynching was commonplace. Our country is still fighting the Civil War. It took almost 100 years to get rid of Jim Crow, but issues remain. Slavery was our national curse-and the vestiges of that national curse live on.”

I asked, “But the Republicans have been reformers in the past. They were the ones who were against slavery.  It was the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, for heaven’s sake.”

“Well, I am a political scientist and sociologist, not a historian, but the two parties have changed over time. Since Franklin Roosevelt, the parties have divided along the lines of liberal versus conservative. But here is the difference today: The Republican Party has been radicalized and no longer can be described as conservative. The “new” Republican Party is populist and has been able to capture a large part of what used to be the base of the Democratic Party. For this you can thank two people, Newt Gingrich and Carl Rove.”

“Well,” I commented,” I can remember both of those guys along with Lee Atwater, the guitar playing South Carolinian, who was behind George H W Bush’s plan to seal the deal with Southern voters who before Lyndon Johnson had been Democrats.”

Clancy shook his head in dismay  and continued, “Gingrich is the guy who realized that Republicans as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ was not working, and something had to change. He had been a college professor, was smart, and saw the opportunity to steel the Democrats base in the South through a scorched earth, take no prisoners approach, starting with the disaffected, white Southerner. Remember when Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson commented that this would be the last time the Democrats would win the South. He was right. That act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for the first time made America truly a democracy for all people, not just white people, but it also created winners and losers. White voters in the South were the losers. Gingrich realized this and believed if they could be mobilized and motivated, bringing the disaffected Southerner into the Republican fold could change the political landscape. But he also knew that to accomplish this he had to turn up the heat and in his words, ‘get nasty.’ But it was not just white Southerners. This message resonated with a lot of people all over the U.S., not all of whom were from the white, working class.”

“And why Carl Rove?”

“Carl Rove was the political consultant who was able to convince the movers and shakers of the Republican Party around the time of the presidency of George W. Bush that courting the swing voters was less productive than turning out the base. To do that you had to throw them red meat. And that has been their approach for the last several elections. It took some time for the message to harden, but it has gotten more extreme over the years, peaking with Fox News daily diatribes and the Trump rallies and tweets. I am sad to say, it has worked.”

“Yes,” I responded, “And this antagonistic approach began when Republican talk radio was taking off with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News television was just getting started. All this helped get the message across and radicalize and motivate the Republican base, right?”

“That is right, and I date 1994, the year Newt Gingrich got elected as Speaker of the House as the turning point. He had been in Congress as a representative from Georgia in a district near Atlanta since the late 1970s, but his election to a leadership role in 1994 changed the rhetoric and tone of the Republican Party.  That year the composition of the House changed to a Republican majority for the first time in decades. Some 52 seats changed from Democratic to Republican. Gingrich instilled a combative approach in the Republican Party, where hateful language and hyper-partisanship became commonplace, and where democratic norms were abandoned. Gingrich frequently questioned the patriotism of Democrats, called them corrupt, compared them to fascists, and accused them of wanting to destroy the United States. Gingrich also oversaw several major government shutdowns. All this is spelled out in a recent book by Dana Milbank, an op ed writer for the Washington Post, called The Destructionists. I highly recommend it.”

“What about the Tea Party?” I asked, “They seem to be big factor in all this.”

“You are correct,” he replied. “While the seeds for Tea Party were sown much earlier as the tone of the party changed to hostility, anger, and self righteousness, the Tea Party did not become a major factor until 2010, the midterm election during Obama’s first term. In theory the Tea Party described itself as being for fiscal responsibility, low taxes and against federal social programs. They adopted the Gingrich approach of forcing  government shutdowns and voting against anything that the Democrats wanted to do even if the legislation would not have affected them. The message was to make Obama and the Democrats look bad and incompetent, and as you know, they were behind the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whatever it took.”

“Well,” I chimed in, “I surely remember those days, and frankly I thought racism was behind a lot of the rhetoric, and ‘fiscal responsibility’ was the cover  that they used.  They hated Obama. And the Tea Party was funded largely by the Koch Brothers and other Republican fat cats and right wing, so called think tanks, right?”

“Yes, and while they never were a whole lot of Congressional, formal members of the Tea Party—only around 60—they had a huge impact on the party, especially in terms of the in-your-face tone and refusal to vote for anything Democrats wanted to pass. They also voted as a block, so they had to be taken seriously. Now the Tea Party has sort of faded away since the entire Republican delegation on both sides of the aisle has adopted their aggressive posture. There essentially are no more moderates left. You can call Romney and Collins moderate, but they fall in line on almost every vote. The party has been totally radicalized. Look who you have sniffing out presidential opportunities in 2024—Cruz, Hawley, and DeSantis, all trying to out-Trump Trump.”

“But all this was going on during the George W Bush years; and despite his huge mistake on Iraq, he does not come across to  me as a radical or malcontent. I remember he campainged initially as a ‘compassionate conservative,’ and he did select some good people like Condelessa Rice and Colin Powell.”

Clancy nodded in agreement, commenting, “Well, as you know Nine-Eleven changed everything. I agree that W. was not a bad person or a product of the alienated Right, though his presidency was borderline disaster and he did not discourage the seething Right Wing hostility. But it was really the reaction to having an African American president that fueled the fires of hatred, and this  heated up in 2008 with the Obama Administration. Eight years later Trump saw the opening and jumped on it.”

“Well,” I remarked, “One of the great ironies in history is that brains behind the W. presidency was Dick Cheney, whom we liberals despised. Then in 2022 along comes his conservative daughter, Liz, who becomes Exhibit A in profiles in courage and is a star of the Select Committee investigating January 6. Go figure. Plus her father supports her!”

“Yes, and this should be a lesson that life is full of ironies, that you should never give up on anyone, and that redemption does happen, albeit not as often as we would like.” 

Clancy glanced at his watched and  noted that he had to leave for an appointment. “But before I leave,” he said, “Keep in mind that all the seething hostility, which became the Trump base, was moving from mainly under-the-radar to mainstream in 2016, the year Trump got elected.”

He paused for a moment and the with a serious tone, replied, “Joe, the situation is not all bad. Don’t give up hope. Remember that Hillary was a very controversial candidate and actually got more popular votes than Trump did. A less controversial candidate probably would have won. Biden swamped Trump in 2020 in both the popular vote and the electoral college, which is very biased toward the red states, as we all know. So, it is not all doom and gloom. Biden has managed to get some very important legislation passed. Some swing voters are put off by the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion and the radical laws passed by red state legislatures. The House January 6 Commission investigation is continuing, Trump is being investigated by the FBI and the attorney general of Georgia, and he is being sued by numerous people and companies. It now looks like he held on to a lot of top secret papers at Mar-a-Lago, maybe even nuclear secrets, which he might have been thinking about selling to the highest bidder. Who knows? But at least it is getting the attention of swing voters. So, I believe it is not a given that the Republicans will take over both houses of Congress though still I realize  many pundits think that it is probable.”

“I agree. All is not lost, at least not yet. But you have to admit: It is a scary time. But isn’t the real issue here that democracy as we know it is at risk and that the times we are in are so divided, that the country could go to the dark side, and that we could lose our democratic system? What about January 6 and what that all means? And all the ‘Stop the Steal’ talk?”

“That, my friend, will be the subject of our next conversation.”




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