Trumpy Before Trump
The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s new book The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack Up of the Republican Party (New York: DoubleDay, 2022) shows that we cannot properly grasp the horror of Donald Trump and Trumpism without understanding the last quarter-century of Republican Party degeneration
Going back to the rise of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994, Milbank reminds us that Republicans undermined elections, suppressed votes, gerrymandered districts, embraced conspiracy theories, and made common cause with eliminationist white supremacism and militia movements long before America vomited the orange-hued monster Trump on to center stage.
A Racist Mob Surrounding Black Congressmen
In one of many sordid stories of pre-Trump Republican evil that one can read in The Destructionists, Milbank tells the tale of what Black Congressmen John Lewis and Andre Carson faced as they walked from their Washington offices to the US House floor one day early in the Obama administration:
“Thousands of demonstrators with the Tea Party movement, a conservative backlash against Obama born in 2009, had descended on Washington to protest the Affordable Health Care Act- Obamacare…A clump of them formed a gauntlet around Lewis and Carson. ‘Nig-ger,’ came a chant. ‘Nig-ger!’ Fifteen times…Another Black Democrat, Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, was walking to the House chamber when one of the Tea Party demonstrators spat on him. Capitol Police led all three men to safety from the mob” (Milbank, The Destructionists, p.136).
Sound familiar? The racist terror came just five years after the George W. Bush administration had left much of Black New Orleans to drown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Second Amendment Remedies”
Threats and acts of political violence, key calling cards of Trumpism and fascism? Milbank reminds us that the far-right Alaska politician Sarah Palin responded to the passage of “Obamacare” by telling her millions of Facebook fans “Don’t retreat, Instead- RELOAD.” Palin’s Facebook page showed a US map with twenty US House districts marked by rifle crosshairs. A Republican candidate for the US Senate in Arizona recommended “Second Amendment remedies…to turn this country around” as death threats flooded into the offices of elected Democrats.
Right-wing political violence was more than merely a threat before Trump. The bombing of the US federal building in Oklahoma City 1995, the shooting of US Representative Gabby Giffords (and the murder of six others including one of Giffords’ staffers) in January 2010, and a racist massacre of parishioners at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 showed that there were deranged white male terrorists ready, willing, and able to go beyond hate talk alone long before Charlottesville and the El Paso and Tree of Life massacres and before Proud Boys and Oath Keepers terrorized Washington DC.
There was an explosion of right-wing white nationalist domestic violence and armed hate group formation during the Obama years, when the presence of a Black man in the White House drove masses of white Amerikaners out of their minds. Right-wing Republican media and personalities and politicos like “[Glenn] Beck, [Michelle] Bachman, [Ted] Cruz, and others had instigated the fury,” Milbank writes, “and Republican leaders did nothing to calm the tensions” (Milbank, p. 186).
Cancelling a Presidential Election
How about election cancellation, something Trump tried in 2020-21 and which the current Republican Party of Trump is gearing up to attempt in 2024-25? Try the Republican Supreme Court’s openly partisan and thoroughly corrupt Bush v. Gore decision, which handed the world’s most powerful office to the demented messianic militarist George Bush junior. This transparently ridiculous ruling ended the vote re-count in Florida and combined with massive Republican-led racist voter disenfranchisement in that state to, well, steal the presidency for the malevolent moron who could go on commit what is still the greatest single crime of the current century – the US invasion of Iraq. As Milbank notes, “The 5-4 Bush v. Gore decision was so flimsy — a strained application of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause — that the[Republican] majority felt the need to add a disclaimer to its ruling so that it wouldn’t be sited as a precedent for future cases: ‘Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances’” (p. 108).
“Lies Became the Currency of the Realm”
Ridiculous assaults on empirical truth picked up by mainstream Republican politicos and media and believed by considerable sections of the populace? Before Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, there was George W. Bush’s big “weapons of mass destruction” lie (to justify the criminal US invasion of Iraq along with the absurd claim that Saddam Hussein participated in 9/11), Bush’s ridiculous “Mission Accomplished” speech (absurdly announcing the end of “major [U.S] combat operations” in Iraq in May 2003), Palin’s preposterous 2010 claim that Obamacare included “death panels” (bureaucratic offices that would deny health care to those deemed “unproductive” and “pull the plug on grandma”), and the bizarre charge that Hillary Clinton murdered her aid Vince Foster.
Back in 2008, the “Birther movement” took hold on the Republican right, absurdly claiming that Obama was a Muslim constitutionally ineligible for the White House by virtue of foreign birth. (Donald Trump did not invent the Big Obama Birth Lie, but he did significantly revive it in 2011.) As late as January 2016, Milbank notes, nearly half (48 percent) of Americans did not believe that Obama drew his first breaths on US soil.
The looney, paranoid-style “death panel” narrative was picked up by FOX News and numerous Republican lawmakers including US Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and House Republican leader John Boehner. (Nearly a third of the US populace believed the “death panel” fairy tale after Palin concocted the wild falsehood; a quarter clung to the nonsense six years later.)
“By the time of the Birther and death panel canards during the Obama years,” Milbank writes, “lies had become the currency of the realm. The disinformation was no longer coming from the fringes and working its way to the tongues of Republican leaders. The crazy and the mainstream were merging as Republican leaders embraced the lunatic fringe. And GOP officials themselves were now inventing whatever lunacy they thought might bring down [Obama] and his signature initiative.”
Warnings of Declining White National Greatness
Racially tinged warnings of decline from national greatness said to threaten the destruction of white Christian “civilization” by backstabbing liberal and left elites allied with lazy and criminal nonwhite hordes – another core component of the Trumpist/fascist formula? Look at Gingrich’s rhetoric as he launched his racist “Contract with America” in 1994. Gingrich richly anticipated Trump’s 2016 “Make America Great Again” campaign and 2017 “American Carnage” inaugural address with recurrent dark jeremiads on how it was “impossible to maintain American [white] civilization” in a nation “polluted” by such supposedly horrible and “socialist” things as basic family cash assistance, gay rights, abortion rights, unions, Black Studies, immigration rights, Social Security, Medicare, and public education. The “Gingrich Revolution” drew heavily on Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio “shock jocks’” vicious rants on how criminal Black people, uppity women and gay people, snotty liberal and left intellectuals, slimy civil rights lawyers, and brown-skinned immigrants were wrecking and weakening a once splendid, robust, and exceptional nation.
Three Missing Parts of the Story
Milbank has usefully detailed the ugly Republican history that preceded and grooved the way for the long and ongoing national nightmare that is Donald Trump and Trumpism. Still there at three key things missing from The Destructionists. The first notable deletion is any proper and explicit appreciation of how the malignant Trumpist denouement of the history Milbank chronicles qualifies as neofascism or, if course, if you prefer, fascism (no prefixes, “semi-” included, required). I have published a book, a book chapter, and numerous essays on precisely how and why the Republican Party” became a bona fide fascist entity under Trump. I cannot replicate the entire argument here. Suffice it here to say that with the Trump “MAGA Republican” years we have seen not “the crack up of the Republican Party” but rather the completion of the party’s internal fascisation as the nation’s rightmost major party and its base crossed over into a full-on activated rejection of previously normative bourgeois electoral democracy and constitutional rule of law, replete with an actual effort to overthrow an election and install a demented cult leader as a de facto dictator. Quantity changed to quality with the rise of the Trump phenomenon and the authoritarian Republican menace is alive and well nearly two years after Biden’s election victory, as Milbank knows even if he can’t bring himself to rightly ring the fascist alarm bell.
The Complicit Dems-
The second thing missing in The Destructionists is any serious treatment of the dismal “Weimar” role of the nation’s other major capitalist political organization – the Democratic Party. Milbank is right of course to note that only one of the nation’s two major political organizations, the Republican Party, has gone down an extreme right-authoritarian path. The Democrats and the Republican parties are hardly equal partners in the much-bemoaned polarization of US politics:
“…the problem isn’t polarization. The problem is that one of our two major political parties has ceased good-faith participation in the democratic process…. Only one party fomented a bloody insurrection in the Capitol and even after that voted in large numbers to (139 House Republicans, a two-thirds majority) to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 election. Only one party is embracing [domestic political <1>] violence. Only one party has been promulgating a web of conspiracy theories in place of facts. Only one party is trying to restrict voting and discredit elections. Only one party is stoking animosity toward minorities and immigrants” (The Destructionists, p. 6).
All true. But while the Democrats may not be fascist – an important distinction to be sure – and remain a bourgeois-democratic party they function as the Republi-fascists’ complicit enabling partner in numerous ways (see this, this, this, and this): demobilizing the majority working-class non-Republican electorate though cringing subordination to corporate, financial, and military-industrial authority; legitimizing key right-wing agendas and narratives (American exceptionalism, the virtues of capitalism, “competition,” global militarism, privatization, “personal responsibility,” “law and order,” and more) by embracing them; relentlessly seeking bipartisan cooperation with a militantly partisan neofascist party (the post-republic/-bourgeois-democracy Republicans); refusing to attack archaic minority rule U.S. institutions and practices that grossly inflate the Republifascists’ power (including the Electoral College, the preposterously malapportioned, unrepresentative, and powerful nature of the U.S. Senate, the Senate filibuster, the absurd nine-member Supreme Court, judicial review, and states’ rights); failing to forthrightly and properly punish the putschist Trump for trying to install himself as a dictator; refusing to seriously name the American fascist menace for what it is; keeping people off the streets by channeling everything into the killing confines of the nation’s right-tilted electoral politics; playing the bourgeois identitarian card with an irrational “wokeness” that is just the other “left” side of the Republi-fascists’ revanchist, anti-science, identitarian, and truth-canceling coin.
It didn’t all start with big bad Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America. Historically speaking, the Democrats’ sharp neoliberal turn more firmly towards Big Business and against social justice and environmental sanity during the Jimmy Carter administration and through the militantly corporatist Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies helped push the Republicans’ ever further rightward and into neo-fascist “Amerikaner” space by poaching a vast swath of the rightmost party’s former centrist corporate and financial ballast. This made the Republicans more dependent on the advance of viciously revanchist and authoritarian positions and values in order to retain their identity as a separate saleable political entity.
The Democrats further encouraged fascist consolidation inside the Republican Party when they put a vapid elitist and neoliberal-globalist Black man (Obama) in the White House to advance neoliberal policies that bailed out the very same super-rich who crashed the economy while leaving most of the populace to tread water during the Great Recession. Obama’s slick neoliberal presidency encouraged untold millions of whites both to grossly exaggerate the extent to which Black Americans had supposedly advanced ahead of them and to identify Black advancement not with social progress and solidarity but rather with, well, globalist elitism. (Never mind that Obama’s neoliberalism meant the abandonment of most Black Americans as the Black-wealth white gap reached new heights during his two terms).
This last mid-term primary season, the Democrats have been so revoltingly complicit with the Amerikaner Party of Trump, DeSantis, and Taylor-Greene as to directly support the most lethal far-right Republican candidates – a repeat and expansion of the catastrophic Hillary Clinton campaign’s “Pied Piper” ploy of promoting the supposedly “more beatable” Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. What could go wrong?
Capitalism’s Deadly Cancellation of Democracy
The third thing missing in Milbank’s book is any reasonable understanding of democracy. The Washington Post columnist seems to think that the United States was some kind of functioning democracy before Trump came along. It was no such thing. An army of empirical data analyzed by credible social and political scientists demonstrates conclusively that the United States is a corporate and financial plutocracy in which majority progressive public opinion is effectively trumped by the disproportionate power of the wealthy Few on one issue after another and another. This was abundantly clear well before Trump rose to power and indeed the great extent to which this has worked to discredit and delegitimate both the Democratic Party and – more broadly and something very different – democracy itself is no small part of how Trump was able to win in 2016.
Capitalism, to which the Democrats are firmly committed, is the cancellation of, among other things including livable ecology (no small matter!), democracy. Its inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and power beneath and beyond the formally democratic political order delegitimizes elected officials’ claim to represent the popular majority. It renders political officials’ democratic pretense and pledges transparently inauthentic and ultimately degrades the perceived moral currency of the very notion of democracy.
And that is supremely dangerous in a society and world where capitalism simultaneously creates an endless macabre procession of interrelated and overlapping crises – economic, social, political, military, epidemiological, and the (the biggest one of all) environmental – that demand significant government intervention. The intervention is always coming. With democracy trashed and mocked, it will arrive in authoritarian and even fascist, potentially even genocidal forms typically led by brutish maximalist male Dear Leaders who demonize racialized Others, call for the elimination of their political enemies, rail about restoring lost national greatness, and say things like “I alone can fix it.”
A Bit of Self-Promotion
It’s not that difficult to write a historical record of how awful the Republican Party has been for the last quarter of a century. That’s a low bar to clear and Milbank does so with room to spare. It’s much more difficult and involves significant intellectual work to understand and place that history within the deeper historical context of US and global capitalism and imperialism – a context that includes the Democratic Party’s rich participation in the overlapping evils of American inequality and American empire. That is what I have tried to do in my last six books: Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (New York: Routledge, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Routledge, 2010); (with A. DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Routledge, 2011); They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2014); Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement (CounterPunch Books, September 2020); This Happened Here: Neoliberals, Amerikaners, and the Trumping of America (New York: Routledge, 2021).
I hate to “self-promote” but I have no choice in an intellectual and media culture where seriously/actually radical/revolutionary analyses are at once urgently required and systematically marginalized. If you don’t have to fight like crazy to get your ideas read and heard you’re probably doing something wrong. And let us recall Eugene Debs’ line about what supposedly individual advancement means for a Marxist: “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
Difficulties in Understanding …or in Publicly Acknowledging Reality?
It wouldn’t surprise me if Milbank privately agreed with the criticism offered here. I’ve never been much on this oft-quoted Upton Sinclair line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It’s more complicated than that maxim says. My experience at least is that salaried intellectuals often understand key things very well. The (threat of losing the) salary (including the health care and pension benefits) – and the social status associated with the position that pays the salary – blocks not so much their understanding as their willingness to publicly state their understanding and the actions/doings that would logically flow from it. The problem in many cases is less unclarity of thought than cowardice and dependence. Insofar as understanding is often quite muddled in the salaried classes (and it is), I would attribute that less to “the salary” than the superstructural process of ideological grooming/indoctrination and socialization in and through ruling class and ruling class-friendly and imperial narratives, paradigms, institutions, and customs that inculcate an ingrained sense of what is okay to say and what isn’t okay to say. The inculcation/indoctrination goes back to family of origin, media messaging, and schooling.
For what’s it’s worth, Wikipedia reports that Milbank “is a graduate of Yale University, where he was a member… of [the legendary ruling class] secret society Skull and Bones…. in 2017 he married Anna Greenberg, daughter of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and stepdaughter of Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.).” We can be quite sure that Milbank’s claim be “partisan not for Democrats” (p.7) is every bit as false as his claim that “the epic government failures of the last quarter century* can all be traced back to Gingrich and the savage politics he pioneered” (p. 6). Sorry, but those failures trace to the bipartisan neoliberal turn of US ruling class politics and policy during and since the 1970s and, before that, to the capture of the United States by the long de facto dictatorship of capital.
*A final criticism: Milbank includes in his list of those “epic government failures” what he calls “two botched wars.” That is his critique of the illegal, imperialist, and mass-murderous US wars on and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq – that these vile operations were “botched,” that is bungled, not that they were epic crimes. Clearly the wrong Bonesmen were in charge.
This essay (minus the second endnote below) was first published on The Paul Street Report.
+1. I inserted the words “domestic political” because it is untrue that the Democrats don’t “embrace violence” as such. The Democratic Party does “embrace violence” – no, not political violence inside the US like the Republicans but mass lethal military violence in (for example) the US proxy war with Russia that has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Democrats have been on board with numerous lethal military actions abroad the last quarter century and well before. And Democratic mayors and governors oversee local heavily armed and violent, mass incarcerationist and racist police states the across the country.
+2. Last August, MSNBC’s leftish Sunday night host Medhi Hasan held forth as if he was one of a tiny circle of thinkers able to correctly identify Trump and Trumpism as fascist. He proudly noted having made this identification in the summer of 2020, when Trump was trying to deploy the US military to crush the George Floyd protests. “I’ve been talking about fascism almost nonstop on this network for almost two years now,” Hasan said on show six weeks ago, “since Donald Trump called for troops on American streets to ‘dominate’ Black Lives Matter protests. Since he called on violent racist Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by’ prior to the 2020 presidential election. Since he refused to accept his big loss in that election and helped incite the violent January 6th insurrection. But now I have a little more company” (thanks to Biden’s late August 2022 reference to the “MAGA Republicans” as “semi-fascist[s].” Never mind that the present writer and numerous other radical and liberal commentators including my fellow CounterPuncher Eric Draitser properly recognized Trump and Trumpism as fascist and did so with empirical and theoretical rigor from the beginning, years before the summer of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and Kyle Rittenhouse. Never mind that the organization Refuse Fascism (on whose editorial board I sit) was formed in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election – or that dozens of young Iowa City residents occupied Interstate 80 while chanting “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” three days after Trump’s win. Hasan’s slight is characteristic of mainstream media’s refusal to take seriously radical thinkers who are typically far ahead of that media’s not so leftmost commentators – people like Hasan and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. This official invisibility imposed on radical thinkers is why nobody in mainstream and even left-of-mainstream media (i.e., The Nation and Democracy Now!), would pay the slightest attention to my 2007-08 book Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, a meticulously researched and richly annotated history and analysis of Barack Obama’s political career and world view that predicted the entire tragic course of the Obama presidency and its terrible aftermath.