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Two books dig into the 1990s for the roots of the Trump-era Republican Party

Meghan Collins Sullivan

We have never seen a U.S. president's home searched for evidence of a crime the way we saw at Mar-a-Lago this week.

We have never seen a president impeached twice, or a mob attacking the Capitol in an effort to prevent the lawful transfer of power after an election.

Such strange and disturbing events make us wonder what has happened to American politics. Some have looked to the leaders in the Republican Party, expecting them to break with the man at the center of the conflict and controversy — former President Donald Trump.

Instead, these leaders close ranks and defend him. They rally around him and raise money in his name as they condemn the legal process that pursues him. They are betting on Trump as their champion in this year's midterm elections, and he remains the odds-on favorite to be their nominee for president in 2024.

We often hear that Trump has an almost mystical grip on his party and its voting base. Some suggest he alone has been the hero-villain forcing the parties further apart, personalizing the issues and making public discourse more vituperative.

But is Trump solely responsible for the state of politics in America? Is he the cause of the condition of today's GOP, or is he more a symptom?

That question was the starting point for the authors of two new books out this month, both of whom try to follow the river of toxicity back upstream to its true source.

"Donald Trump didn't create this noxious environment," longtime Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank writes in a new book. "He is a monster the Republicans created over a quarter century."

In The Destructionists: The Twenty-five Year Crack-up of the Republican Party, Milbank argues that long before Trump appeared in 2015, the Republican Party had made itself vulnerable to someone like him.

Milbank says Trump came along to exploit that vulnerability, seize the nomination and ride the party's faithful voters to a term in the White House. That voting base held for him through the loss of the House in 2018 and the loss of the Senate and his own re-election campaign in 2020. He and they dealt with this last reversal by simply denying it happened.

Thousands even came to Washington and stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in an effort to prevent the lawful transfer of power.

"The bloody coup attempt shocked the nation," Milbank writes. "But a sober view of history might have lessened the shock. For the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier — 26 years earlier — in that same spot on the West Front of the Capitol."

That rather eyebrow-raising assertion refers to the day in September 1994 when the GOP's firebrand future leader in the House, Newt Gingrich, led 300 Republican candidates in a "Contract with America" pledge that was their campaign manifesto.

"The rise of Gingrich and his shock troops fundamentally altered American government for a generation and counting," Milbank writes, "and set the United States on a course toward the ruinous politics of today."

Milbank describes how Gingrich led the GOP to forsake its traditional conservatism in favor of a hard-edged attack on Democrats, liberals and the social changes of the late 20th century. For Gingrich, it was all fair game to question Democrats' patriotism, integrity and even masculinity.

While Gingrich is his starting point, Milbank's stream gives us more than a dozen key episodes from the eras of previous presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The charges he levels at Gingrich, in particular, anticipate those we now hear against Trump. These include his reliance on attacks without evidence, his penchant for repeating such attacks even when disproven, his studied emphasis on hyperbole and incendiary language ("corrupt," "sick," "criminal," "steal") and his lack of shame when caught in contradiction, hypocrisy or blatant falsehoods.

Milbank reaches back for memories most of us may have wished to forget, such as Steve Stockman the militia-friendly Texas congressman elected in 1994 who insisted the Branch Davidian raid in 1993 had been staged by the FBI and the heavily armed members of the cult had been "executed...so as to prove the need for a ban on so-called assault weapons."

Milbank also devotes a chapter to the multiple probes of the death of Vince Foster, a White House attorney who committed suicide early in the administration of President Bill Clinton. No sooner had one investigation confirmed the suicide than another was begun. Later, the same strategy would be used to keep Hillary Clinton's emails and the death of an American ambassador at Benghazi in 2012 in play as political cudgels for years.

Catalog of offenses

Milbank's catalog of Republican offenses also includes the party's dalliance with various white nationalists, the torture of prisoners and surveillance of U.S. citizens during the War on Terror and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Then it's on to lies about "death panels" in Obamacare, Rudy Giuliani's assertion that "truth isn't truth" and Trump's version of what happened at Charlottesville in 2017 ("Very fine people on both sides.")

Milbank argues that Gingrich & Company's treatment of politics as war came to dominate the attitude of GOP candidates at all levels, as well as the outlook of much of the party's activist base. He is especially alarmed at the recent denial of election results and the imposing of new restrictions on voting.

"Admittedly, I'm partisan," Milbank writes, "not for Democrats but for democrats...Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy."

Gingrich who is still part of the media conversation as a contributor to Fox News today, comes in for the lion's share of the opprobrium. But Milbank also has plenty left over for other household names such as Sarah Palin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove, the strategist for President George W. Bush.

In fact Milbank takes so many individual Republicans to task in this volume that one wonders: Do those not mentioned feel left out?

Milbank knows his subject and timeframe, having started covering Capitol Hill for The Wall Street Journal about the time Gingrich became Speaker. He has a well-honed edge as a commentator and a columnist's way with words. He punches relentlessly, the way a boxer works a speed bag. At times, the less avid reader may feel pummeled as well. But Milbank's fans will not go away disappointed.

Another look at the era

To further amplify the subject at hand, readers can also turn to Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s by Nicole Hemmer, a historian and political analyst now teaching at Vanderbilt University.

As befits a historian, Hemmer takes a longer view and paints a larger picture. She incorporates generations of ferment and reformulation among American conservatives, always with an eye toward how their ideas were gestating and mutating in the ideological labs of conservative media.

She compares the isolationist "Old Right" with the post-war "New Right" for whom the lodestar was anti-communism. They rode to glory on the political personality and charm of Ronald Reagan, who found his moment in 1980 and won two Electoral College landslides.

She argues that Reagan was not a new dawn for conservatism but the sunset of the Cold War era and the consensus it offered. After he left office, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of post-Mao China soon made global communism seem passé, depriving the right of its one great unifying issue.

What arose to take its place drew upon several strains of long-simmering reactionary rancor but especially from the racial history of the South.

As of the election of 1994 that made Gingrich the Speaker, Republicans held the majority of the South's governorships, Senate seats and U.S. House seats for the first time since Reconstruction after the Civil War. The GOP has held the majority of all those offices ever since.

Hemmer writes: "The party's transformation, sudden though it seemed, had been underway for a quarter century in the turn toward nativism and a more overt racism, in the criticisms of conservative elites, in the wariness about free trade democracy, in the sharp elbowed far-right punditry."

Hemmer spends a considerable time examining that punditry, having made a study of it through much of her career as a scholar and contributing columnist at U.S. News and World Report magazine.

The role of Rush

She notes that in 2009, when Barack Obama was in his first months as president, a Gallup Poll identified radio star Rush Limbaugh as the person most often cited as spokesman for the Republican Party. This was at a time when Limbaugh had summed up his response to Obama's struggling to deal with deep recession by saying: "I hope he fails."

There were plenty of others weighing in. Hemmer tells of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Without them, the entire ecosystem of Gingrich and Trump would not have been possible.

She tells us that "Trump helped the picture snap into focus" but her book is "not a pre-history of Trumpism." She prefers to call it an "an exploration of how and why Reaganism, which in the 1980s seemed to be the future not only of the conservative movement but of U.S. politics more broadly, collapsed so quickly."

As for the GOP's shift to being the party of Gingrich and Trump, she writes: "It had happened in plain sight but too many people were too attached to the idea of the party of Reagan to notice."

Like Milbank, Hemmer has come to focus on the decade right after Reagan left office and trains her fire on many of the same salient targets. She spends far less ammunition on Gingrich, however, than Patrick Buchanan, a man whose own presidential campaigns failed but whose influence she sees as pivotal.

Buchanan, whose image in profile appears on the book jacket, first made it in the media as a newspaper editorial writer in the 1960s. Buchanan's gift for serrated prose caught the attention of Richard Nixon, who brought him aboard his speech writing team in his successful 1968 campaign for president.

"Pitchfork Pat"

After Nixon's fall, Buchanan found his way back as a tough-talking TV personality and author of revisionist histories of World War II. After a stint as Reagan's communications director, he went back to TV. But in 1991 he organized a primary challenge to Reagan's successor, President George H.W. Bush, who was about to seek a second term.

That challenge bruised the eventual nominee, pushed him to the right and also lured in an independent general election challenger, Texas high-tech billionaire Ross Perot. Bush wound up losing that three-way race to Clinton.

Hemmer finds in Buchanan the spark for the new conservative flame to come, much as Milbank finds it Gingrich. She writes:

"Buchanan vowed to throw it all out: no more free trade, no more democracy promotion, no more celebrations of diversity. He was ready to make the case that he couldn't make with Reagan in office: that the United States was in decline and needed a revolution to stop its slide."

Buchanan ran again in 1996 and won the New Hampshire primary outright before fading in the later events. In 2000, he briefly sought the Republican nomination before becoming the Reform Party nominee and finishing far out of contention. But he left a mark — and his campaign slogan that year, "America First," was both a throwback to the isolationists before World War II and a clear precursor of what we call Trumpism today.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.