By Dana Milbank [August 4, 2022]
It began where it ended, on the West Front of the United States Capitol.
On Jan. 6, 2021, an armed mob invited and incited by President Donald Trump smashed barriers, overpowered police and stormed the Capitol. The insurrectionists scaled the scaffolding erected for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and proceeded to sack the seat of government for the first time since the War of 1812.
Called to Washington by Trump, who promised a “wild” time, and sent to the Capitol with instructions to “fight like hell,” the mob halted Congress’s certification of Biden’s victory, sending lawmakers and staff fleeing for their lives. At least seven people died in the riot or its aftermath, and more than 140 police officers were hurt. Some 845 insurrectionists, several with ties to white-supremacist or violent extremist groups, have faced charges, including seditious conspiracy.
Many Americans were shocked that Trump, after first considering a plan to seize voting machines, had orchestrated an attempted coup, knowingly dispatching armed attackers to Capitol Hill and then refusing for 187 minutes to call off the assault. And many Americans have been shocked anew to see elected Republicans, after initially condemning Trump’s attack on democracy, excuse his actions and rationalize the violent insurrection itself as “legitimate political discourse.”
But a sober look at history might have lessened the shock, for the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier — a quarter-century earlier — in that same spot on the West Front of the Capitol.
On Sept. 27, 1994, more than 300 Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates gathered where the insurrectionists would one day mount the scaffolding. On that sunny morning, they assembled for a nonviolent transfer of power. Bob Michel, the unfailingly genial leader of the House Republican minority for the previous 14 years, had ushered Ronald Reagan’s agenda through the House. But he was being forced into retirement by a rising bomb thrower who threatened to oust Michel as GOP leader if he didn’t quit. “My friends,” a wistful Michel told the gathering, “I’ll not be able to be with you when you enter that promised land of having that long-sought-after majority.”
Newt Gingrich had almost nothing in common with the man he shoved aside. Michel was a portrait of civility and decency, a World War II combat veteran who knew that his political opponents were not his enemies and that politics was the art of compromise. Gingrich, by contrast, rose to prominence by forcing the resignation of a Democratic speaker of the House on what began as mostly false allegations, by smearing another Democratic speaker with personal innuendo, and by routinely thwarting Michel’s attempts to negotiate with Democrats. Gingrich had avoided service in Vietnam and regarded Democrats as the enemy, impugning their patriotism and otherwise savaging them nightly on the House floor for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers.
“Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!” the candidates and lawmakers chanted. A pudgy 51-year-old with a helmet of gray hair approached the lectern. “The fact is that America is in trouble,” Gingrich declared. “It is impossible to maintain American civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t even read.” The pejoratives piled up in Gingrich’s shouted, finger-wagging harangue: “Collapsing … Failed so totally … Worried about their jobs … Worried about their safety … Trust broke down … Out of touch … Wasteful … Dumb … Ineffective … Out of balance … Malaise … Drug dealers … Pimps … Prostitution … Crime … Barbarism … Devastation … Human tragedy … Chaos and poverty.” “Recognize that if America fails, our children will live on a dark and bloody planet,” Gingrich told them.
Somewhere in this catalogue of catastrophe, Gingrich signed the Contract With America, a 10-point agenda proposing a balanced-budget amendment, congressional term limits and other reforms. “We have become in danger of losing our own civilization,” Gingrich warned.
Americans had seldom heard a politician talk this way, and certainly not a speaker of the House. But that’s what Gingrich became after the GOP’s landslide victory in the 1994 election. The Contract With America made little headway — only three minor provisions (paperwork reduction!) became law — but the rise of Gingrich and his shock troops set the nation on a course toward the ruinous politics of today.
Much has been made of the ensuing polarization in our politics, and it’s true that moderates are a vanishing breed. But the problem isn’t primarily polarization. The problem is that one of our two major political parties has ceased good-faith participation in the democratic process. Of course, there are instances of violence, disinformation, racism and corruption among Democrats and the political left, but the scale isn’t at all comparable. Only one party fomented a bloody insurrection and even after that voted in large numbers (139 House Republicans, a two-thirds majority) to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 election. Only one party promotes 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 fear of minorities and immigrants.
Admittedly, I’m partisan — not for Democrats but for democrats. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy — and there’s a perfectly logical reason for this: Democracy is working against Republicans. In the eight presidential contests since 1988, the GOP candidate has won a majority of the popular vote only once, in 2004. As the United States approaches majority-minority status (the White population, 76 percent of the country in 1990, is now 58 percent and will drop below 50 percent around 2045), Republicans have become the voice of White people, particularly those without college degrees, who fear the loss of their way of life in a multicultural America. White grievance and White fear drive Republican identity more than any other factor — and in turn drive the tribalism and dysfunction in the U.S. political system.
Other factors sped the party’s turn toward nihilism: Concurrent with the rise of Gingrich was the ascent of conservative talk radio, followed by the triumph of Fox News, followed by the advent of social media. Combined, they created a media environment that allows Republican politicians and their voters to seal themselves in an echo chamber of “alternative facts.” Globally, south-to-north migration has ignited nationalist movements around the world and created a new era of autocrats. The disappearance of the Greatest Generation, tempered by war, brought to power a new generation of culture warriors.
But the biggest cause is race. The parties re-sorted themselves after the epochal changes of the 1960s, which expanded civil rights, voting rights and immigration. Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” began an appeal to White voters alienated by racial progress, and, in the years that followed, a new generation of Republicans took that racist undertone and made it the melody.
It is crucial to understand that Donald Trump didn’t create this noxious environment. He isn’t some hideous, orange Venus emerging from the half-shell. Rather, he is a brilliant opportunist; he saw the direction the Republican Party was taking and the appetites it was stoking. The onetime pro-choice advocate of universal health care reinvented himself to give Republicans what they wanted. Because Trump is merely a reflection of the sickness in the GOP, the problem won’t go away when he does.
Republicans and their allied donors, media outlets, interest groups and fellow travelers have been yanking on the threads of democracy and civil society for the past quarter-century; that’s a long time, and the unraveling is considerable. You can measure it in the triumph of lies and disinformation, in the mainstreaming of racism and white supremacy, in the erosion of institutions and norms of government, and in the dehumanizing of opponents and stoking of violence. In the process, Republicans became Destructionists: They destroyed truth, they destroyed decency, they destroyed patriotism, they destroyed national unity, they destroyed racial progress, they destroyed their own party, and they are well on their way to destroying the world’s oldest democracy.
Consider just a few of the milestones along this path of destruction — all of which, we can now see, made Trump possible, if not inevitable:
Long before Trump promulgated more than 30,000 falsehoods during his presidency, including disinformation about the covid-19 pandemic that contributed to countless deaths:
- House Republicans encouraged the conspiracy theory that Vincent Foster, a lawyer in the Clinton White House, had been murdered — possibly, in the belief’s craziest formulation, by Hillary Clinton. After four separate, independent investigations concluded Foster died by suicide, Gingrich said, “I just don’t accept it,” and one of his committee chairmen, Dan Burton, shot a melon in his backyard to reenact the “murder.”
- The George W. Bush administration, to make the case for war, distorted the available intelligence to suggest that Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, that it was on the cusp of obtaining nuclear weapons and that U.S. troops would be “greeted as liberators.” When a former diplomat publicly disputed Bush’s false claims, aides retaliated by disclosing the identity of his wife, a CIA operative.
- Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, falsely proclaimed in 2009 the existence of “death panels” in Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Republican lawmakers lined up to make the false claim a centerpiece of their attempt to defeat Obamacare. About one-third of Americans came to believe the falsehood.
Long before Trump spoke of immigrants as rapists and murderers coming from “shithole countries” and told Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to other countries:
- Patrick J. Buchanan, who ran insurgent bids for the GOP presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, offered generous words for Hitler, lamented the treatment of “European-Americans” and “non-Jewish whites,” warned of a migrant “invasion,” and ran on a promise to “put America first.”
- Conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh aired the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” Fox News’s Glenn Beck claimed President Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for White people,” and tea party activists had chanted the n-word at Black members of Congress outside the Capitol.
- Fox News in 2011 served as the forum for Trump and others to perpetrate the “birther” libel asserting that Obama, the first Black president, was not American-born. Palin told Obama to stop his “shuck and jive shtick.”
- Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in 2013 of the “dreamers” (those brought illegally to the United States as children): “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Long before Trump told the violent Proud Boys to “stand by” instead of condemning them:
- Conservative radio host G. Gordon Liddy in 1994 told listeners that if federal agents tried to disarm them, “go for a head shot” and “kill the sons of bitches.” Other hosts, and GOP members of Congress, warned of federal agents in “black helicopters” planning “a paramilitary style attack against Americans” and the need for an “armed revolution” to resist a “New World Order,” and Gingrich and other Republicans spoke supportively of antigovernment militias.
- Thousands of tea party activists, on the eve of final passage of Obamacare in the House in 2010, got to within 50 feet of the Capitol. Democrats worried about violence, and police officers struggled to maintain security, but GOP lawmakers inflamed the crowd, waving signs and leading chants of “Kill the bill.”
- Palin, urging supporters “don’t retreat, instead — RELOAD!,” in 2010 promoted a map of 20 Democratic-held congressional districts in target crosshairs. A GOP Senate nominee spoke of using “Second Amendment remedies.” Threats and vandalism against Democratic lawmakers spread, and, in 2011, Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), one of those listed in Palin’s map, was shot in the head by a gunman who killed six others. (There was no evidence connecting Palin’s map to the shooting, but the violent rhetoric continued afterward.)
Long before Trump discredited democratic institutions with his “big lie” about election fraud:
- Republican operatives intimidated the Miami-Dade County Elections Department into stopping the recount of the 2000 election results. A partisan crowd flooded into the elections office, chanting “Stop the fraud!” “Stop the count!” and “Cheaters!” Democratic officials were kicked, pushed and punched.
- John Ashcroft, who became attorney general after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore handed the presidency to George W. Bush, falsely claimed in 2001 that dead people had voted and that “votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed.”
- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2003, trying to create a “permanent majority,” forced through a Texas redistricting that shifted six House seats to Republicans — and when Democratic legislators left the state to block the scheme, DeLay attempted to use the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration to track them down.
- The Supreme Court’s conservative majority stacked the deck for Republicans with its 2010 Citizens United decision, which made it possible for wealthy interests to flood elections with unlimited, unregulated “dark money,” and its 2013 gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which invited GOP-led states to restrict voting in ways that disproportionately affect voters of color. Republican senators cemented the high court’s reputation as an arm of the GOP when from 2016 into 2017 they blocked Obama for 11 months from filling the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
Long before the dysfunction of the Trump era:
- Gingrich in 1995 announced that he forced a shutdown of the federal government in part because he was asked to exit Air Force One via the rear stairway after a trip to Israel with President Bill Clinton. Republicans debuted a new era of manufactured crises over debt-limit deadlines, and repeated government shutdowns, whenever Democrats held the White House.
- The Republican National Committee drafted an “autopsy” in 2013 after Mitt Romney lost to Obama, calling for more outreach to Black, Hispanic, Asian and gay Americans. GOP lawmakers in the House swiftly abandoned the idea, killing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that had sailed through the Senate by a bipartisan 68-32.
- House Speaker John A. Boehner announced his retirement in 2015, later saying he was disgusted with the growing “circle of crazy” inside his party. Republicans “couldn’t govern at all,” Boehner wrote. “Incrementalism? Compromise? That wasn’t their thing,” Boehner wrote of the insurgents. “A lot of them wanted to blow up Washington. … They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.” Boehner concluded that he was “living in Crazytown. … Every second of every day since Barack Obama became president, I was fighting one bats–t idea after another.”
Against that quarter-century of ruin, what we are living through today is just a continuation of the GOP’s direction for the past 30 years: the appeals to white nationalism, the sabotage of the functions of government, the routine embrace of disinformation, stoking the fiction of election fraud and the “big lie,” and the steady degradation of democracy.
Now, it seems, that degradation is accelerating. We see this in the determined efforts by Republican leaders to ignore, or discredit, the truths being revealed by the House Jan. 6 select committee: Trump demanding magnetometers be removed on Jan. 6 so his armed supporters could attend his rally and then march on the Capitol; Trump ignoring pleas from aides and family members to intervene on Jan. 6 to stop the bloodshed; Trump seriously entertaining the seizing of voting machines and attempting to install new leaders at the Justice Department who would support his false fraud claims; and Trump’s allegedly still-active attempts to tamper with witnesses before the committee.
As they avert their gaze from the cascading horrors of the failed coup, Republicans are instead looking to a familiar guide: Gingrich. The former speaker, now a board member of the pro-Trump America First Policy Institute, announced this year that he is serving as a consultant to House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and his team.
No sooner had this been disclosed than Gingrich, on Fox News, threatened the imprisonment of lawmakers serving on the Jan. 6 committee, saying they’re “going to face a real risk of jail” after Republicans take over Congress. Throwing political opponents in jail for investigating an attack on the U.S. Capitol and a coup against the U.S. government?
Replied Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee: “This is what it looks like when the rule of law unravels.” But Gingrich knows that. He’s the one who first started tugging at the threads.
Dana Milbank is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. His book “The Destructionists: The 25-Year Crackup of the Republican Party” (Doubleday) is out in August.