Inside Story

The war for the soul of America

The dire state of the Republican Party has decades-old roots

Rodney Tiffen Books 27 January 2023 2441 words

Where it all began: Pat Buchanan acknowledges the cheers from the crowd during the Republican National Convention in August 1992. Ron Edmond/AP

When American president Richard Nixon declared “We are all Keynesians now” in 1971 he was summing up a growing consensus among the main political parties in English-speaking democracies. After a generation of sustained economic growth and the spread of home ownership and consumer goods, a Republican leader was endorsing the idea of the mixed-economy welfare state.

The big parties would continue to differ about government’s role in areas like education and health, and would keep disagreeing about desirable levels of taxation, but neither of them was threatening either a large-scale winding back of the welfare state or the widespread nationalisation of industry.

This convergence was fuelled by the increasing priority given to electoral pragmatism over ideology, and not just in the United States. In Australia, observers increasingly argued that winning elections was all about appealing to the middle ground rather than promoting longstanding ideologies.

In the event, though, politics in the English-speaking democracies moved in the opposite direction. Rather than more convergence, polarisation grew. Rather than more moderation, confrontation intensified. Rather than consensus, the lines of conflict became more numerous, deeper and increasingly rigid.

These trends were most pronounced in the United States, where political competition has become increasingly aggressive and coarse. And they were driven, above all, by the Republican Party.

In her new book, Partisans, Nicole Hemmer argues with much fresh and convincing detail that the forces that created present-day Republicanism began shaping the party in the 1990s. They set the course that culminated in Republican attempts to deny the result of the 2020 election and the wide reluctance within the party to criticise the mob that attacked Congress on 6 January 2021.

A large ensemble of strange and often unprincipled characters pass through Hemmer’s pages. But three individuals stand out, each embodying key ways in which the Republican Party has changed.

Interestingly, Ronald Reagan isn’t one of them. Although the Republicans who followed Reagan pay ritual homage to him, their appeal and style is the antithesis of his. He was certainly the apostle of small government they celebrate (“Government is not the solution; it is the problem,” he once said), but where he exuded confidence and optimism today’s party leaders cultivate resentment and fear. When Reagan was campaigning for his second term in 1984 his best-known TV ad proclaimed, “It’s morning again in America.” It’s impossible to imagine a similar appeal to shared hope from Trump and his imitators.

This is where the first of the book’s key characters, Pat Buchanan, comes in. Buchanan, the first to break from the Reagan gospel, was very much Donald Trump 1.0. He had worked for presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan, writing speeches advocating free trade and other mainstream Republican policies. But Hemmer describes how, when he sought the Republican nomination against Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, in 1992, he electrified delegates by declaring that year’s presidential election to be “a war for the soul of America.”

Claiming to speak for the “forgotten man,” Buchanan said the United States needed a revolution to reverse its decline. He expressed white grievances about racial quotas and forced integration of schools and neighbourhoods, and called for a Trump-like security fence along America’s southern border.

He ran again for the Republican nomination in 1996, and for a time seemed to have a serious chance of winning. But even as his prospects faded it was clear that what Hemmer calls his “harsh, outrageous and uncompromising” style had evoked a strong reaction in the Republican base. He remained a prominent commentator well into this century, his comments sliding further towards outright racism.

Buchanan was the first figure to appeal to a new Republican base, with its sense of decline and displacement, its multiple resentments, its feeling of living on the wrong side of the country’s deepening regional inequalities.

During this period of disruption the most important Republican in Congress was Newt Gingrich. He was determined to develop a more militant and polarising strategy against the Democrats, and believed that waging political battles, even unsuccessfully, gained publicity, shaped agendas and created loyalties.

Gingrich’s high point came at the 1994 midterm elections, when his market research–driven platform, “Contract with America,” helped produce not only the first Republican majority in the House for forty years but also what Hemmer calls the most conservative Congress in American history.

As she observes, Gingrich pursued a mix of careful legislative compromise, over-the-top rhetoric and extreme procedural obstructionism. His willingness to compromise with Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration was largely, and consciously, hidden by his inflammatory rhetoric and legislative intransigence.

Eventually Gingrich was devoured by his own revolution. He was the first to confront the conflict between animating the Republican base and winning elections. He soon discovered he couldn’t turn the passions of the base and his hardline followers on and off at will. Congress’s shutdowns of the government in 1995 and 1996, popular with hardliners but not with the public, helped Clinton’s sweeping re-election in 1996.

Two years later, in the lead-up to the 1998 midterm elections, national politics was dominated by Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice following his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But the Republican stress on polarisation and scandal didn’t bring electoral success. Unusually, the president’s party secured a strong swing, and Gingrich resigned.

Outside the political system another figure, broadcaster Rush Limbaugh — a third key character — had gathered a large following. The abolition of the fairness obligation in US broadcasting law in 1988 had brought an upsurge in right-wing radio shock jocks offering a new kind of political entertainment combining punditry and humour. By the early 1990s Limbaugh, by far the most successful of them, had hit “the sweet spot between outrage and disgust,” Hemmer writes. He neatly avoided outright bigotry, targeting “militant” homosexuals, for example, and “loving” Black people but not the Black leaders or the Democrats taking advantage of them.

As with Gingrich, Limbaugh’s high point was the 1994 congressional election, which he called “Operation Restore Democracy.” After the victory, the Republican caucus christened him “the majority maker” or, for some, the leader of the opposition.

Limbaugh was important not just as an individual but also as a type. Through the 1990s, radio programs like Politically Incorrect brought a new type of political entertainment, producing an array of right-wing pundits with little experience in journalism, politics or the academy but an ability to score political points in ways that entertained and infuriated.

Eventually the right wing established a more important media beachhead than shock jock radio. In 1996 a friend of Limbaugh’s, Roger Ailes, teamed up with Rupert Murdoch to establish Fox News. Within five years it was the top-rating cable news channel and an important player in Republican politics, with prominent commentators feeding the base “red meat.”

No one had foreseen the media fragmentation that began in the 1990s, or the accompanying decline in professional standards. Reinforcing prejudices became more important than weighing evidence; and falsehoods, deliberate or otherwise, went unpunished.

Nor had anyone predicted how the political agenda would change. The affluence of the 1960s had expanded the range of political issues to take in feminism, civil rights, consumer protection and anti-war sentiments. Although a backlash from the right was probably inevitable, what was most notable over the subsequent decades was that different issues excited different constituencies.

Perhaps the most surprising change among Republicans was in attitudes to immigration. Back in 1992, despite Buchanan’s efforts, opposition to immigration had little traction as a political issue; just four years later, as Hemmer shows, even “moderate” Republican Bob Dole was claiming that up to 10 per cent of immigrants might be criminals.

While the coarseness and crudity of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric brought a new low, hostility has not faded with Trump’s defeat. Indeed a new extremist conspiracy theory, the Great Replacement, has been imported from the French far right. Its adherents argue that elites are using mass immigration to force whites into minority status.

Underlying the changing agenda of the right-wing Republican base has been a new absolutism. Abortion, for example, had long been a matter of contention in America, but with the rise of the religious right it became a litmus test of conservative credentials. As late as 1993–94, legislation to control the availability of guns had been supported by presidents Reagan, Ford and Carter, and the overwhelming majority of the public; the National Rifle Association, captured by militant elements in 1977, responded by giving large donations to pro-gun candidates.

Crucial to the growing power of far-right groups was their access to large amounts of money combined with threats to challenge moderate Republicans’ candidacies with more conservative and better-financed rivals.

The absolutist tendency also encouraged the Republican base to see their opponents as fundamentally illegitimate. In 1992 and 1996, as Hemmer recounts, Clinton was attacked not for his policies but for his alleged character. He was “Slick Willie,” a fraudulent, corrupt politician. By the time of the 1996 election a video mixing plausible and clearly false accusations, The Clinton Chronicles, had been widely distributed. Buchanan’s biggest applause came when he declared that, if elected, his first move would be to place Bill Clinton under arrest. Twenty years later, when Trump ran against Hillary, his crowds chanted “Lock her up.”

After a long-time member of Bill Clinton’s staff, Vince Foster, committed suicide, unsubstantiated rumours proliferated. By effectively accusing the Clintons of being accomplices in his murder and suffering no consequences, Limbaugh and others showed just how far boundaries had shifted.

America’s first Black president was also considered illegitimate not because of what he had done but because of who he was. After Barack Obama’s election, Limbaugh simply declared, “I hope he fails.” Fox News’s star recruit Glenn Beck declared that Obama had a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” “We are really, truly stepping beyond socialism and we’ve started to look at fascism,” Beck said when the Obama presidency was fully two weeks old. Obama had a Kenyan anticolonial view of the world, contributed Newt Gingrich.

The longest-running story about Obama’s unfitness to be president was the so-called birther controversy. Fox News was its greatest promoter, and its coverage often featured Donald Trump. The lack of any factual basis for this controversy was no bar to its longevity.

Obama’s first term saw the creation of the Tea Party, which took its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a significant event in the lead-up to the American war of independence. The Tea Party called on “American patriots” to “take back” their country. The talk of patriotism obscures the fact that its targets were other Americans — Americans whose political legitimacy they refused to recognise.

This kind of anger also dates back to the 1990s. In 1993, when America was still riding high globally, Irving Kristol, dubbed the godfather of neoconservatism, declared:

There is no “after the Cold War” for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos… We have, I do believe, reached a turning point in American democracy. Now that the other Cold War is over, the real cold war has begun.

It is hard to know what social or political developments were driving such a dramatic rhetorical escalation.

The view that political opponents are illegitimate and compromise is weak has had a profound impact on how policies are debated and decided. Obama was elected president just after the American economy collapsed in late 2008. By the time he was inaugurated the stock exchange had lost half its value. But when the new administration launched an urgent and necessary stimulus package, not a single Republican member of the House of Representatives voted for it.

The economic record of recent Republican presidencies is a triumph of ideology and short-sighted expedience. Reagan cut taxes but was unwilling to cut popular programs, so he failed to deliver the balanced budget he’d promised. In fact, as Hemmer recounts, the budget deficit rose so sharply that his economic adviser, David Stockman, resigned. Reagan quietly introduced some tax increases late in his term.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, sought a campaign advantage over his Democrat opponent, Michaek Dukakis, in 1988 by declaring, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Faced by the large-scale debt once he was in government, he raised taxes, only to be denounced by his own side, led by Gingrich, for betraying Reagan’s vision.

Bush’s son, George W. Bush, cut taxes and then embarked on two military exercises, in Afghanistan and Iraq, destined to become America’s longest wars. Rising budget deficits inevitably followed. Donald Trump also cut taxes drastically without parallel spending cuts, deepening government debt even before Covid struck.

When Democrats are in office, by contrast, Republicans are animated by the urgency of the debt problem, which must always be tackled by cutting government spending rather than raising taxes. A chance to dramatise their view comes each year when Congress engages in the peculiar American ritual of approving an increase in the debt ceiling. In their classic book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein document how the Republicans, seemingly willing to force the government to default, sought to hold the Obama administration hostage in 2011. (Another round of debt-ceiling negotiations began this month.)

The most obvious characteristic of the Republicans’ actions is hypocrisy. But their behaviour also directly affects the quality of governance, which they appear not to consider important. The strain on public sector infrastructure and public services in education and health is affecting Americans’ quality of life. Government has also been left without the institutional strength or the political will to deal aggressively with global warming, the Covid pandemic and other major new challenges.

Equally worrying is the effect of the Republicans’ institutional vandalism on democratic processes themselves. America is unique among established democracies in having such highly politicised courts. It is also unique in having one major party whose electoral strategy involves making it more difficult for likely supporters of the other side to vote. After the 2020 presidential election we saw a further escalation: when Trump dismissed the vote as rigged, he created a precedent that could well become a common tactic. If the public loses faith in the integrity of the electoral process, the consequences could be drastic.

Let us hope that in the 2030s Nicole Hemmer doesn’t need to write an equally insightful book about the destruction of American democratic institutions in the 2020s. •

Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
By Nicole Hemmer | Basic Books | $57.25 | 368 pages