Reviews | Why have Republicans become so extreme?


Many political analysts spent years warning that the GOP was becoming an extremist and undemocratic party.

Long before Republicans nominated Donald Trump for president, let alone before Trump refused to concede electoral defeat, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein said the party had become “an aberrant insurgent” that rejected “facts, evidence and science” and did not. t accept the legitimacy of the political opposition.

In 2019, an international survey of experts rated parties around the world on their commitment to fundamental democratic principles and minority rights. It turns out that the GOP is nothing like center-right parties in other Western countries. What it looks more like are authoritarian parties like Fidesz in Hungary or AKP in Turkey

Such analyzes have often been dismissed as exaggerated and alarmist. Even now, as Republicans openly express their admiration for Viktor Orban’s one-party rule, I meet people who insist that the GOP is not comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have gerrymanded state legislatures to lock in control no matter how badly they lose the popular vote, which is straight out of Orban’s playbook.) Yet, as Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently underline“every moment in the past 20 years, America’s ‘alarmists’ have been right.”

And over the past few days, we’ve received even more reminders of how extreme Republicans have become. The January 6 hearings established, in damning detail, that the attack on the Capitol was part of a larger plan to overturn the election, directed from above. A Supreme Court packed with Republicans has handed down openly partisan rulings on abortion and gun control. And there could be more shocks to come – keep an eye out for what the court is likely to do to the government’s ability to protect the environment.

The question that bothers me, aside from whether American democracy will survive, is why. Where does this extremism come from?

Comparisons with the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars are inevitable but not very helpful. For one thing, as bad as he was, Trump was not another Hitler or even another Mussolini. Granted, Republicans like Marco Rubio routinely call Democrats — who are essentially standard social democrats — Marxists, and it’s tempting to match their hyperbole. The reality, however, is bad enough not to need exaggeration.

And there is another problem with comparisons to the rise of fascism. Right-wing extremism in interwar Europe grew out of the rubble of national disasters: defeat in the First World War – or, in the case of Italy, a Pyrrhic victory that looked like a failure ; hyperinflation; the Depression.

Nothing like that happened here. Yes, we had a severe financial crisis in 2008, followed by a soft recovery. Yes, we have seen regional economic divergence, with dire consequences – unemployment, social decline, even suicides and drug addiction – in the regions left behind. But America has seen much worse in the past, without seeing one of its main parties turn its back on democracy.

Also, the Republican turn to extremism began during the 1990s. Many people, I believe, have forgotten the political madness of the Clinton years – the wild witch hunts and conspiracy theories (Hillary murdered Vince Foster !), attempts to blackmail Bill Clinton into political concessions by shutting down the government, and more. And all of this was happening during what were widely considered good years, with most Americans believing the country was on the right track.

It’s a puzzle. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking for historical precursors – instances in which right-wing extremism grew even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

It is important to realize that while this organization took on the name of the post-Civil War group, it was in fact a new movement – a white nationalist movement, of course, but much more widely accepted, and less of an organization pure terrorist. And he reached the height of his power – he effectively controlled several states – in the midst of peace and an economic boom.

What was this new KKK about? I read “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition” by Linda Gordon, which depicts a “politics of resentment” driven by backlash from white, rural, and small town Americans . against a changing nation. The KKK hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by a “distrust of science” and “a broader anti-intellectualism”. Sound familiar?

OK, the modern GOP isn’t as bad as the second KKK But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.

And because GOP extremism is fueled by resentment against the very things that I believe truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised. He can only be defeated.



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