12 Ways the Republican Party Became This Radicalized

By Mark Jacob

It’s a mistake to think Donald Trump turned the Republican Party into the dangerous anti-democratic movement it is today. The GOP’s descent into fascism was a lengthy process that was well underway when Trump was a young man in the 1970s helping his father discriminate against Black apartment seekers. Here’s a look at 12 key steps in the Republican radicalization: 

Circa 1964: Southern Strategy

Pro-segregation Southern Democrats became increasingly annoyed at calls within their party for racial justice. These “Dixiecrats” defected to the Republican Party, with prominent racist Strom Thurmond making the switch in 1964. Republican adviser Lee Atwater later described the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” to attract the votes of white supremacists:You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘[Atwater said the n-word three times].’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

In the 1970s, GOP candidate Ronald Reagan pushed a “welfare queen” myth to demonize the poor and make white people think lazy Black people were taking advantage of them. In 1976, Republican Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz resigned after it was revealed he privately said some other extremely racist things

1972: Watergate

After a Republican burglary crew was arrested at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C., President Richard Nixon conducted a cover-up that brought down his presidency. (This was back when overt support for criminals was less fashionable among Republicans.) Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. Nixon later claimed presidents are above the law: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

1980: More skulduggery

As Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan prepared to debate Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s aides had access to a briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. James Baker, who became Reagan’s chief of staff, said years later that the book came from William Casey, who became Reagan’s CIA director. Casey said he had “no recollection” of the book, and no one was ever punished.

There are strong suspicions that an even more egregious Republican dirty trick took place in the 1980 campaign. Carter’s best chance at re-election was to gain release of 52 American hostages seized by Iran from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But according to a prominent Texas politician who spoke to the New York Times earlier this year, an American delegation led by Democrat-turned-Republican John Connally secretly sent a message to Iran that if it held the hostages until after the election, it could get a better deal from Reagan. That would mean, in effect, that the pro-Reagan delegation urged Iran to hold American hostages longer.

1990s: Gingrich down and dirty

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is as responsible as anyone for the bare-knuckles political rhetoric common today. In 1990, Gingrich’s political action committee listed words that should be used to pillory Democrats, including “sick,” “traitors,” “welfare,” “corrupt,” “cheat,” “anti-child,” “disgrace,” “destroy” and “steal.” And he specialized in culture wars that blamed liberals for society’s ills, however farfetched. After South Carolina mother Susan Smith killed her two sons in 1994 by drowning them in a lake, Gingrich said it showed “how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

1996: Fox News founded

When right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, CEO Roger Ailes promised “balanced, objective journalism presenting both sides of the issues.” Instead Fox became one of the most effective disinformation ops in modern times. Ailes specialized in scaring culturally conservative white people into thinking their country was being stolen from them.

Ailes quit in 2016 amid revelations that he had harassed women for decades, but Fox News stayed the course on Republican partisanship. Fox’s lies about the 2020 election led to a lawsuit by the Dominion Voting Systems and the revelation of evidence that Fox higher-ups knew they were broadcasting falsehoods. Fox reached a $787 million settlement with Dominion but is still lying today.

2000: Brooks Brothers Riot

Democratic nominee Al Gore won about half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. But because of the Electoral College system, the outcome came down to who would capture Florida’s electoral votes. In that state, the race was extremely close. Lawyers from both sides rushed to Florida, and so did a group of well-dressed Republican operatives who swarmed a Miami-Dade manual recount site in an intimidating manner. Participants in the so-called “Brooks Brothers Riot” included Trump pal Roger Stone and Matt Schlapp, now chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The chaos caused Miami-Dade officials to abandon their recount and cast further suspicion on the entire process. Right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia prevailed as the court blocked a statewide recount and accepted a state board’s determination that Bush won by 537 votes. Gore conceded graciously, unlike Trump two decades later.

2004: Swiftboating

In a model for the kind of disinformation that has become standard operating procedure for Republicans, right-wingers attacked one of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s strengths – his military record in Vietnam – and attempted to turn it into a weakness. Kerry commanded a Navy vessel known as a swift boat, and a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claimed Kerry had received his medals improperly. Those claims were later debunked, but they made plenty of headlines and had their political effect.

2008: Birtherism

Four years after the “swiftboating” of John Kerry, the right wing went after Democratic nominee Barack Obama with another bogus allegation, suggesting he was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president. It was a lie, and they knew it. But the false allegation didn’t go away. Years after Obama won the White House, Trump used the birtherism hoax to increase his own prominence in right-wing circles and didn’t drop the lie until 2016, when he blamed it on Hillary Clinton.

2010: Kooks as candidates

You may think Republicans ran kooks as major candidates only recently. But in 2010, the GOP Senate nominee in Delaware was Christine O’Donnell, who said: “I dabbled into witchcraft. … One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it. I mean, there’s little blood there and stuff like that. We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.” The issue compelled O’Donnell to run a television ad stating, “I am not a witch.” Despite inviting mockery, the party didn’t abandon her. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Republican Senate Conference, even campaigned for her. She lost.

2016-2020: Stacking the Supreme Court

On March 16, 2016, about eight months before the presidential election, Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, refused to allow hearings, much less a confirmation vote. He invented a rationale that it was too close to an election and “the American people should have a say in the court’s direction.” When Trump won, we got Neil Gorsuch instead. In 2020, the hypocritical McConnell jammed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett even though it was less than six weeks from Election Day and early voters had already begun casting ballots.

2016: Surrendering to Trump

Early on, some people thought Trump’s presidential campaign was a joke. Surely, they said, decent Republicans would reject someone who called Mexicans rapists, demanded a Muslim ban, mocked a disabled person, and insisted that John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he got captured. But Trump’s comments excited the most racist, sexist and cruel elements of the party, and supposedly moderate Republicans folded. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was the starkest example. In February 2016, Graham said of Trump: “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.” But by November 2017, Graham had done a complete 180: “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president.”

2020-21: Attempted coup

Republican determination to win at all costs had reached such a dangerous point that Trump – clear loser of the 2020 presidential election – insisted he had won in a “landslide” and was the victim of election fraud. The Republicans’ bizarre theories included a claim that votes were changed remotely via Italian satellites and that cheating occurred through software developed “at the direction of Hugo Chavez,” the Venezuelan dictator who died in 2013.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani accused two election workers in Atlanta of passing around a thumb drive as if it was “vials of heroin or cocaine.” In reality, one of the workers testified, it was a ginger mint.

When the Republicans’ bogus claims were thrown out of court dozens of times, Trump and his co-conspirators incited a violent attack on the Capitol to delay certification of the election and arranged for supporters to submit paperwork claiming to be electors when they weren’t.

It was an insurrection, an act of treachery unprecedented in U.S. history.

If Republican fascism isn’t stopped, it can happen again.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.