After Joe Biden’s fiery speech in defense of democracy last week, most Washington news outlets responded with another stream of stupid fake equivalencies.
“Both parties finally agree on something: American democracy is in danger”, was the big title in the New York Times. An editorial from the Washington Post declared the president was “wrong to confuse upholding the rule of law with his own partisan agenda, which he called ‘the work of democracy'”.
In her brilliant new book, Dana Milbank, a Post columnist, offers none of the spongy judgments that most of her Washington colleagues have become sadly addicted to.
It comes right to the point that escaped the authors of this Times article and this Post editorial: “Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy. There is a perfectly logical, if deeply cynical, reason for this. Democracy works against Republicans” who have won the popular vote only once in eight presidential elections since 1988.
As America “closes in on majority-minority status,” Milbank writes, “…white grievances and white fear” have driven “republican identity more than any other factor—and drive tribalism and dysfunction of the American political system”.
A political columnist for 16 years, Milbank had “a front-row seat to the worst show on earth: the crack-up of the Republican Party, and the resulting crack-up of American democracy.”
The book has four roughly equal sections: on the Clinton presidency (“defined by the cutting style of [Newt] Gingrich”), the presidency of George W Bush (“defined by the dishonesty of Karl Rove”), the presidency of Obama and the era of Trump.
It’s a painstaking story, showing how Republicans have spent a quarter of a century “hacking into the foundations of democracy and civil society”, waging “their war on truth, their growing exploitation of racism and supremacy white, their sabotage of the institutions … of the government, and their dehumanization of opponents and fanning of violence”.
Milbank traces the Republican love affair with racism to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy during his 1968 presidential campaign, and traces the onset of government dysfunction to the disastrous four years from 1995 to 1999, when Gingrich did everything he could to blow up the federal government. when he was Speaker of the House.
By showing in painstaking detail “how Republicans and their allied donors, media, and interest groups have tugged at the threads of democracy,” Milbank makes it clear that the Trump presidency was far from an aberration. He represented the true Republican Party, without any camouflage of sympathetic conservatism.
There was nothing new about Donald Trump 30,573 documented lies as president. Gingrich’s Republicans were “saturated with wild, often unsubstantiated allegations.” Living Water. Troopergate. Travelgate. Filegate. Furniture door. Fallen Clinton aide Webb Hubbell fathered Chelsea Clinton… Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s death in a plane crash… was a Clinton-arranged stunt”. Etc.
It was Gingrich, Clinton Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, his aide Brett Kavanaugh, Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh who showed Trump “the political power of an endlessly repeated lie.”
The rudeness also started with Gingrich.
“I think one of the big problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be mean,” Gingrich told college Republicans in 1978. “You make war. It’s a power struggle. »
Eleven years later, Gingrich told reporter John Harwood (who quit CNN last week after calling Trump a “demagogue”) that Democrats were “grotesque”, “goofy” and “dumb”.
Milbank is particularly strong about Ralph Reed, “a crucial figure in the perversion of the religious right into something more ‘right’ than ‘religious'”. There’s also a long account of the gigantic lobbying scandal centering on Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former top aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Scanlon and Abramoff “defrauded Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars” by telling them they were promoting their casinos. They also caused Reed to mobilize evangelical Christians to oppose gambling projects that competed with his own gambling interests.
Another long section reminds us that the administration of George W Bush actually did even more damage than Trump, promoting the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and dragging America into the completely useless war. and quite disastrous in Iraq.
Milbank’s book is in the fine tradition of It’s even worse than it looksthe 2012 book by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann that was the first to point out the futility of the Washington press’ attempts to be “fair” to both sides.
Milbank quotes: “The Republican Party has become an insurrectionary exception – ideologically extreme; despising the inherited social and economic policy regime; despising compromise; unconvinced by the conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and contemptuous of the legitimacy of his political opposition.
Therein lies the tragedy of Washington journalism. Ten years after Ornstein and Mann made those astute observations, Milbank is one of the few journalists to have incorporated their wisdom into his work. As a result, he is almost alone in treating Republican Party statements with the contempt they invariably deserve.
Like Ornstein tweeted on Saturday: “Tragically, our mainstream media have shown that they are either absent in this battle or have opted to side with the authoritarians by normalizing their behavior and downplaying their intentions.”
The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party, is published in the United States by Doubleday