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Republicans Abandoned Conservatism Long Before Trump

Trump is easy to blame but he's a symptom, not the cause, of the right's moral rot.

Trump continues to draw out the darkest impulses of white Republican voters, egging them on to ever greater heights of depravity and cruelty. For conservatives who refuse to follow him down this path, they're left wondering what the fuck is happening to their fellow right-wingers. They want desperately to blame it on Trump but some part of them has to know this started long before he came down that escalator in 2015.

For an example of this wistful lament of conservatism, Eliot Cohen pens a lengthy and brutal takedown of both the Republican Party and the modern right wing in The Atlantic. 

There has always been a dark side to American conservatism, much of it originating in the antebellum curse of a society, large parts of which favored slavery and the extermination of America’s native population, the exclusion of immigrants from American life, and discrimination against Catholics and Jews. Many of us had hoped that the civil-rights achievements of the mid-20th century (in which Republicans were indispensable partners), changing social norms regarding women, and rising levels of education had eliminated the germs that produced secession, lynching, and Indian massacres. Instead, those microbes simply went into dormancy, and now, in the presence of Trump, erupt again like plague buboes—bitter, potent, and vile.

Except that's not true at all, is it? In the 1980s, Republicans ignored the growing AIDS epidemic because it was "only" affecting homosexual men and, later, intravenous drug users. Such was their hatred of the LGBT community and drug addicts that instead of ruthlessly stomping on a disease that is actually fairly easy to counter, they let it spread like wildfire. Over 35 million people have died from it worldwide since then.

In the 90s, the right's hatred of the Clintons saw anti-government militias breed like roaches. This paranoia and rage were fed by the conspiracy machine built by rich lunatics like Richard Mellon Scaife until Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building with dozens of children inside.

In the Aughts, anti-Muslin bigotry was rampant on the right. Toxic patriotism was in full force and the Bush administration Cohen himself worked for pushed a far-right religious fanaticism that had nothing to with conservatism but everything to do with power. 

Then, we all know how racism exploded after the election of America's first black president. Not only did the conservative movement fully embrace open bigotry, but the Republican Party also encouraged it. The lies, the ridiculous conspiracies, the constant ramping up of mindless rage and resentment. All of these things the GOP and its media machine did on purpose as a means to take back power.

Trump had nothing to do with any of that. He simply took advantage of a base reduced to a frenzied stew of paranoia and hate. He spoke the words they wanted to hear and told them it was OK to be as horrible as they wanted. And after decades of being told white people were being oppressed, they leaped at that opportunity. 

Cohen is seeing what he wants to see because it absolves him of his role in creating the mob that Trump rules over. But unlike the usual lifeboat building we see, Cohen has no illusions that the Republican Party can be saved:

It is impossible at this moment to envisage the Republican Party coming back. Like a brontosaurus with some brain-eating disorder, it might lumber forward in the direction dictated by its past, favoring deregulation of businesses here and standing up to a rising China there, but there will be no higher mental functioning at work. And so it will plod into a future in which it is detested in a general way by women, African Americans, recent immigrants, and the educated young as well as progressives pure and simple. It might stumble into a political tar pit and cease to exist or it might survive as a curious, decaying relic of more savage times and more primitive instincts, lashing out and crushing things but incapable of much else.

Ouch. But he's not wrong. There is no way back for the GOP now. They are fully locked into the death spiral of white nationalism and fascism. Any attempt to tack back to the center and expand their base beyond angry white bigots will see them either abandoned by their voters or simply voted out in favor of whoever shouts the loudest that they'll make America white again.

Cohen does say that there's a chance that a new conservative movement could rise that's actually dedicated to real conservatism. He also says we should want that because a proper balance is healthy for political debate. And he's not wrong there, either. The problem is that conservatism has so closely identified itself with white nationalism and hate speech that it will take an atrocity unlike anything we've ever seen in American history to snap people out of the delusion they're living in. 

In the 90s, it took the death of 19 children at the hands of a right-wing extremist on Oklahoma City to force the right to pull back from the edge. That happens almost every year now. Worse, with the 24/7 propaganda of Fox News, AM Hate Radio, and right-wing hate sites, there may not be an atrocity large enough to penetrate the alternate reality white Republican voters have sealed themselves in. It could be our new norm is to forever have a political party that is incapable of governing responsibly trying to sabotage the country and breeding fascism and white nationalist terrorists as a matter of course.

The only way forward is to crush them at the ballot box and quarantine them from the levers of power; limit the damage they can do and wait until their followers realize they're "freedom fighting" themselves into poverty and misery while the rest of the country is thriving. But the first step is to crush them and that comes this November.