Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann
The Republican presidential debate wasn’t encouraging: Trump’s hold on the GOP appears stronger than ever. And that’s bad news for America.
In Robert Hubbell’s excellent Today’s Edition Newsletter on Substack, he made the point yesterday that Trump’s relationship to the GOP is like that of one of those parasitic wasps that puts an egg into a caterpillar or spider and when the wasp larvae hatches it eats its host, leaving behind only a husk.
I’d take the metaphor a step farther: there’s a fungus, cordyceps, that infects ants and seizes control of their brains to alter their behavior to the fungus’ advantage. Another example is the toxoplasma parasite that’s often spread by cats: when mice are infected with the parasite, they no longer fear the smell of cats (and sometimes even want to play with them!), thus becoming easy prey. Scientists call it “fatal attraction.”
What Trump has done to the GOP is really quite impressive, worthy of either cordyceps or toxoplasma. And, frankly, it’s amazing that they didn’t even see it coming or try to stop him. (More on that in a moment.)
A registered Democrat and donor to the Democratic Party his entire life, Trump appropriated much of Bernie Sanders’ platform in 2016 to ingratiate himself with working class Americans.
He promised universal healthcare “cheaper than Obamacare,” taxes so high on the morbidly rich that “my friends won’t speak to me,” said he would bring America’s factories back home from overseas, and pledged to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare.
All, it turns out, were lies, although most in his base believe to this day that he did or nearly did all those things.
Having used Bernie’s policy positions (and a healthy dose of dog-whistle racism, essential for the Republican base) to win office in 2016, he proceeded to step into, take over, and then—like cordyceps or toxoplasma—alter top-to-bottom the behavior of the GOP.
Trump’s no idiot. He saw how the GOP was weakened, first by the Nixon scandals, then by Reagan’s neoliberalism that gutted the middle class, then by Bush and Cheney lying us into two unnecessary and illegal wars. The party was in a state of crisis when the nation elected our country’s first Black president, which gave Trump his opening.
Fifty years earlier, Nixon had injected the first “egg” of racism and white supremacy into the GOP with his “silent majority” and “war on drugs.”
The former was an explicit shout-out to white racists abandoned by the Democrats in 1964/1965 when LBJ pushed through and signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the latter an explicit technique to disrupt the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Abandoning all subtlety, Nixon called it his “Southern Strategy.”
A decade later, Reagan pulled southern racists even deeper into the GOP by kicking off his 1980 election campaign with a speech about “states’ rights” to an all-white audience at an obscure Mississippi county fair near the site where three Civil Rights workers were brutally slaughtered in June, 1964. While most Americans—and all major American newspapers and TV networks—missed the significance of the event, southerners heard the whistle loud and clear.
Reagan amplified it with his “welfare queen” comments and his sympathy for white people offended by a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to “buy a T-Bone steak,” while “you were waiting in line to buy hamburger.”
With the ground laid by Nixon and Reagan, that singular event of Obama’s presidency gave Trump the lever he needed to inject the larvae of his sociopathy into the moribund GOP.
He began with his claim that Obama wasn’t even a US citizen but had been born in Kenya, as clear a reference to race as his assertion earlier this week that the Black prosecutor Fani Willis and the Black judge Tanya Chutkan are both “Riggers.”
But Trump was only able to finally take over the GOP in 2016 because a group of corrupt politicians and rightwing billionaires got there first, setting up the party’s faithful to believe absurd lies and step into alternate realities.
It started with Nixon claiming he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War when, in fact, he’d reached out to the Vietnamese and scuttled an actual peace treaty that LBJ had negotiated in the summer of 1968.
When President Johnson called Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to tell him about it just days before the election, Dirksen accused Nixon of “treason.”
Reagan then convinced America’s Republican voters that if they’d just cut taxes on the morbidly rich, prosperity would “trickle down” to average middle class people because it would “unleash” the “job creators.”
His cutting the top tax bracket from 74 percent to 27 percent unleashed them, all right: it unleashed them to buy thousands of politicians at both the state and federal level; to flip more radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers hard right; to purchase yachts and mansions around the world, and even to build their own spaceships.
Reagan told Republicans if they stopped enforcing the anti-trust laws that Republicans had fought for in the 1890s and Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Taft had used, prices would drop and America’s small towns would prosper. Instead, the average American family pays $5,000 a year more than citizens of countries that still enforce their anti-monopoly laws and small-town America has been gutted, with literally millions of local retailers and small employers put out of business by Big Box stores.
Reagan sold Republicans (and a few Democrats) on the idea that “free trade” would lower costs for Americans and, to some extent, it did: our stores were quickly filled with cheap, disposable junk. But the price we paid was 50,000+ factories and over 16 million good-paying union jobs moving to Asia and Mexico.
Reagan promised us if we’d just follow Milton Friedman’s advice (when he was secretly being paid off by the real estate lobby) and end rent controls, cut home mortgage subsidies like those through the FHA and VA, and throw our housing markets open to unrestrained speculation and both corporate and foreign ownership, every American could live the American Dream.
Instead, foreign investors and massive hedge funds run by Wall Street billionaires are buying up America’s housing stock and turning it into rental properties, both exploding the price of houses and rents. The clear and measurable result is an epidemic of homelessness and tent cities.
Reagan promised us if we’d just end “oppressive regulations”—designed to keep our food supply safe, our drugs affordable, clean up our air and water, and protect our children from death by firearms—the “magic of the free market” would provide all those things in spades.
Instead, our food supply is filled with chemicals, microplastics, and heavily processed faux foods that have produced two generations of obesity and related metabolic disorders in children along with an explosion of cancer, birth defects, and other once-rare diseases.
Reagan promised us if we’d just stop funding public schools and stop teaching civics and instead direct that money to private for-profit or church-run voucher and charter schools it would grow the levels of literacy, civic engagement, and healthy political dialogue.
Instead, about half of all American adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. Only 39 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, leaving our nation vulnerable to racist white nationalists and fascists wanting to transform the democratic experiment our Founders began with our American republic.
The next Republican president, George W. Bush, nakedly lied to America about the “threat” presented by Saddam Hussein and Iraq to justify a war that cost our nation dearly in both blood and treasure, just to enrich the failing Halliburton (former CEO: Dick Cheney) and other oil companies in Bush and Cheney’s orbit.
By 2010, Republican voters were primed to believe pretty much anything party politicians told them. That was the year the billionaires really got busy taking control of the party’s base.
They started by funding the Tea Party, theoretically a response to President Obama’s effort to provide affordable healthcare for all Americans. Tri-cornered hats and bizarre signs saying things like “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare” popped up all over America, as the billionaires’ Astroturf movement rented high-end busses to bring gullible retired boomers to staged media events across the nation.
That morphed into the “freedom agenda,” branding everything in sight with the word. From trashing queer people, to calls for more tax cuts for billionaires, intimidation of teachers and librarians, massive Red-state-by-Red-state voter purges, legalizing open carry of assault weapons, criminalizing abortion, and a campaign to end the teaching of Black History, “freedom” has spread across the GOP.
This week we even learned that the billionaire-funded Freedom Caucus in the House intends to try to crash the US economy just in time for the election (knowing Biden will get the blame) by refusing to fund the government for the 2024 fiscal year.
Republicans have taken their “freedom agenda” to such extremes that they’re actively suppressing dissent to promote it. When a group of moms of children who died or barely survived a mass shooting at the Covenant Elementary School wanted to testify before the Tennessee General Assembly, they were escorted out by state police the Republican leader, Rep. Lowell Russell, had called.
In today’s GOP, fully in the thrall of Donald Trump and his authoritarianism, dissent is not allowed. Just ask Justin Amash or Liz Cheney.
Trump has done his work, and the Republican Party is no longer a legitimate political party. Like a cat with a toxoplasma-infected mouse, he’s eaten the party whole.
It has no platform, no moral compass, and no loyalty to the Constitution or America’s historic ideals. Instead, it does whatever the billionaires who own it tell it to do (with the ability to bribe given them by five Republicans on the Supreme Court who legalized political bribery in Citizens United).
This grift, started by Richard Nixon’s treason and lies and exploited over the years by the morbidly rich, has now so completely absorbed the party that it’s hard to see it returning to the conservative-but-willing-to-compromise entity it was during the Eisenhower presidency. Hell, most Republican voters today don’t even remember Eisenhower, much less venerate him.
As the esteemed Republican activist and constitutional scholar J. Michael Luttig told CNN a few weeks ago:
“A political party is a collection and assemblage of individuals who share a set of beliefs and principles and policy views about the United States of America. Today, there is no such shared set of beliefs and values and principles or even policy views as within the Republican party for America.”
Mourning the loss of the party he was once proud to be part of, Luttig added:
“American democracy simply cannot function without two equally healthy and equally strong political parties. So today, in my view, there is no Republican Party to counter the Democratic Party in the country. And for that reason, American democracy is in grave peril.”
A return to some semblance of normalcy in the GOP is essential to restoring a normal, functioning government to our nation, as Luttig points out. Odds are, however, it’s first going to take a widespread destruction of that party—provoked by huge Democratic wins in 2024—to come about.
And, given the bizarre spectacle we witnessed in the Republican presidential debate, that can’t come soon enough.
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.