Power  /  Book Review

The Long Unraveling of the Republican Party

Three books explore a history of fractious extremism that predates Donald Trump.

Despite the apparent triumph of capitalism in the Cold War, many conservatives in the 1980s and early ’90s were gripped by what Continetti calls a “deep-seated pessimism.” They had managed to take control of the White House for eight years, yet were unable to shrink the state, had trouble holding Congress, and felt unwelcome in Hollywood and academia. A gloomy, bitter conservatism began to spread, from above and from below. Its rhetoric was tinged with loss and preoccupied with themes of masculinity, race, and immigration, a far cry from Reagan’s upbeat invocations of freedom and morning in America. The journalist Peter Brimelow’s 1995 best seller, Alien Nation, for example, opened with the suggestion that the country had been defined by a “specific ethnic core” that “has always been white”—and was now in danger of being replaced.

The transformation on the right was stylistic as well as substantive. It’s hard to imagine Reagan leading cheers of “Lock her up!” or inventing Trump-style nicknames for his enemies. But this jeering patois would have been familiar to followers of Rush Limbaugh, whose nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio program started broadcasting on AM stations in 1988. Limbaugh was a college dropout who had read Pat Buchanan’s newspaper columns when he was growing up in Missouri and then found his way to radio, getting his break when Morton Downey Jr. was fired for using openly racist language on the air. Limbaugh immediately began to develop his own style, one that anticipated the bullying sarcasm of Twitter: Rather than harangue his audience or engage in high-minded exegeses of Friedrich Hayek or other conservative thinkers, he set out to “ridicule the left,” as Hemmer puts it. Limbaugh routinely insulted Democratic politicians—Ted Kennedy was “The Swimmer”; Robert Byrd was “Sheets” (referring to his Ku Klux Klan past)—and when critics phoned in to his show, he would cut them off with what he referred to as a “caller abortion” (a loud vacuum-cleaner noise followed by a scream before the line went dead).

A similar shift took place on Capitol Hill, where a program of tax cuts and deregulation was supplemented by constant hyperbolic invective. Newt Gingrich’s crusade to rally congressional Republicans to build their base by explicitly embracing political language that demeaned their political opponents is well known. Even so, the intensity of some of this rhetoric—and the ways in which it foreshadowed the style on the right today—remains surprising. Milbank describes the 1990 memo that Gingrich’s political-action committee circulated to Republican candidates. Titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” it instructed them in how to “speak like Newt,” using words such as sick, corrupt, bizarre, pathetic, destroy, and decay when characterizing Democrats. Gingrich himself deployed this strategy incessantly, describing Democratic politicians as the “enemy of normal Americans” and calling for a “war” against the left to be fought with “a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.”