Jackie Calmes in the Los Angeles Times: “The radicalization of the Republican Party has been the biggest story of my journalism career”

From a column in the Los Angeles Times by Jackie Calmes headlined “My front row seat to the radicalization of the Republican Party”:

Since before he became president, Joe Biden has told crowds, “Folks, this is not your father’s Republican Party.” As a political reporter, I’d been hearing that lament since the late 1990s, from far better sources — those Republican fathers’ sons and daughters.

The radicalization of the Republican Party has been the biggest story of my career. I’ve been watching it from the start, from the time I arrived in then-Democratic Texas just out of college in 1978 to my years as a reporter in Washington through four revolutions — Ronald Reagan’s, Newt Gingrich’s, the tea party’s and Donald Trump’s — each of which took the party farther right.

From this perspective, it seems clear that the antidemocratic drift of the GOP will continue, regardless of Trump’s role. He didn’t cause its crackup, he accelerated it….

The first elections I covered in 1978, at the midterm of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, marked the beginning of the Republican Party’s reemergence from its Watergate ruins and the shift of its base from the north to the south….Texas was a Democratic bastion. But many Democrats I met there were more conservative than Republicans I knew up north; they often bucked the national party, yet remained “yellow dog Democrats” in state and local elections — so loyal, the saying went, that they’d vote for a yellow dog over a Republican….

Republicans revived nationally in the late ’70s largely because of the governing Democrats’ misfortunes — a global energy crisis, double-digit inflation, a stagnant economy, party infighting.

Evangelicals threw off their longtime aversion to earthly politics and took over local party organizations, becoming culture warriors. By mid-1978, the property tax revolt in California kindled an anti-tax movement nationwide….

It’s clear now that the norms-abiding moderates never had a chance….

That November, my election-night story for the Abilene Reporter-News included mention of the defeat of a young George W. Bush for a House seat representing Midland and Odessa.

Yet he and other Republicans across the South did better than expected. Some actually won, including third-time candidate Newt Gingrich in suburban Atlanta. Texans elected the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. It all signaled the wave Reagan would ride two years later, carrying other Republicans in his wake….

By 1984, I’d moved to Washington to cover Congress and got to know Gingrich. While he was a backbencher in House Republicans’ seemingly permanent minority, he led a maverick faction calling itself the Conservative Opportunity Society (Gingrich himself was more opportunist than truly conservative, his lieutenants grumbled to me)….

In 1990, Gingrich — by then the second-highest ranking House Republican leader — made a prediction that I found unbelievable: Republicans would win a House majority in the 1994 midterm elections. He explained to me that if George H.W. Bush lost reelection in 1992, with a Democrat in the White House the Republicans could benefit from the midterm jinx for a president’s party, and win enough seats to take control.

Gingrich did his part to weaken Bush. Most famously, he led a conservative mutiny against a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal the president had negotiated, assailing him for violating his “no new taxes” campaign promise.

With Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton, Gingrich immediately looked toward 1994. Since the late 1980s, he had mobilized a nationwide network of right-wing talk-radio hosts emerging in local markets. They echoed his talking points daily.

On election day 1994, Gingrich was confident of big gains — if not a House majority — and certain that conservative media had helped. “I think one of the great changes in the last couple of years was the rise of talk radio, which gives you an alternative validating mechanism,” separate from the mainstream media, he told me….

The Republicans triumphed beyond even Gingrich’s messianic dreams, winning House and Senate majorities for the first time since 1952. As the new speaker who’d taken the party to the promised land, Gingrich led a cult of personality presaging Trump’s.

“Be nasty,” he’d tell followers, and he kept conservatives perpetually angry at Democrats and at government generally, with the aid of his right-wing media megaphone….

Gingrich would find governing harder and less popular than campaigning, however. He overreached to please the base, shutting down the government in a doomed bid to force deep cuts in domestic programs, and then impeaching Clinton. Within four years, after election losses and scandals, he resigned.

Back in Texas, then-Gov. George W. Bush positioned himself as the un-Gingrich for mainstream voters — a “compassionate conservative” — while telling those on the right he was different from his father: that Jesus Christ was his personal savior, he’d slash taxes, and his foreign policy would eschew interventionist nation-building. (He’d break that last promise big time in Iraq.)

But even as Bush sought to soften his party’s hard lines to win election, the GOP’s nationalistic, protectionist and even nativist populism ran deep. As president, Bush had hoped to build a broader party — for example, by giving millions of undocumented, longtime residents a path to citizenship. But the growing xenophobia among the party’s increasingly white, older and rural base foiled him.

Trump didn’t unleash those forces 16 years later. He simply harnessed and amplified them.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, conservatives were rebellious against both Bush, for his immigration proposals, Mideast wars and rising debt, and the Republican majority in Congress for its overspending and corruption.

After the near-collapse of the financial system and its bailout by the Bush administration, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black American elected president. Almost immediately, the third Republican revolution took shape, this one a headless movement from the bottom up: the tea party.

Republican Party leaders sought to unite with tea party activists against their common enemy — Obama. In the midterm elections of Obama’s two terms, Republicans regained control of the House in 2010 and then the Senate in 2014.

Yet just as Gingrich found with Clinton, sharing responsibility for governing requires occasional compromise with the Democratic president on must-pass bills. And compromise infuriated the Republican base and conservative media….

A year later, against a field of establishment Republicans vying for the presidential nomination, Trump quickly rose to the top, speaking a language of aggrievement that resonated with the mostly white, less educated voters living in rural America and long-struggling industrial areas like my Ohio hometown.

They jumped on the Trump train and stayed on even after he’d lost reelection and the GOP’s control of Congress….

Jackie Calmes is the White House editor for the Los Angeles Times. This article is adapted from her book “Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court,” which will be published June 15.

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