The Party That Set Out to Destroy Government

Back in the 1980’s, President Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” But as Norman Ornstein said recently, Newt Gingrich took that to a whole new level.

As a brand new member of the House, he had a full-blown theory of how Republicans could break out of their seemingly permanent minority, and build a majority.

And over the next 16 years, he put that plan into action. He delegitimized the Congress and the Democratic leadership, convincing people that they were arrogant and corrupt and that the process was so bad that anything would be better than this. He tribalized the political process. He went out and recruited the candidates, and gave them the language to use about how disgusting and despicable and horrible and immoral and unpatriotic the Democrats were. That swept in the Republican majority in 1994.

The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that shit. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government, not just the president but the actions of government itself in Washington.

As Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards documented here at the Washington Monthly, the Gingrich plan to delegitimize Congress went much further than most Americans realize. It wasn’t simply a verbal assault, it was structural as well.

In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research.

Ornstein was making the point that these are some of the initial steps that led to the rise of Trump. During the Obama administration, leaders like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor took it a step further.

Over many years, they’ve adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.

And add to that, they’ve delegitimized President Obama, but they’ve failed to succeed with any of the promises they’ve made to their rank and file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, “what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you’re going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?”…

And Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, were complicit in this. I think when Republicans had their stunning victory in 2010, Cantor et al thought they could now co-opt these people. Instead, they were co-opted themselves.

That history is what led former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren to write this:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

It’s true that there are some ways that led Republicans to be “relative winners.” But it also marked the journey from being post-truth to post-policy. All that is left now is nativism and anger – which is what has animated the rise of Donald Trump.

The Party that set out to destroy government is now left with one unifying theme – the dying dominance of white male power. It is about to clash head on with a Party that has embraced a feminist agenda matched with the growing power of LGBT Americans and people of color. Epic times we’re living in!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.