The Day the GOP Stood Still

Rarely is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrong in his political or economic conclusions; the man makes an error about as infrequently as Halley’s Comet is visible from Earth. However, there was one tiny flaw in his July 18 post about the GOP’s march towards mania.

Krugman correctly noted that he was one of the few main-event figures in American punditry who was willing to declare the Republican Party non compos mentis back when it was considered rude to do so in polite company. Now that discussions of the GOP’s descent into dementia are less taboo today, Krugman is right to remind his readers that he faced intense intolerance back in the day for expressing views that are taken for granted today.

Krugman further observed:

What I want to talk about is when, exactly, the GOP went over the edge. Obviously it didn’t happen all at once. But I think the real watershed came in 1980-81, when supply-side economics became the party’s official doctrine.

I’m not sure, even now, whether people who aren’t involved in economic policy discussion understand that supply-side wasn’t a doctrine like monetarism or even real business cycles — ideas I may think are wrong, but which had and to some extent still have significant support from professionals in the field. Supply-side economics never had any evidence behind it; it never had any support in academic research; it barely even had any support among economic researchers and forecasters in the business world. It was and remains crank economics pure and simple, with nothing going for it except political convenience.

Yet 35 years ago the GOP was already willing to embrace this doctrine because it was politically convenient, and could be used to justify tax cuts for the rich, which have always been the priority.

While the GOP’s romance with Reaganomics was indeed a low point, even that embrace of economic eccentricity in the early-’80s was not the moment when the GOP truly lost it. The point of no return occurred a few years later; in fact, the 28th anniversary of that morbid moment will arrive in just a few days.

The GOP officially sold its soul–and its sanity–on August 1, 1988, when Rush Limbaugh’s Sacramento, California-based radio show was first syndicated nationally, a feat made possible by President Reagan’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine a year earlier. Limbaugh and his backers had a clear goal of driving the GOP, and America’s overall political/media culture, as far to the right as possible–and sadly, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Limbaugh’s demonization of Democrats spawned a subculture of sarcasm that dominated AM radio. Soon, Limbaugh’s loathing of liberalism found a home on syndicated television; in many respects, Limbaugh’s TV show (which was executive-produced by Roger Ailes) was a four-year dress rehearsal for the Fox News Channel.

Rush was the ringleader of the Republican rush towards recklessness; he led the crusade to ideologically purify the GOP, trashing any Republican who supported choice or climate protection.   He established his own views as the litmus test for who was, or was not, a “real” Republican. By 2009, it was clear that Limbaugh was, without question, the real leader of the GOP.

Think about the sick stain and the loathsome legacy Limbaugh has left behind. Thanks to his poisoning of the Republican Party, America was unable to lead in a bipartisan fashion on such issues as health care reform, gun control and climate change. Considering the international implications of that last issue, it can be argued that Limbaugh largely prevented America from leading the rest of the world in transitioning expeditiously away from fossil fuels–a transition that could have spared countless lives over the past 28 years.

Donald Trump became the 2016 Republican nominee by copying Limbaugh’s shtick–appealing to the worst angels of our nature, exploiting extremism, casting scorn upon common sense, prevaricating with pride. It was Limbaugh who removed all traces of logic, reason, decency, civility and compassion from the party of Abraham Lincoln. It was Limbaugh who made hatred of environmental protection the organizing principle of the party of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Limbaugh who led the GOP towards lunacy–and the party may never, ever find its way back.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.