The Course to Chaos

When, precisely, did the Republican Party “snap”?

The exact moment when the GOP went rabid will be debated for decades: you may recall that last year, I argued that the point of no return for the Republican Party was August 1, 1988–the day Rush Limbaugh’s Sacramento, California-based right-wing talk show was nationally syndicated for the first time, allowing the man who had talent on loan from Satan to effectively take over the GOP and eliminate virtually every last trace of reason and rationality from the party. However, a strong case can be made for two other occasions that signified the GOP’s descent into dementia.

The first occasion was seventeen years before Limbaugh’s national syndication, on August 23, 1971, when attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote an infamous memo calling upon special interests to pool their considerable resources to push back against consumer advocacy groups, environmental activists and other concerned citizens derided by the right as “do-gooders.” As Greenpeace noted in 2011:

The overall tone of Powell’s memo reflected a widespread sense of crisis among elites in the business and political communities. “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” he suggested, adding that the attacks were not coming just from a few “extremists of the left,” but also and most alarmingly — from “perfectly respectable elements of society,” including leading intellectuals, the media, and politicians.

To meet the challenge, business leaders would have to first recognize the severity of the crisis, and begin marshalling their resources to influence prominent institutions of public opinion and political power — especially the universities, the media and the courts. The memo emphasized the importance of education, values, and movement-building. Corporations had to reshape the political debate, organize speakers’ bureaus and keep television programs under “constant surveillance.” Most importantly, business needed to recognize that political power must be “assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

Powell emphasized the importance of strengthening institutions like the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce] — which represented the interests of the broader business community, and therefore key to creating a united front. While individual corporations could represent their interests more aggressively, the responsibility of conducting an enduring campaign would necessarily fall upon the Chamber and allied foundations. Since business executives had “little stomach for hard-nosed contest with their critics” and “little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate,” it was important to create new think tanks, legal foundations, front groups and other organizations. The ability to align such groups into a united front would only come about through “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and united organizations.”

This memo inspired the creation of any number of wingnut think tanks established for the sole purpose of moving the American political system in general, and the Republican Party in particular, as far to the right as possible in order to protect the the interests of the financiers of these think tanks. (The so-called “Kochtopus” is a perfect case in point.) Powell was in the majority on two atrocious Supreme Court rulings–1976’s Buckley v. Valeo and 1978’s Bellotti v. First National Bank of Boston–which effectively gave special interests more power over American politics broadly and the GOP specifically. Thanks to these rulings, it became virtually impossible for progressive-minded Democrats and actual moderate Republicans to thrive in an atmosphere polluted by the toxin of big money.

Over two decades later, and a half-decade after the rise of Rush, came another moment (and other memo) that arguably constituted the end of exceptions to extremism in the GOP. On December 2, 1993, future “anti-Trump” Republican operative William Kristol urged the GOP to lay waste to President Clinton’s health-reform efforts. As Josh Marshall observed in 2013:

It’s edifying again to go back to the brilliant and notorious ‘Kristol Memo‘ of 1993, an encapsulation not only of the massive defiance strategy against Health Care Reform but in many ways the initial manifesto of manufactured gridlock as a political strategy that now rules our national politics. Kristol, of course, is Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, Fox News and more. But at the time he was only coming into his role of ur-GOP big think strategist – a role which has dimmed somewhat in recent years but grew through the 90s and well into the Bush administration. Going back to Kristol’s basic argument about the political effects of Health Care Reform is key.

Not only would passage of Health Care Reform in 1994 not hurt Clinton’s reelection prospects in 1996, he wrote, “the long-term political effects of a successful Clinton health care bill will be even worse–much worse. It will relegitimize middle-class dependence for “security” on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”

Take this out of con-speak and you have a very candid statement that health care reform would work. Average people would like it. And it would “rekindle” the belief that government activism can be part of the solution in helping sustain and protect the middle class. Kristol was clear that this would not only [be] an ideological defeat but also a political one inasmuch as Democrats are the party of government.”

A direct path can be traced from Kristol’s memo to the GOP’s no-holds-barred war against the Affordable Care Act and federal efforts to address human-caused climate change. The Kristol vision held that Republicans will necessarily lose ground if they accept the premise that government can play a role in ameliorating social ills. Therefore, the goal should be obstruction of governmental efforts to address problems at any and all costs, in the hopes that an intimidated mainstream media and a short-attention-span electorate would blame the Democratic President supportive of said governmental efforts for a supposed failure to effectively negotiate and compromise. Kristol’s words were nothing short of sociopathic: in essence, given a choice between seeing Americans lose their lives or seeing himself lose an ideological argument, he’d chose the former. It is that same mentality that has now given us the moral atrocity known as Graham-Cassidy.

Perhaps 1971 was indeed the tipping point; Powell’s memo helped to turn the GOP into the handmaiden of polluters and plutocrats. Perhaps 1993 was the tipping point: Kristol’s memo paved the war for Republicans to effectively choose the death of innocents over their own ideological dishonor. Or, as I have previously argued, perhaps 1988 was the tipping point: Limbaugh’s loathsomeness coarsened America’s political culture, making it relatively easy for Donald Trump to snatch the presidency last year. No matter what moment you chose as the tipping point, it’s clear that the Republican Party has fallen over–and perhaps our democracy as well.

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.