As the historian Richard Hofstadter once observed, the alarming thing about American politics isn’t that most believers in conspiracy theories are crazy. It’s that they aren’t. “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant,” he wrote. Hofstadter’s theory may sound like a description of Donald Trump and his followers, but it was, of course, written much earlier—in 1964, about the encroaching paranoia in American politics expressed by the presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater’s candidacy ultimately flamed out, but the passions and hatreds he inspired have only grown. Now more than ever, the Republican Party has become the vehicle for an assault not only on liberalism, but on American democracy itself.
In the present day, the GOP’s delusions have become so pervasive that even former party stalwarts such as Liz Cheney have ended up as lonely dissidents, reduced to hoping that some sliver of sanity can be retrieved from the wreckage to rebuild the party. Even the events of January 6, 2021, proved no more than a speed bump for the Trumpian project, whose adherents are exploiting it as a kind of Beer Hall Putsch moment to double down on purging the GOP and ensuring fresh fealty to the former guy.
In his excellent new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion, Robert Draper does not delve into the GOP’s past predilection for extremism. At most, he intimates in his introduction that in writing about the Republican Party over the past two decades, he may have been overly influenced by the example of his late father—a former Marine, capitalist, family man, and lifelong Republican—to view the party with a degree of respect it has not merited. Such an upbringing has only augmented Draper’s current consternation at the GOP’s conversion from a party into a Trumpian cult. Now Draper illuminates the enduring grip of the paranoid style in the party—and Trump’s ability to gull his followers—by focusing on the aftermath of January 6. Draper, who is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, focuses on far-right House Republican firebrands such as Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert. He has traveled widely across America to interview both them and their followers. What distinguishes his account from a number of new books about the GOP—including Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists, which traces the rot in the party to the ascension of Newt Gingrich in 1992, and David Corn’s American Psychosis, which emphasizes the long-standing tradition of conspiracy-mongering in the Republican Party—is his firsthand reporting. In recounting the saga of the GOP after January 6, he explains how and why it continues to prostrate itself to Trump.
Draper sets the stage for January 6 by highlighting a number of instances of right-wing violence that presaged it. One arrived on December 4, 2016, when a heavily armed 28-year-old man named Edgar Maddison Welch drove from North Carolina to attack a pizzeria in Northwest Washington, D.C., called Comet Ping Pong. The owner of the pizzeria, James Alefantis, had been mentioned in the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, which ignited a frenzy of speculation about the pizza joint’s putative role in a pedophile ring led by Clinton. Welch, a devotee of 4chan, fired off several shots in the pizzeria as he searched for a torture dungeon that did not exist. He was arrested. No one was injured. The incident seemed faintly ridiculous at the time. But the lunatic mind-set that inspired “Pizzagate,” as it was called, never really went away. Indeed, almost a year later, an aspiring Facebook influencer instructed her followers about a new conspiracy website showing, she wrote, “that John Podesta is a pedophile and pizza gate is real.” Her name was Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Draper, who devotes much attention to Greene, is clearly fascinated by the improbable rise of this gym owner to household name, and the wanton disregard for truth that animated and propelled it. Greene’s explanation of her life, he writes, amounted to “an artisanal blend of truth, untruth, and omission.” He reports that her father, Bob, also had a penchant for exaggeration, claiming that he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize. Marjorie herself would assert that she had “run a hell of a successful construction company,” when in fact she ran a CrossFit Passion gym. By 2017, she had sold the gym, had a lot of free time on her hands, and tumbled into the world of internet conspiracies. She became obsessed with unlocking supposed hidden truths that elites were trying to conceal from her about the homegrown traitors, globalists, and communists who were trying to pervert America’s true destiny. Greene, who had declared that Muslims don’t belong in government and that George Soros was a Nazi, quickly became the “it girl” of MAGA World. The COVID-19 crisis became a star-making opportunity, tailor-made for her to peddle dangerous assertions, including that the virus was man-made and “not dangerous for non-obese people and those under 65.” She also introduced three articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden, whom she branded a “pseudo-dictator.” (Perhaps she thought it would have been better had he been a real one.)
As with more than a few Trump confederates who railed about a stolen election, the conspiracy theories and the grift ended up shading nicely into one another. Greene, for instance, blew off attending a Justice for J6 rally. An adviser to her told Draper, “What does it get her? It doesn’t get her more support. It doesn’t get her more fund-raising dollars.”
One rally she did attend took place at the Orlando World Center Marriott on February 25, 2022. It was held by the America First PAC, headed by the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, an admirer of Benito Mussolini. When Greene appeared, Russian President Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine. Seconds before she took the stage, Draper writes, the attendees shouted, “Pu-tin! Pu-tin! Pu-tin!” in honor of the invasion. Greene’s appearance there amounted to a recruiting mission. Fuentes, Draper writes, “possessed something Greene and [Paul] Gosar both wanted: an energetic base of young right-wing Christians who craved a patriarch.”
If an uneasy mix of grift and ideological passion characterizes much of the MAGAverse, Gosar, who served as Greene’s mentor in Congress, seems like more of a right-wing purist. According to Draper, Gosar was a true believer long before the fictions he promulgates became widespread. In 2015, he was the sole legislator to refuse to attend the historic address of Pope Francis to Congress, condemning the pope’s “socialist taking points.” The August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gosar declared, was financially supported by Soros, who had “turned in his own people to the Nazis.” He was an early adopter when it came to the Big Lie. On November 4, 2020—the day after the election—he drove from Flagstaff to Phoenix, Arizona, where he walked through downtown in a navy jacket and jeans, clutching a white megaphone in his left hand. Several staffers and allies accompanied him. After he reached the county recorder’s office, Gosar shouted to several hundred assembled Trump supporters, “Patriots! They’re not gonna steal this election from us, are they?”
Gosar’s ad hoc protest has the distinction of being the very first “Stop the Steal” rally in America. His efforts did not stop there. On November 7, his chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, drove to a private airstrip several miles from the Phoenix airport where he and several others watched as men in suits loaded large boxes that they were convinced contained illegal ballots onto an airplane. (The Korean Air flight they recorded, of course, was never found to contain any ballots.) “As it would soon become clear,” Draper writes, “Paul Gosar’s suspicions were shared by tens of millions of conservative Americans. That their beloved Donald J. Trump might somehow be a historically unpopular president—one whose Gallup approval rating never topped 49 percent at any point during his four-year term—was a reality from which right-wing media and self-segregation had thoroughly buffered them.”
Why did the GOP sink to these depths? Draper offers some useful reminders of the lengths to which party elders went to connive at Trump’s criminal actions during his presidency, granting enough legitimacy to some of the earlier grifts and effectively ensuring that they were powerless to stop later ones. Consider Liz Cheney. It was none other than Cheney who spearheaded the defense of Trump as the Republican Conference chair during his first impeachment trial over Ukraine. She might have disapproved privately of Trump’s attempt to suborn Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as part of his scheme to win reelection, but she focused her fire on the Democrats, who Cheney stated “will be held accountable by history for what they are doing.” According to Draper, Cheney’s “condemnation of the Democrats was thoroughly consonant with Trump’s insistence that he was the victim of ‘the greatest witch-hunt in American history.’ ” It was Trump’s cavalier handling of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, that prompted her to break with him. But the damage was already done. In essence, January 6 became a litmus test in the GOP that worked to Trump’s benefit. It was the ultimate indignity, signaling that a Republican was ready to put their conscience in a permanent blind trust on behalf of Trump.
Draper recounts that the morning after Michigan Representative Fred Upton voted to impeach Trump over January 6, he had breakfast with Arthur C. Brooks, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute. “You know, Fred,” the perennially optimistic Brooks said, “former presidents tend to fade away. It’s going to happen with Trump too.” Upton responded, “No, it’s not. Not with this guy. I still think he’s going to be our next nominee.”
Whether he is the nominee in 2024 or not, Trump, like Goldwater, has fundamentally altered the Republican Party for years, if not decades, to come. The party’s candidates are aping his refusal to concede defeat, demonizing Democrats as an internal subversive enemy, and embracing a variety of hallucinatory conspiracy theories as the ticket to electoral success. In focusing on Trump’s enablers in Congress and elsewhere, Draper helps to show why the fringe became the center in the GOP—and why it isn’t going away anytime soon.