Book review of The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party by Dana Milbank


As readers of The Washington Post and his syndicated column know, Dana Milbank covers politics with snap and crackle. His gift, and his dogged reporting, serve him well in his new book, “The Destructionists” (good title), on the quarter-century-long crackup of the Republican Party.

While reading it, a line by the late P.J. O’Rourke came to mind: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”

Another line kept coming to me — Ronald Reagan’s farewell letter to the American people, which ends: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Reagan’s letter was dated Nov. 5, 1994. Three days later, Republicans won control of the House and the Senate, led by a pale rider named Newt Gingrich. And hell followed with him.

Milbank traces the descent of the party once led by Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain as it became the party of Gingrich and Mitch McConnell and, ultimately, the cult of Donald Trump. For those once fond of the GOP, it’s like switching the channel from “Father Knows Best” to “The Sopranos.”

That’s a dated but not altogether inapt reference. The ’94 election that ushered in Gingrich’s Republican Revolution also ushered out a Congress led by veterans of World War II. Four years later, the Un-Greatest Generation became its dominant demographic.

As an exercise, try thinking “Party of Lincoln” (or Reagan) as you recite aloud this partial list of post-1994 GOP leaders, grandees, enablers and influencers: Gingrich, Kenneth Starr, Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Reed, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Lee Atwater, Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Karl Rove, Tucker Carlson, Rupert Murdoch, Jack Abramoff, Michael Flynn, Jim Jordan, Steve Bannon, Kevin McCarthy, Ted Cruz, Mark Meadows, John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, Rudy Giuliani, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Josh Hawley, Lindsey Graham, Mo Brooks, Ron Johnson, Lauren Boebert, Elise Stefanik and the 147 members of Congress who on Jan. 6, 2021, voted not to certify Biden’s election, hours after the Capitol was attacked by an insurrectionary mob. Got an ashy taste in your mouth?

The baton that Reagan passed to a new generation became a truncheon in Gingrich’s hands. For those scratching their heads and moaning, “How did this happen?” Milbank has the answer. It all began with the honorable gentleman from Georgia.

Rupert Murdoch famously offered Gingrich a $4.5 million book deal in 1994. That started to smell a tad too stinky. If Gingrich writes his memoirs, he might consider as a title “The Audacity of Mendacity.

It was Newt who pushed the ur-right-wing nutjob conspiracy that Clinton aide Vince Foster was murdered. That big little lie metastasized a quarter-century later into “Stop the Steal.” It was Newt who defended right-wing militias after Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City. And it was Newt who, while leading a hot steaming mess of a personal life, fiercely agitated to oust Bill Clinton for playing hide-the-cigar with a 20-something intern.

More significant, perhaps, it was Newt who in 1990 poisoned the well by issuing a manual with 65 insults and abusive phrases for Republicans to deploy against Democrats: “traitors,” “sick,” “corrupt,” “betray,” “bizarre,” “pathetic,” “abuse of power,” “anti-flag,” “anti-family,” “anti-child,” etc. To a group of College Republicans he mused, “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Problem solved.

The purpose of his Devil’s Dictionary and his sermon on civility to peach-fuzzed Republicans was to inculcate demonization and to weaponize paranoia. And so here we are, in the era of “alternative facts,” QAnon, Jewish space lasers, anti-vaxxing, birthers and Alex Jones conspiracies about the dead children of Sandy Hook being ketchup-smeared actors in a government plot to seize our AR-15s. The Gazpacho police are watching.

While Gingrich was toxifying the Republican Party, someone up the Acela corridor was watching, and learning. In Milbank’s narrative, Gingrich emerges as Trump’s second-most-pernicious mentor, after Roy Cohn. What a pair of pedagogues!

It was more than just a vocabulary lesson. Gingrich inspired in his epigones a destructive — or to use a favorite term of his brightest student, “nasty” — style of politics.

“The epic government failures of the last quarter century,” Milbank writes, “can all be traced back to Gingrich and the savage politics he pioneered: three impeachments; two botched wars and a botched pandemic response; several government shutdowns; a seven-fold increase in the federal debt; a market collapse and the Great Recession. … It’s no wonder that there has been a wholesale loss of faith in American democracy.”

Milbank adduces inflection points in the GOP’s hostile takeover of politics: the repeal of the “Gephardt Rule,” which ushered in government-by-continuing-resolution and automatic increases in the debt limit. He writes, “Congress’s ability to function never returned.” The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was a biggie, launching the era of super PACs and “dark money.” Profligate spending under George W. Bush forever made laughable any Republican assertion of fiscal continence. The GOP fomented a racial backlash against Barack Obama, turning “itself into the party of white grievance. All that was left for Trump to do was to light a match.”

Debuting in 1996, Fox News played an indispensable role in the destruction, providing airtime for what Mike Pence might call the rubber-room wing of the Republican Party. Its poster boy, the discrepantly cherubic Tucker Carlson, recently showcased a three-part series arguing that the Jan. 6 insurrection was staged by anti-Trump forces. Joseph Goebbels is smiling, if not in heaven. It might be funny, but the consequence of all this supersaturating hyper-mendacity is that 70 percent of Republicans insist that the 2020 election was fixed.

Occupying a toasty spot in Milbank’s Ninth Circle of the Republican inferno is McConnell, who more than anyone besides Trump has tainted and delegitimized the Supreme Court by turning it into “another political branch of government.” His refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing, followed by his detonation of the “nuclear option” by abolishing the filibuster to seat Neil Gorsuch, were masterpieces of cynicism. Four years earlier, McConnell insisted that eliminating the filibuster would mean “the end of the Senate.” Today’s packed, Catholic Supreme Court is as much his creation as Trump’s. That crashing sound you hear is the temple, coming down.

The court was once the most respected branch of government. Now, in back-to-back rulings, it has rearmed New Yorkers and thrown stare decisis out with the bathwater. Susan Collins, heir to the desk of Margaret Chase Smith, is feeling a bit had by Brett “I Am a Don’t-Rock-the-Boat Kind of Judge” Kavanaugh. And here comes Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife, to boost our confidence in the highest court with suggestions on how to overturn a presidential election.

Milbank’s book isn’t without flaws. He overreaches at times, and here and there the writing feels rushed or breathless. (“Once you’ve unhitched yourself from the truth wagon, there’s no limit to the places you can visit.”) But these are minor complaints, alongside the book’s considerable merit.

What will rise from the ashes is hard to predict. A kinder and gentler version of Trump, in the person of Ron DeSantis? Or is that oxymoronic?

All I know is that after reading “The Destructionists,” I needed a drink. Perhaps this much is safe to say: that as long as there are Republicans like Liz Cheney, Mike Pence (sigh), Adam Kinzinger, Jeffrey Rosen, Richard Donoghue, Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger, Cassidy Hutchinson and Sarah Matthews, we may yet get through this dark night and see the bright new day the Gipper told us would always be dawning in America.

Christopher Buckley’s novel “Has Anyone Seen My Toes?” will be published in September.

The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party

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