How did the Republican Party go from being the party of George H.W. Bush to the party of Donald Trump? That is, from a party of a more or less civic-minded and mainstream conservatism to an extremist party organized around anti-facts and white rage?
It’s an inevitable question to ask at a time like this, as we watch a party morph into a cult. This is not to lionize the GOP of Bush Sr. Yes, he did stand up to the new right in some important ways. He passed a tax increase in 1990 that infuriated conservatives but helped the economy. That same year, he signed a generous immigration bill, which increased legal immigration to this country by 40 percent. And his Environmental Protection Agency actually tried to… protect the environment! If we could have 40 like him back on Capitol Hill, we’d take them in a heartbeat.
But there were other ways in which the Bushes—especially Dubya—helped abet this tragic march. So here, in six steps, is what happened.
1. Generational degeneration
Bush Sr. was the last president from the Depression-War generation. After him, we witnessed the transfer of power from Bush Sr.’s Greatest Generation to the Boomers.
Now: Most journalism about the Boomer generation takeover has focused on Democrats and liberals, because in the collective media brain, Boomers equals liberals (the reality is much more complicated), and because Bill Clinton was the first Boomer president. So conservative Boomers have gotten off easy. But Republican Baby Boomers have been this country’s true moral disaster.
I mean here Newt Gingrich first and foremost, but also people like Dick Cheney and all the other “chicken hawks” who got out of going to Vietnam. At least when people like Clinton ducked Vietnam, they were being consistent with their beliefs. But Gingrich and Cheney and many others were ducking a war they supported. That’s a staggering level of moral hypocrisy that they brought to other venues—Gingrich having an affair with Calista (now America’s emissary to the Vatican?!) while attacking Clinton over Monica; Cheney saying deficits don’t matter—that debased the discourse and made the GOP the actual party of moral relativism.
2. The rise of the right-wing media
Bush Sr. was president when right-wing talk radio first took off. This was a direct result of the Reagan-era FCC’s 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which many conservatives had trained their sights on for years. The repeal was helped along by an anti-Fairness Doctrine decision by a three-judge panel on the D.C. Court of Appeals on which the two-member majority consisted of two judges named Bork and Scalia.
Rush Limbaugh first went national with his radio show the year Bush Sr. was running for president. By Bush’s last year in the White House, Limbaugh had dozens of imitators. Today, Limbaugh is still on the air, and there are hundreds of little Limbaughs around, thousands if you count prominent tweeters and Instagrammers and podcasters. It’s gotten worse under Trump, as everything has, but they’ve been at it for 25 years.
3. The Southernization of the GOP
This started in Bush Sr.’s time, as congressional seats across the South that had been Democratic since Reconstruction flipped to Republican. But it really accelerated when Bush Jr. was president, and it was a conscious strategy on Dubya and Karl Rove’s part—remember that Scriptural dog-whistling he did on the campaign trail? It was aimed chiefly at the South. It’s hard to remember this now, but Clinton had won a number of Southern states, and in 2000, it still seemed plausible that Al Gore might win some of them, too, and it was shocking to a lot of people when Gore couldn’t even carry his own home state—a sure sign that the South was becoming solidly Republican, with all the ideological, cultural, and racial consequences that flow therefrom.
4. A Koched-up party
The Koch brothers had financed various libertarian and conservative think tanks and other projects since the 1970s. David Koch even ran as the vice-presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1980. That was foolishness, wasting money on a campaign that ended up getting less than 2 percent of the vote.
By the 2000s, though, the Koch brothers figured it out. They started bankrolling Republican candidates at all levels of government, and over time—and with an assist or two from the Roberts Supreme Court—they’ve all but bought the Republican Party and turned it very hard right on economic issues.
5. The end of facts
No one lies like Trump lies, that’s a given. On the other hand, not even Trump has told us that some despot halfway across the world is six months away from developing a nuclear bomb and is intent on dropping it on the United States. Compared to that one, Trump is still, er, bush-league.
But the problem here is not just literal falsehoods. It’s the substitution of superstition for objective truth. If you know what I mean when I type the words Terri Schiavo, you will recall the madness that consumed the Republican Party at the time, the war on medical fact that they prosecuted with such cynically confident self-righteousness. It was a seminal moment in the GOP’s retreat to the 17th century.
6. Obama derangement syndrome
Finally, the fact that the country elected a black president pushed millions of right-wing Americans over some psychic cliff and into the arms of the first presidential candidate in modern times who threw away the racial dog whistle and went straight for the megaphone.
It’s understandable at this time that people speak of Bush Sr.’s personal qualities—his courtliness, his sense of duty, and commitment to public service. But those personal qualities weren’t the only factors that produced him. He came from a time and represented a kind of politics that the Republican Party of today has taken many steps to leave dead and buried, unmentioned and in an unmarked grave. His son was complicit in some of those steps. To the extent that he himself never spoke out forcefully against Trump, he bore a little bit of responsibility, too.
But he was out of public life. In his own time, he did at least finally come around as RNC chair to pressing Richard Nixon to resign. When the crisis came, he acted on the democratic instinct. We may soon see if that, too, has been killed.