On the shelf
The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party
Doubleday: 416 pages, $30
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Dana Milbank has been covering Washington politics for decades, most recently for the Washington Post. After living at the center of the storm, he wrote a book, The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party, which attempts to broaden the party of Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and co To bring perspective to Donald Trump – and also to Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and those who took part in the January 6 riot.
“Writing about politics for the newspaper three or four days a week is like watching a different version of a train wreck over and over again,” Milbank said in a recent video interview. There was a sense of relief stepping back to see the bigger picture, he added, except that it made him realize “It’s essentially the same story that’s just progressing to where we are now. Looking back you say: ‘I didn’t see it that way at the time.’ It’s a depressing story.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Their main argument seems to be that Republicans have been peddling disinformation for decades, beginning with the suicide of Vince Foster, the Assistant White House Counsel to Bill Clinton.
There were always people on the sidelines with conspiracy theories and crazy wrong ideas, but they were kept on the sidelines. But suddenly you had people like [Indiana Congressman] Dan Burton said things that were obviously not true. The Republican leadership and commentary, people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, were willing to say anything and let these people into the mainstream because they thought it would bring energy and enthusiasm.
They thought they could open the curtain just a little bit. With the tea party, they let her in a little further. It happened over and over again and gradually built up. And when a president says those things, others feel like it’s safe to come out and say them, too.
They argue that the little lies of the 1990s were test cases for the more destructive “big lie” that Trump and his cronies have perpetuated. Was there anything the Democrats, the media, or mainstream Republicans should have done to turn the tide, or was everyone the proverbial frog in a pot of slow-heating water?
It’s the frog in the pot. During the first administration of George W. Bush, I was reporting for the Post at the White House, and there seemed to be terrible, bitter fighting. But now I like talking to guys [Bush’s chief of staff] Andy Card and ask what everyone was arguing about – in hindsight it seemed like we were all inside the 40 yard lines and now things just got so out of hand.
You can say, “Wait a minute, what about the intimidation during the recount and Bush versus Gore and selling the [Iraq] War.” There was a lot of argument about these things, but I don’t think people thought this could be the end of our way of governing.
But your book documents Karl Rove and Dick Cheney lying to win and go to war – and how their tears in the very fabric of a democratic society led Trump to shred it completely. I am surprised to hear that you ascribe a common value system to this government.
At the time, I kept yelling at Cheney about the Iraq lies, but I didn’t realize that this was the path to destroying our democratic way of life. I don’t think you could say, “And that’s why we’re going to have an uprising and people aren’t going to believe in free and fair elections.”
Their statistics highlight how much more partisan and dysfunctional Republicans have made the government. But Ronald Reagan said, “The government is the problem.” Wasn’t that their goal?
The party has evolved from a party that believed in small or limited government to one that is anti-government, as seen in the militia movement of the 1990s. Reagan had a more genteel approach and was not anti-government. But then people say the government has black helicopters and they’re targeting us, and Congressman Tom DeLay talks about “government thugs with boots,” and that leads to the ideas of a deep state.
Were these shifts strategic or opportunistic?
I think the people in the Republican Party have decided it’s in their interest to tell these people what they want to hear. They fell for that.
Look at Trump. When he considered running for the Reform Party presidency in 1999, it was all about tolerance and he was pro-choice and pro-health. He is all tactics and opportunism. With few exceptions, I don’t think he cares the slightest about politics and ideology. Trump is not straying very far from his base. He always tells them what he hears from them.
Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” is a noble sentiment. But shouldn’t the Democrats be more aggressive in challenging those who support the Big Lie and insurgency? If they’re unpatriotic and acting like fascists, why don’t they say so?
There is room to be more honest and aggressive in their language without dehumanizing and dishonest rhetoric. It is not unreasonable to call these people unpatriotic. It would be more honest terminology in our politics.
You can’t call all Republicans fascists every day because that’s not true and only serves to incite incitement. But one cannot ignore the fascist influences. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose own adviser accused him of sounding like Goebbels, will hang out at the CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference] in Texas with Trump and Republican congressmen. So the Democrats can say Republicans should stay away from the fascists.
They write about anocracy (part democracy, part dictatorship) and include quotes about an approaching civil war. Where are we headed?
We must return to a point where there is a common set of facts, otherwise nothing will work. I think we will return there but I don’t know what will happen until then. My optimism is long term – this fight is racist and will be resolved because we will not be a white dominated country – but that is in 30 or 40 years. I’m not optimistic in the short term.
All signs of our path are currently pointing in the wrong direction. The violence could be higher. There will be a deforestation of democratic institutions and freedom of the press. We can’t predict how much of it will be lost until things change, so all we can do is keep fighting every turn to get it.
Our constitution was written to protect the white and the rich. We are burdened by an electoral college and a rigged system. What would you change if you were in charge?
Don’t put me in charge. I share the frustration at a system that gives Wyoming residents 70 votes in the California Senate. But the constitution is all we have. The fact that the right doesn’t play by the rules doesn’t justify the left not playing by them.
The only way forward right now is to fight to defend a system that has worked imperfectly for nearly 250 years. It hasn’t worked for everyone, and it hasn’t worked all of the time, but it has continued to evolve and improve until recently. We should play within the system until that system is completely destroyed. Unfortunately, however, we are developing in this direction.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-08-10/dana-milbank-charts-the-gops-25-year-journey-to-jan-6-hes-optimistic-in-the-long-term Dana Milbank on GOP, Jan. 6, his book ‘The Deconstructionists’