On Tuesday evening, Donald Trump conjured up America’s worst nightmare. Using vaguely coded language, he called on his gun-toting supporters to intervene against Hillary Clinton and her potential Supreme Court nominees.
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When one presidential candidate makes statements that can be interpreted as calling for the assassination of another presidential candidate, all doubt should be erased: America’s political system is facing a monumental crisis, an existential threat to its very survival.
How did this happen? Not through some fluke, some random set of chance events all coming together to unleash, out of the blue, the monstrosity that is Trump and Trumpism. No, this has been made possible by a GOP that, since the early 1990s, has trafficked in extremism, and stood in the way of political compromise.
Nearly six years ago, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell stated that he wanted to become Senate majority leader to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president. It was, he averred, his number one priority.
Since then, the Republicans in the Senate and the Congress have done anything and everything they can to sabotage and undermine Obama’s presidency and to seek to delegitimize his very election. They have closed the government down, threatened to default on the U.S. debt, held one spurious, time-wasting vote after another on repealing healthcare reform, refused to even hold hearings for his Supreme Court nominee.
Many Republicans around the country, unable to make peace with the idea of an African-American president, have insinuated that Obama was in fact Kenyan-born and thus an usurper; many have continued to claim that he is a closet Muslim, and have done nothing to explain to their increasingly intolerant supporters that even if Obama were a Muslim there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that would preclude him from being elected President. From 2008 onwards, many Republicans have stressed Obama’s Muslim-sounding middle name, “Hussein,” and just this week, Trump repeatedly claimed that Obama founded ISIS.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who likes to paint himself as the grownup in a room full of squabbling kids, has over the past few months had to explain how he disagrees with one disgusting Trump statement after another – and, in the very next sentence, to explain how he is disavowing the statements but not the candidate chosen by his party’s primary voters. As I have written before on this, it’s as if Ryan thinks two candidates are running for president under his party’s banner: Trump’s run-away mouth, which he hopes doesn’t win and clearly wishes he could lock shut; and Trump-the-party-man, whom he hopes, for nothing other than partisan advantage, does win.
That McConnell and Ryan, neither of whom agrees with the bulk of Trump’s agenda, can still support this utterly odious man is one of the great political scandals of our age. At least one commentator has, in recent weeks, argued that the McConnell-Ryan nexus supporting Trump is a “Quisling parade” – Quisling being the Norwegian, fascist-leaning leader during World War II – since there is now no doubt the extent of Trump’s bigotry, his willingness to stoke up whatever racial and religious hatreds he can to divide-and-conquer, and his frighteningly authoritarian and violent governing instincts. It’s a strong analogy – people willing to work with an unstable, narcissistic, wannabe-tyrant not out of ideological sympathy but purely in pursuit of power.
These Quislings didn’t emerge out of nowhere. They have, rather, reared their heads at the back-end of decades of increasingly delusional and extremist Republican politics – on everything from climate-change denial to gutting financial system regulations and eviscerating public health expenditures. Under the radar, for years now, a significant part of the GOP base, increasingly paranoid, armed to the teeth, intolerant of dissent, unabashedly racist, hostile to immigrants and to religious minorities, has embraced deeply authoritarian political solutions to the crises they see as engulfing America. Yes, many of them are suffering economically. And, yes, they have been left behind and their concerns ignored under the regime of globalization. But the “solutions” they have turned to do not, and cannot, offer genuine answers to these complex problems.
In many ways that bloc, which over the past half year has seized control of one of the country’s two great political parties, more closely mirrors the belief system of the National Front in France, or the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, than it does any respectable conservative party in the Western world.
This extremist party is Newt Gingrich’s political home – a constituency raised on scorched earth, take-no-prisoners, hyper-conservatism; a constituency unable to see government as anything other than bad, and thus happy to vote into the highest office on earth a man who, if he were in elementary school, would be expelled for his violent and hate-filled actions and language. It is the inarticulate extremist Sarah Palin’s political home – and, remember, Palin was brought onto the national stage by the supposedly moderate and pragmatic Sen. John McCain. It is the ranting Tea Party’s political home.
It is the home of the increasing number of state senators and representatives around the country who routinely make virulently anti-Islamic statements that bear more than a striking resemblance to the anti-Jewish propaganda of Hitler’s Germany. It is talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter’s political home. It is the home of flat-taxers, defenders of torture and opponents of America’s continued membership in the United Nations.
This is the ragtag GOP that has, since the Reagan years, swung so far to the right that its chosen presidential candidate now threatens to take down the democratic political structures of the country and is, according to 50 senior national security experts from within the GOP, likely to be, if elected “the most reckless” president in the country’s history. It is, in short, a party whose leaders have shamelessly nurtured a neo-Fascist sensibility among their base, hoping it could use-and-abuse those people, seeking their votes with evermore-extreme policy platforms, then belatedly withdrawing from those positions once in office.
Now that base is running amok, creating a river of toxic political sludge through which Americans will be slogging for decades. The hatreds and divisions they have unleashed, legitimized, and mainstreamed, are genies out of a bottle. It will take years of astute, calm, and genuinely adult political leadership to even begin to fix this mess.
More than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy warned foreign countries not do dally with authoritarian Soviet leaders in hopes of short-term gain. “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside,” he famously opined.
Today, that tiger is once more on the prowl in the U.S. of A. And, in his hunger, he’s chowing down on the Republican Party elephant.
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Nation, the New Yorker online, Salon, Slate, the Guardian, and many other publications. His 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty,” was listed by the New York Times as among the 100 notable books of the year. His most recent book, “The House of Twenty Thousand Books,” was listed by Kirkus as among the best non-fiction books of 2015. Abramsky is currently writing a book on the role of fear in American political culture.