Since Nixon: The party of personal deniability

by | Aug 29, 2022 | Editor's Blog | 6 comments

Yesterday, conservative pundit Matt K. Lewis asked in an article, “When did the GOP become the party of jerks?” Conservatives on Twitter almost universally replied that the behavior started because Democrats were so mean to Mitt Romney in 2012. Their response is laughable because it ignores the behavior of their party for the past 50 years. It’s also a delusional attempt to blame Democrats for the rise of Trump. 

What Republicans are saying is, “Look, we nominated a decent guy for president in 2012 and he got trashed by Democrats, so we learned to take the gloves off.” They forget to mention that Republicans spent the four years before they nominated Mitt Romney questioning Barack Obama’s residency, religion, and legitimacy to be president. Most Republican elected officials wouldn’t condemn the birthers any more than they will condemn Trump today.

But Republicans embraced crude tactics long before that. They questioned the patriotism of Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. They also attacked the valor of John Kerry, implying that he lied to win his medals in that same war. They let all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories fester throughout the 1990s, calling federal agents “jack-booted thugs.” George H. W. Bush used Willie Horton to fire up the wing of the party animated by fear of Black people. Jesse Helms accused African Americans of stealing jobs that should have been for White people. GOP operatives like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort have been using smear tactics against Democrats since at least the 1970s. Few Republicans repudiated that behavior. So, they’ve been jerks for a lot longer than Romney’s campaign.

Lewis is really writing about the anti-anti-Trumpers’ unwillingness to take responsibility for Trump. In their telling of the rise of the reactionary authoritarianism (semi-fascism) that has taken over the GOP, it’s really the Democrats’ fault. They might not like Trump, but how can you blame people for getting so angry after the way Democrats treated Republicans like Mitt Romney? The angry electorate that cheered Trump, his racism, and xenophobia sprung up out of nothing as a reaction against Democrats trashing Romney for working for an investment firm that benefitted from creative destruction and because he derided 47% of Americans as “takers.”

The former party of personal responsibility is now the party of victimhood and blame. Their motto should be the “Devil made me do it” because they certainly didn’t start acting so nasty on their own. The anti-anti-Trumpers use their delusional tale to justify their continued support for a GOP that now openly welcomes racists, violent militias, and neo-Nazis into their fold. Of course, they are denying those groups are part of their base, even as Trump and other elected Republicans court them and refuse to condemn them.

The anti-anti-Trumpers like Lewis and Bethany Mandel, who seem to be decent people, are in denial about their roles in the creation of Trump. The forces that led to his takeover of the GOP have been in the party for decades and they were as mean then as they are now. Ron DeSantis and Mehmet Oz are just saying out loud what Republicans have been saying privately to a certain part of their base for decades. Trump just brought them out of the closet. Lewis and company pretend that the free-marketeers and country club Republicans were the only wings of the GOP when a substantial part of the base has always been animated by attacks on “others.” Just ask Richard Nixon. 


  1. C. Earl Edmondson

    While “we’re” at it, don’t forget to mention the major role that Newt Gingrich played in getting Republicans to view all Democrats as enemies with whom no compromise was acceptable and who should be destroyed. Using the example of Khomenei, the exiled imam who smuggled audiotapes calling for Islamic revolution into Iran, Gingrich used audiotapes sent to all GOP candidates for the House in1994 to deliver his marching orders.

  2. JB

    Excuse me, but was it Democrats that coined the pejorative “Mitt Romney Republicans”? Pretty sure that was the Deplorable Wing of the GQP.

  3. TC

    The quest for power and the subsequent paranoia of Richard Nixon was his raison d’etre during his time in office. It reigned supreme in the Oval Office until the arrival of Donald Trump. I’m not convinced by a preponderance of the evidence that there has ever been a more corruptible president than Donald Trump. Which is a tall order in comparison with Nixon and Agnew.

    I’d like to take a moment though to point out an opinion written in 2000 by Randolph D. Moss, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Counsel. The opinion memorandum is 46 pages long; not what you would call light reading. I’m not about to copy/paste that memo here. I fear I’d be banished forthwith from the platform. I will however provide the paragraph conclusion to that memo. It reads:

    “We conclude that the Constitution permits a former [’resident to be criminally
    prosecuted for the same offenses for which he was impeached by the House and
    acquitted by the Senate while in office.
    As the length of this memorandum indicates, we think the question is more
    complicated than it might first appear. In particular, we think that there is a reasonable argument that the Impeachment Judgment Clause should be read to bar
    prosecutions following acquittal by the Senate and that disqualification from federal office upon conviction by the Senate bears some of the markers of criminal
    punishment. Nonetheless, we think our conclusion accords with the text of the
    Constitution, reflects the founders’ understanding of the new process of impeachment they were creating, fits the Senate’s understanding of its role as the impeachment tribunal, and makes for a sensible and fair system of responding to the misdeeds of federal officials.”

    This opinion shows a clear path to the criminal prosecution of Donald J. Trump on the impeachment charges brought by the House and for which he was subsequently acquitted by the Senate for; twice. While the Justice Department has a ‘policy’ of not prosecuting a sitting president, a policy hardly rises to the level of law or precedent. No, an opinion likewise fails to carry the weight of law either. It does however provide ample assertive argument for the criminal prosecution of that official. Acquitted or convicted, on impeachment charges. Who, in this case, happens to be a former President.

    The point is pretty well moot, but it does illustrate another missed opportunity to remove this stain on the Republic. I hold a lot of trepidation about the possibility of Trump ever being held accountable, knowing full well that he should be. Something that hasn’t ever happened across his lifetime.

  4. Jim Neal

    I reacted like @cocodog upon reading this piece and immediately thought of Lee Atwater as the personification of the sort of politics that led the GOP to take a counter-democratic turn- an ecosystem that also included GOP operatives like Manafort, Stone and Charlie Black. Atwater and other political henchmen perfected the political dark art of weaponizing race to appeal to the basest instincts of aggrieved White voters. Atwater served in the first Reagan administration before moving to the D.C. lobbyist Black, Manafort and Stone (as in Charlie, Paul and Roger- whose first client was….Donald J. Trump). After Reagan won re-election Atwater served as campaign manager for Bush’s 1988 campaign and headed the RNC after Bush won the presidency.

    But upon reflection I don’t think Lee Atwater was without a lot of assistance in honing his craft from North Carolina politics. Sure he was a native South Carolinian, protege of Strom Thurmond, Harry Dent, Carroll Campbell and other racist Republicans. However Atwater was no doubt influenced by political leaders and operatives in the Tar Heel State- specifically, Democratic politicians and pundits. When one speaks of the demise of the GOP, you can not ignore the extraordinary influence that White Democrats in North Carolina exerted in giving rise to MAGA Republicans, specifically the notorious 1950 Democratic US Senate primary in which White supremacist Democrats aligned to unseat Democrat Frank Porter Graham from the Senate. That race in marked an inflection point in terms of weaponizing race in politics, a lesson that ultimately stoked the rise of MAGA Republicans. It was a union amongst powerful, moneyed, White Democratic interests in North Carolina during the 1950s that launched the career of Willis Smith (law partner of WRAL founder A.J. Fletcher and former president of the American Bar Association) and more importantly Smith’s publicity director, a little-known 29 year-old, Democratic journalist named Jesse Helms.

    That 1950 Senate race arguably was the moment in time- well before Lee Atwater emerged- that set the tone for weaponizing race on an industrial scale to win elections. The 1950 North Carolina Democratic Senate primary demonstrated the effectiveness of fear-baiting White voters to win at the polls. Helms and his political allies elevated that practice to an art form through vehicles such as the National Congressional Club, the groundbreaking fundraising juggernaut and PAC founded by Raleigh attorney Tom Ellis (like Helms, a former Democrat) and Carter Wrenn. Lee Atwater may have take credit for the Southern strategy, but the core principles he embraced of lying and race-baiting had its origins in the Democratic Party in North Carolina decades before Atwater emerged and certainly prior to the election of Richard Nixon. I disagree that it’s delusional to blame Democrats for the rise of Trump- a former Democrat himself. Southern Democrats set the table well before Richard Nixon was elected and continued doing so, ever subtly, into the 1980s and 1990s.

    Clearly the modern-day Democratic Party has shed most of its racist past: there is no comparison between moderate/conservative Democrats and the MAGA GOP. I don’t believe the same can be said of all Democratic voters. Whiteness and the privilege it has conferred is not so easily ignored at the ballot box. Journalist, political consultant and Jim Hunt biographer Gary Pearce has stated unambiguously that politics in North Carolina have always been about race. He’s right- though I’d argue that politics in the South has always been about race- anad that the modern-day Republican Party has weaponized racial politics on a national scale, MAGA being nothing more that a code word for returning to the good old days when Whiteness reigned.

    It’s complicated- the confluence of race, party and politics- regardless of party affiliation. I’ll never forget attending a NCDP Sanford Hunt Dinner fundraiser in Greensboro back in 2007 (this was prior to renaming the event the Sanford Hunt Frye Dinner to include former Black Chief Justice Henry Frye). Former Governor Jim Hunt was the keynote speaker and before he took the dais a video was played for the audience highlighting Hunt’s campaigns. There was one television ad that stood out- I don’t recall if it was from one of his four gubernatorial races or the vitriolic Senate race against Jesse Helms in 1984 and which Helms took Hunt down based on his overt appeals to racism. In the clip, Hunt is extolling his tough on crime bona fides (sound familiar) saying “We’ll build more prisons and we’ll make them build them”. The video panned a chain gang clad in orange jumpsuits clearing brush and laying bricks- presumably for a new penal facility. They were all Black men. After the lights went up and as Hunt approached the dais, the crowd gave Hunt a standing ovation.

    • cocodog

      It goes without argument, that at one time in the history of the south Republicans were as unpopular as COVID. Leading up to and after the civil war, Republicans were associated with freeing the slaves, carpet bagging and about every evil defined in the bible.
      However, Lee Atwater and his marry little band of opportunists and near do wells are a product of modern times. Roger Stone (AKA: the white assassin is proud of the tattoo of Nixon’s face on his back) adopted many of Lee’s techniques as did many others operating under the color of the GOP flag. Moreover, I am sure they brought innumerable innovations to the table.
      My comments were directed to the current state of the Republican party vs the Democratic Party. What the GOP has become, not what it was is my focus. It is founded on deception ( Trump is credited with thirty thousand lies while in office), racism and bigotry. He with the aid of his MAGA followers have assaulted the foundations of democracy and deceived many into believing they must engage in some sort of revolt. The notion of elections being rigged is false. A plethora of bipartisan studies, coupled with at least sixty cases tossed out of court have proven this is another Trump lie.
      A regular commentator on Fox and Friends admitted Trump was wrong in removing classified documents from the White House. Several of his attorneys have been disbarred, spent time in or their way to jail.
      Currently, this is the face of the Republican Party. It is fairly evident this is not how to run a political party. I am confident that Lindsey Graham’s recent comments to the effect there will be rioting in the streets, will have no effect on stopping the criminal investigation of Trump, nor strike fear into the population. We are a country that historically resents bullying and threats.

  5. cocodog

    Greed, combined with desire for power corrupted the GOP decades ago. They were no longer anything near the party of Lincoln. With the skilled advice and guidance of a political guru, Lee Atwater the party was able to convince a large segment of white voters, Republicans stood for everything they really believed in like racism, bigotry, and ignorance. Trump took advantage of this and made a few bucks at the same time. Now he must answer for his wrong doings. Unlike his smarter predecessors, who escaped the legal system with some exceptions , Trump is just stupid. He will be indicted

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