The Destructionists (2022), by Dana Milbank


The subtitle of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s book is: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-up of the Republican Party. Here briefly are highlights of the alarming tale, most of them surely familiar but seldom pulled together as a multiyear drama.

Act One: The arch villain is Newt Gingrich: beginning in the 1990s, he rushes on stage and makes a sort of permanent GOP campaign out of false claims, innuendo, conspiracy theories, refusal to cooperate, and obvious appeals to “white people, particularly those without college degrees, who fear the loss of their way of life in a multicultural America”; in short, the Repubicans’ “Southern Strategy” writ large. And with many followers such as Tom DeLay and Dan Burton, Gingrich then mounts an attack on the bases of democracy, on civil behavior, on truth itself, on attempts to eliminate racism (in doing so appealing to white supremacist grievance), on the foundations of our democratic institutions, on national unity and on democracy itself: for example, the sad suicide of Vince Foster, Clinton’s deputy White House counsel, is falsely implied by Republicans to have been a murder with Clinton’s involvement and this lie sets the stage for the tactic of fingering Democrats with virtually any falsehood–promoting obscene art, supporting an all-powerful national school board, abortion, “promoting homosexuality to schoolchildren” and many other such claims. In particular, the art of the wild innuendo turns on timing–wait to make the false charge until the victim hasn’t much time to refute it before facing an election or a key congressional action. Not surprisingly, Milbank points to Gingrich as the leader in changing the language of politics from the “genial cordiality” of the past to the “slashing, personal, bitter language we routinely hear from political leaders today.” Add to this the emergence of “the modern militia movement” with the encouragement of right wing media, a phenomenon Milbank traces back to the 1990s.

Act Two: Enter the George W. Bush presidency and Karl Rove. Here is a telling story:

“…After Hillary Clinton suffered a concussion in 2012 because she fainted while fighting a stomach virus and hit her head, Rove floated a conspiracy theory. ‘Thirty days in the hospital?’ he asked. ‘And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.

“In reality, Clinton spent four days in the hospital, and the glasses were of the sort commonly used to reduce double vision after a concussion. But ‘reality’ didn’t matter.

This story is all-too typical.

Yet another GOP signature sentiment in the Clinton years came after Clinton defeated Dole in 1996. Margaret Tutwiler, a “Republican strategist,” warned that for Republicans to win future elections, “We’re going have to take on board the religious nuts.”

Nothing could be more salient for today.

Act Three. We are more than knowledgeable about the playing out to today of the above points enunciated by Milbank, especially this latter one. No need for further history leading to the Trump period: impeachment, falsehoods, personal attacks, security compromises, negligence, encouragement of violent militia attacks, and on and on. Milbank cites chapter and verse. I am certain The Destructionists will comprise one of the best records of these dismal affairs.

More generally, Milbank’s comprehensive book is immensely valuable in its depiction that the threat to Democracy is (a) ever there and (b) reflective of the worst tendencies in us Homo sapiens. Sometimes you wonder whether we might better be called, Natural Selectees. I did so wonder while reading Milbank. I thought about the fact that we are so much in the grip of natural selection–the conflicts and self-defeating behaviors and mutations it seems to compel–that one wonders whether there might be some undeniable “anthropological” explanations–the most fundamental ones–for the GOP crack-up (explanations that apply far beyond the GOP).

Accordingly, I play the following scenario out sometimes: Recall that in Gingrich’s time Republicans saw the handwriting on the wall: the emerging racial and ethnic diversity of Americans, urbanization, globalism and many, many other trends leading away from classic GOP times: inevitably the Republican political strategy simply must have begun in that day to paint this enlarging picture as unfavorable for them then and certainly later. But something, they reckoned, must be done. Something must be tried. We can’t just all open hardware stores. But what? Well, suppose it involves the “religious nuts” and all it implies. At first, it’s a sort of strategy in which you, imagining that you are sitting in as a GOPer, might hold your nose. But, you tell yourself and others: “It comes with the territory.” “Any voter is a friend.” “You have to pay your dues.” But suppose that as you do your duty, you find somewhat to your surprise that you are becoming a lauded, even beloved, figure. You draw crowds. You learn the crowd-control cues, most of them angry. Adoring crowds. They sincerely love you. Indeed: “They love me,” says one prominent rally-prone Republican almost every day. And, hey, you’re making money in the process! Campaign contributions, media, and so on. So: You exclaim, These are good god-fearing people. Yes, it feels good to be cheered. It feels good when people say they’d take up arms for you.

Sinclair Lewis tells this story of adventures in hypocrisy dramatically in Elmer Gantry (1927), and Lewis fittingly dedicates that searing novel to H. L. Mencken.

Does today’s American right-wing version of it have a decisive future?

Not if the rest of us vote.