Watching U.S. President Donald Trump push the world’s oldest modern democracy to a cliff edge is indeed a fearful, gut-wrenching moment for anyone who values free and fair elections. Whether it is an inflection moment for western democratic values is unclear.
But what is indisputable is that the sorry state of U.S. presidential political affairs is no surprise. Trump’s continued efforts to overturn the election result and his political party’s corrosive complicity is the nadir of a slow motion 50-year Republican Party descent from moderation to extreme right wing populism.
I can attest to that descent first hand as it has spanned my lifetime and political interests forged by my father, a Republican Party stalwart until his untimely death in the 1970s. He was inspired by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln as well Dwight Eisenhower’s WW II heroics and accomplishments as a two-term president when he led the Republican Party in the 1950s.
The first Republican Party political rally I attended at my father’s side was in Maryland where racism and segregation was rife. The central election campaign issue was open housing. Should state laws make it illegal to deny the sale of a house or apartment to someone on racial grounds? Witnessing hooded, cross-burning Klu Klux Klan members targeting apartment owners that allowed sales to African Americans left singed me with an indelible memory about the evil forces determined to stop desegregation.
But it was the Republican Party that stood up for racial fairness in that election. The racist Democratic candidate campaigned on a slogan of “a man’s home is his castle – protect it.” In 1966 Spiro Agnew, whose hand I shook at that Republican political rally, was elected governor of Maryland.
For me that election will always be the Republican Party political high water mark. A year after Agnew won, Richard Nixon chose him as his running mate. Shortly thereafter Agnew gave a speech attacking the media over corruption charges that led to his resignation.
Agnew’s 15 minutes of political national fame – or infamy as it turned out – was a preamble to Nixon’s criminal efforts to destroy his political opponents that culminated with the Watergate scandal. Just as important Nixon adopted the “southern strategy” where the Republican Party abandoned its anti-racism roots to win over states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and others still outraged by the 1963 Civil Rights legislation outlawing segregation.
In the face of Nixon’s sorry legacy, I had given up on politics. But it came alive again when Jimmy Carter – a peanut farmer, nuclear scientist and Bob Dylan-quoting governor of Georgia – came from nowhere in 1976 to win the presidency. Sadly his meteoric rise flamed out in the face of 20 percent interest rates and the Iran hostage crisis that included a disastrous attempt to rescue more than 100 U.S. citizens held captive in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Right-wing Republicans continue to this day to mock Carter despite three historic achievements that still resonate. The first is well known but taken for granted: the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The second two – concerning education and sustainable energy – have become obscure footnotes. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program, launched at Carter’s behest, financed university tuition fees for students in need. I know the benefits well as it allowed me to finish my university studies in history and journalism without taking on debt.
When Carter vacated the White House in January of 1981 he left behind the world’s leading solar and wind energy industries that had blossomed thanks to tax breaks adopted in the face of skyrocketing oil prices triggered by an Arab oil embargo. One of my first journalist assignments in 1978 was to cover the U.S.’s first-ever Solar Energy Day. Forty-five years later, as the transition to green energy still struggles. the innovative turn-key solar panel and hydrogen gas pilot projects spread across the White House and Washington Monument grounds on that day proved that political will and engineering innovation can make it happen.
Unfortunately Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party victor of the 1980 election, eliminated the Basis Education Opportunity Grant program and the renewable energy tax incentives. Thus the student debt crisis began and the burgeoning American renewable energy industry renaissance ended.
While Reagan has gained Republican Party mythological status as not only as a Cold War victor but an economic revolutionary, both claims are revisionist hype. Aside from a corrupt administration – the Iran-Contract scandal topped a long list – the Reagan right wing anti-government conservatives opened the Republican Party door to Bible-belt evangelical Christians.
In retrospect this Republican Party marriage pretty much ended any chance in my lifetime of achieving the shining city on the hill that seemed possible only four years previous. Contemporary problems such as the wealth gap, reinvigorated racism, gun violence, climate change denial, deregulation, drug abuse, over commercialization, student debt and others woes that ail American society can be traced back to the sharp right Reagan turn.
But what most appalled me then and still rankles 40 years later is the hypocrisy that has become the hallmark of Republican “win-at-all-cost” ideology. For eight years Reagan lambasted “big spending Democrats” despite tripling a budget deficit and public debt when “trickle down” economics geared around tax cuts and increased military spending flopped.
Cleaning up a Republican Party economic mess would become a pattern. Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama revived an economy thanks to stimulus legislation that received little or no support from Republican Party legislators. They conveniently reverted to the Reagan “big spending Democrat” criticism for justifying their no votes.
Of course it is one thing for opposition parties to wage rudder-less, irresponsible political warfare against desperately needed legislation. Until Obama’s victory using the win-at-all-cost ideology to overturn elections was seemingly out-of-bounds. But millions of minority voters, especially people of color, voting for the first time to help Obama win, changed that. Facing a demographic reckoning, Republican Party controlled state legislatures began adopting a series of voter suppression laws.
But those laws were not enough to hold back the swell of voters outraged by Trump’s divisive personality and his incompetence in handling the pandemic. Already in 2016 Trump claimed voter fraud to explain Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory. In the past weeks declaring martial law and using the U.S. military to re-run the election have been discussed in the White House by Trump and some of his advisers.
That nuclear option will not likely come to pass. But Trump has set his sights on having congressional Republican allies disrupt a Jan. 6 U.S. House of Representatives vote which is normally held to rubber stamp the Nov. 3 election results.
Perhaps more consequential is Trump’s success at entrenching the voting fraud narrative among grassroots Republicans. That will surely serve as a pretext for Republican Party political obstruction for the next four years as well as a new round of enhanced voter suppression laws in some Republican-run state legislatures that has already begun.