While the Republican Party has long shed the traditions of Abraham Lincoln, the modern Republican Party has been brewing the toxicity weaponized by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement for much longer than many want to admit. As a progressive, I have a ton of respect for old-school Republicanism – and yes, I mean the Republicans of the Reconstruction Era, not Reagan. In fact, this piece is my attempt at tying the lineage of the modern Republican Party to its roots in the Nixon/Reagan era and why the Republican Party is not reaping what it has sown for well over a half-century.
While I write much more extensively in my upcoming book on this topic, I want to bring to your attention that the growing radicalization of the Republican Party started long before the 4-times indicted former-President descended from his golden escalator. Which begs the question of “when did this begin?”
For our purposes, the simplest explanation is with former President Richard Nixon. Following the successes of the New Deal and the Great Society, Republicans began their assault on the administrative state. While Nixon wasn’t as right-wing as his successors (he did create the EPA after all) his attempts to subvert American democracy and further divide the American people based on race and class highlight an important stake in the ground. Most notably, the Watergate scandal was an attempt for Nixon to sway election results his way by spying on the Democrats at the time, and while this was an impeachable offense, it isn’t even close to the most heinous stains his candidacy/presidency had.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Goldwater, Nixon, and the broader Republican Party created the “southern strategy” which created a major shift in the partisan alignment in America. The southern strategy essentially tried to target “Dixiecrats” (white southern Democrats) due to their lack of support for Democratic ideals largely since Roosevelt’s New Deal but certainly after Lyndon Johnson’s administration passed the two bills mentioned above. Many of the Dixiecrats were segregationists and Nixon’s appeal to them is a huge reason as to why he was elected and served as a strategy that would brew more racism and division in the country.
Then in 1971, Richard Nixon declared his “War on Drugs” which incidentally was also an electoral strategy Nixon wanted to use to prevent certain populations (young “hippies” & Black Americans) from voting. You may have heard this before, but the War on Drugs has disproportionately impacted black Americans by criminalizing certain drugs and selectively enforcing the laws in specific areas and neighborhoods. This was a tool wielded to limit his opposition and was carried on and expanded on by Ronald Reagan’s administration. Since this time, drug laws have changed drastically, but the impacts on families torn apart, lives ruined due to incarceration, and generational wealth disparities created by the War on Drugs remains.
Nixon also wasn’t the only Republican prior to Trump to interfere and subvert the integrity of our elections. Hopefully you have at least heard of the Iranian hostage crisis that was ongoing in the late 1970s and into 1980. Prior to Reagan’s eventual victory, there was allegedly a deal that Reagan struck with the leaders of Iran to delay the release of hostages until after the election. I must insist that this is alleged, but would have been illegal and arguably treasonous. Putting self-centered electoral politics above the Constitution and the American people… sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Reagan also represented America during a time of crisis, when the President of the United States could have stepped up to combat homophobia, but instead let it fester and did little-to-nothing (and even contributed to it) to help those affected with AIDS/HIV in the 1980s. Lack of government support led LGBTQ+ activists and non-profits to take action to protect themselves. The silence from the Reagan Administration was deafening and the fearmongering and hysteria around gay and lesbian individuals was vile and provides a direct line to the hate spewed from MAGA about our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors.
And don’t even get me started on the wealth inequality catapulted by Reagan, George W. Bush, and most recently Trump. Each of which acted like the average Joe in their rhetoric, and they have LARPed as hard working every day guys who cared about low and middle income families. Newsflash to anyone that hasn’t paid attention to their actions, Reagan, Bush, and Trump all gave MASSIVE tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals in American and enormous tax breaks to corporations while the average American has had stagnant real wages since 1980 (luckily this has begun to change under Biden). And while this point may seem out of place in a piece largely talking about social extremism, tax policy is one of the most impactful ways the government can change lives. Rather than prioritizing social services to give people a hand-up, Reagan demonized social welfare as a hand-out and created the racist trope of the “welfare-queen”. Trump’s tax cuts were supported by quite literally the entirety of the Republican Party.
Trump’s extremism may have put 3 Supreme Court Justices on the bench that overturned Roe v Wade, but the think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation that have funded the Republican Party and built the bench for that to happen have been around for decades. Trump isn’t the problem; he is a symptom of a worsening sickness. The Republican Party has kowtowed to the most extreme part of its base, which has isolated those who used to believe in many of the conservative values that truly have merit. Conservatism means different things to all of us, and as a progressive writing this, I am sure many conservatives will disagree with what I am about to say; however, conservatism has its place in American politics but in the sense of holding onto “classical liberal” values espoused by the Constitution, not going after librarians over books. I long for a day where the future of the Republican Party has moderated and we can valiantly argue big and lofty ideas on how to tackle the issues of the day, but we are not there right now with Trump steering the ship and his acolytes like Ron DeSantis lurking behind the scenes.
So yeah… the Party of Lincoln is gone. It has been gone for a long time. But that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. Republican voters can change the trajectory of the party the same way that Democratic voters can. I disagree with the Democratic Party all the time and I am the Chair of a local chapter of it! So if you are a Republican or a conservative and you also want to join me in battling it out on those big ideas, take back your party! I will leave you with a quote from a great Republican, President Eisenhower, “This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”