This nation is confronted by massive problems that aren’t being solved. Affordable health care, racial injustice, inequality, and crumbling infrastructure are a few that demand urgent attention but climate change and the ballooning federal deficit are also looming. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have no viable plans to address any of them.
Today, the nation is divided like at no other time in my memory. Even this horrific coronavirus pandemic – which menaces every citizen – has failed to bring us together. The president deserves much of the blame for this situation but the current political polarization began long before the 2016 election. Trump is just the culmination of the Republican Party’s dramatic shift to the right.
The roots of the GOP’s evolution to ultra-conservatism, however, are difficult to pinpoint. But I believe the seeds were planted during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, nurtured by some fertile soil left over from President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the 1971 formation of the Libertarian Party.
Nixon was a skilled politician but according to conversations recorded in the Oval Office, he was also a racist. So, it’s not surprising that he would formulate a devious plan to lure white southern Democrats into the Republican camp by appealing to their racial biases. It apparently worked, because by 1995 the formerly solid Democratic South was mostly represented by Republicans.
Along with Nixon came the Libertarian ideology of very limited government and minimal federal taxes. Reagan was a champion of both. Grover Norquist formed Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 – allegedly at Reagan’s request – and in the early 1990s devised a written pledge to never raise taxes on anything – ever. Most congressional Republicans have signed Norquist’s promise. Their objective is to shrink the federal government by starving it of operating funds. Republican’s absolute refusal to raise taxes makes federal budget compromises to reduce deficits nearly impossible.
Reagan’s tenure also emboldened various right-wing, government-hating militia organizations, which are now Trumpian Republicans. Today, dozens of these well-armed, paramilitary groups are scattered across the nation, driven by antigovernment conspiracy theories and in some cases, white nationalist ideology. I fear they will appear at the polls to intimidate voters in November, particularly in heavily minority areas.
Congress has been mostly gridlocked for over a decade, which left many pressing problems unsolved. How did it get this way? Well, Democrats aren’t completely blameless, of course, but I believe the cause goes back to 1995 when the GOP began evolving into a hard-right, uncompromising organization under then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). This movement was supported by right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News channel after it was launched in 1996.
Gingrich initiated scurrilous attacks on Democrats during his tenure in Congress (1979-1999), bashed the “liberal” media and scoffed at democratic norms. He referred to his opponents as “radical,” “sick” and “corrupt” and he encouraged other conservative Republicans in Congress to “speak like Newt.” I believe Gingrich’s influence and rhetoric caused many members of the GOP to begin viewing Democrats as the enemy, instead of colleagues who have a different political philosophy.
Newt’s attitude carried over to the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010. When they took control of the House in 2011, they eschewed governing and recklessly obstructed President Obama. Then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did the same in the Senate, using the filibuster as a weapon. As Senate majority leader in 2016, his refusal to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland – Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court – was stunning in its audacity.
Back then, McConnell claimed that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court justice during an election year until a new president is elected. Yet, when asked what his position would be on filling a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020, he said with a wry smile, “Oh, we’d fill it.” McConnell’s affronts to Senate norms and shocking hypocrisy crippled bipartisanship in Congress and further divided the American electorate.
Gingrich-like hatred toward Democrats continues to this day. Tea Party Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) accosted liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the steps of the Capitol last week, calling her “crazy,” “disgusting,” “dangerous” and out of her “freaking mind.” Why? She had suggested during a virtual town hall meeting that an increase in crime in New York City during the pandemic was the result of poverty and unemployment. Later, a reporter overheard Yoho – an avowed Christian – call Ocasio-Cortez a “f—— bitch.”
Jenna Ellis, one of Trump’s personal lawyers and a senior Trump campaign legal adviser, recently bashed Democrats who criticized Trump for sending federal police to Portland, Oregon with a tweet: “No Democrat should EVER AGAIN be elected in the United States in any capacity…..They are willing to sacrifice America and our freedom and liberty. NO!!!” She appears frequently on Fox News.
Trump’s divisive rhetoric and Republicans’ blind support of him as he savages our democratic institutions and thumbs his nose at the rule of law has exacerbated political polarization and weakened the very foundation of our democratic republic.
Defeating Trump in November, however, will not totally solve the nation’s critical problems. They will continue to fester until McConnell and the radical Republicans in Congress are no longer able to sow division and block responsible legislation.
There are dozens of reasons for voting Trump and radical Republicans out of office; number one is to help unite the nation and save our democracy.