The Destructionists: Book Review

The Destructionists: The 25-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party (2022), Dana Milbank. Milbank is a long-time columnist for the Washington Post with substantial experience on the topic. His story starts with Newt Gingrich achieving success as a disruptive influence and still at it. Republicans followed his lead, with special mention of Karl Rove (plus George W. and Dick Cheney). The current disruptor-in-chief is Trump. I lived through all of this and appreciated a good summary (plus it was even worse than I remembered). I will skip most of this story, particularly about Trump, but cover the highlights and interesting quotes beginning with Mitch McConnell: “I wish we have been able to obstruct more.”


Introduction: “As I write this, in early 2022, six in ten Republicans say the 2020 election was fraudulent, and 40% think political violence can be acceptable” (p. 4). The January 6 mob happened, but “the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier” (p. 1). Newt Gingrich pushed out Republican leaders and claimed Democrats were enemies 25 years earlier, describing the worst possible America. He came up with the “contract with America in 1994, which provided very little but got the Republicans in the majority and him Speaker of the House. The result was government shutdowns and failure to address relevant matters. The government was turning into a “flawed democracy.” Republicans under Gingrich knew only disruption, not how to govern.


The current state included Republicans voting for the infrastructure bill branded “traitors,” ditto Liz Cheney for calling out Trump and the Big Lie. “Alternative facts” became a story. January 6 was called “legitimate political discourse.” School boards were threatened for “critical race theory.” The “Great Replacement Theory” led to mass shootings. “The problem is that one of our two political parties has ceased good-faith participation in the democratic process” (p. 6), replaced by conspiracy theories, voter restrictions, sabotaging institutional norms, white grievance, and fear. About the time of Gingrich came Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, Fox News, and social media. This partly came from Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” appealing to white voters. Milbank branded Trump a “brilliant opportunist.” Before the Big Lie were Obama’s “death panels,” conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Tea Party calling Democrats traitors and corrupt, shutdowns in 1995, 1996, 2013, 2018, and 2019, supporting militia movements, and on and on.


The key focus of the book was the Clinton presidency with Gingrich, the George W. Bush presidency with Karl Rove, Obama with Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin, and finally Trump. This included their war on truth, their growing exploitation of racism and white supremacy, sabotaging government functions, dehumanizing opponents. These Destructionists “destroyed truth, they destroyed decency, they destroyed patriotism, they destroyed national unity, they destroyed racial progress, they destroyed domestic stability, and they destroyed the world’s oldest democracy” (p. 10).


Chapter 1: Shooting at Melons. Gingrich became speaker in January 1995; he pushed the Vince Foster killed by the Clintons conspiracy theory. Backer Richard Mellon Scaife was only interested in dirt on the Clintons. Soon it was website Newsmax, then Limbaugh pushed the theory. Bret Kavanaugh worked for Ken Star. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition claimed: “I do guerilla warfare” (p. 22). Also, Citizens United.


Chapter 2: Personal Destruction. Kavanaugh used Monica Lewinsky and set Clinton up for a perjury trap. Lewinsky was threatened a long prison term for lying. He asked the most personal questions on oral sex and so on and taped Clinton, although he had already admitted the affair. The point was humiliation of a political opponent. This did not work with the public, generally disgusted with the proceedings and Gingrich lost the speakership.


Words used by and encouraged by Gingrich to demonize Democrats: traitor, sick, corrupt, cheat, betray, lie, steal, greed, destroy, decay, failure, incompetent, bizarre, radical, selfish, shallow, hypocrisy, shame, pathetic, abuse of power, anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child, anti-jobs. Terms included machine, bosses, criminal rights, welfare, red tape, permissive attitude, stagnation, moral coward, political hack, thugs, crooks, socialists, dictators, irresponsible, destructive, grotesque, loony, stupid, and always they/them. Then make phrases like corrupt left-wing machine, they cheat every day, the enemy of normal Americans, tax collector for the welfare state. As Gingrich said: “The news media love fights, … you get attention, … you can destroy” (p. 35), delegitimize the opposition. The recommendation by pollster Frank Luntz: “speak like Newt.” Taking up the fight was Lee Atwater, running the Republican National Committee, including claiming Democrat Tom Foley was gay, later infamous for Dukakis attack ads.


Chapter 3: A Dysfunctional Family. In 1995 Gingrich shut down the government because Clinton ignored him on a trip and the media called him “cry baby.” Bob Dole had to negotiate the reopening. Gingrich was only good at “attacking, destroying, and undermining those in power. But he had no skills in building coalitions, legislating, and governing. … The architect of our dysfunction was Gingrich” (p. 48). The ability of Congress to function did not return, including government by continuing resolution rather than passing budgets, because of the party-line vote. To make things worse, Gingrich reduced the work week to three days and cut congressional staff, also GAO and CBO staffs. Lobbyists were now in charge of writing legislation. During Obama even bills with wide bipartisan support failed. DeLay’s “K Street Project” made lobbying benefit Republicans, including hiring Republicans. The wealthy dominated politics. Then major federal cuts, including eliminated federal programs and three departments (Education, Energy, and Commerce). Gingrich demanded total capitulation from Clinton. Shutdowns became common. After major fallout from the longest one, some deals were made with Clinton like welfare reform. The benefit was a small budget surplus. Unfortunately, Gingrich would be succeeded by the even worse Tea Party and MAGA Republicans.


Chapter 4: Black Helicopters. Gingrich claimed Democrats would institute Soviet-style brutality. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma federal building in 1995. Republicans were courting white nationalists. Racial hate and antigovernment groups began to converge in the 1980s, assuming white men would lose ground and the government would confiscate their guns. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s gave blacks the vote and drove segregationists to the Republican Party. Nixon had a Southern strategy, Reagan talked about “welfare queens.” Lee Atwater made Willie Horton ads against Dukakis. “We went after every rural southern prejudice we could think of. … Gingrich was proficient in racist dog whistles: rallying against a corrupt, liberal welfare state” (p. 65). Republican success increased overt racial politics.


Joe McCarthy claimed to have the names of a multitude (the number kept changing) of Communists at the State Department in the early 1950s. Margaret Chase Smith was one of the few Senators to denounce him. The John Birch Society was formed a bit later about communist control of the government. So there was a history of blatant lying before Gingrich.


Chapter 5: Swift Boating. September 11, 2001 resulted in Bush’s high approval rating. The result could have been national unity and purpose, but the Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Bush team chose turning national security into a political weapon. The idea that only Republicans could keep the country safe: party over country. It worked, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress. Party before country became routine. Here are a few.


Rove started dirty tricks during Watergate. John McCain was accused of being a “cheat, liar and fraud” (p. 82). Political opponents were traitors, Democrats were terrorists’ allies. Lies about war hero Max Cleland. Swift boating John Kerry (during his service in Vietnam, including purple hearts, silver star, and bronze star) during the 2004 election: “he is lying about his record” (p. 87). Honorable service becomes crimes and betrayal.


Chapter 6: Culture of Deception. Mission accomplished on aircraft carrier after Iraq invasion: “The event was a fraud wrapped in a deception tied up with a lie” (p. 90). It was based on Saddam Hussein being responsible for 9/11 and Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, which was false on both counts. Cheney claimed we’d be greeted as liberators. Administration lying wasn’t uncommon, but this was “an administration systematically and repeatedly exaggerating, misstating, and outright invented the facts in order to launch a war” (p. 91). They were marketing the Iraq War, which proved to be a long-term disaster.


“Bush tended to have a casual relationship with the facts. … (or as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill stated) Bush was ‘like a blind man in a room full of deaf people,’ committed to predetermined outcomes, impervious to contrary facts. Bush’s lack of intellectual curiosity had the effect of elevating the role of Cheney and Rove—master prevaricators both” (p. 95). Rove had “audacity in his mendacity,” able to game politics with deception as conventional. Bush was great for the relatively new Fox News. Republicans would now defend their president rather than the truth.


Chapter 7: A Heckuva Job. November 2000, Florida vote counting meant the presidency. Bush aides stopped the counting, including Roger Stone—mob rule over democracy. Bush was declared winner by the Supreme Court. With Jeb Bush as governor, voter roles were purged and voters turned away at the polls. Using voter suppression, a majority was not needed. If that didn’t work, telling that elections were rigged.


“Matthew Dowd, Bush’s campaign polling coordinator, presented Rove with a revolutionary concept: that the age-old strategy of appealing to the political center no longer made sense. … The number of ‘swing’ voters had shrunk from 22% to 7%. Most of the so-called independents were in fact reliably Democrat or Republican. … It’s about motivation rather than persuasion. We maximize the number of Republicans on election day and we win. … Dowd’s and Rove’s new thinking called for an entirely different governing strategy: forget about building consensus, and instead keep doing what the party’s core supporters, the base, wants” (p. 111). [So much for the median voter model. I question Dowd’ methodology, but that changed how the game was played.]


An academic referred to the Bush team as “Mayberry Machiavellis,” reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms. Federal grants would target Republican states and congressional districts. The “Hastert Rule” would require a majority of Republicans for any legislation. Forget compromise: moderates were RINOs.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency run by Michael Brown was a disaster on top of Hurricane Katrina. Brown bungled, but Bush still said “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” Bush called Rove “turd blossom.” Gerrymandering in Texas and other states insured continuous Republican dominance despite the growing urbanization. This was allowed by the Supreme Court and states went on voter suppression sprees, especially after dumping the Voting Rights Act of 1965. DeLay would only quit the house after a conviction for money laundering.


Chapter 8: Bridges to Nowhere. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff built a criminal enterprise defrauding Indian tribes and others. He used Rove, DeLay, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed. About 20 people went to prison. Public financing had been used since Watergate. This stopped with Bush 43 because he could raise so much money. The Citizens United of 2010 case stopped any limit on corporate giving. Corruption because systematic and usually legal, although a few politicians managed to go too far—all the way to jail. “They made corruption into a science” (p. 125). The “K Street Project” was to turn all lobbyists into Republicans. They also went after the “religious nuts.” “Bring out the wackos—Christian conservatives” (p. 131). The idea of limited government fell out to holding power no matter what. Federal debt doubled under Bush (he inherited a surplus), as did election spending.


Chapter 9: A Deep-Seated Hatred of White People. In 1965 John Lewis was beat and gassed by police in Selma. The Tea Party movement was a backlash against Obama and Obamacare. “The Republicans’ Southern Strategy had reached its ultimate destination” (p. 137). It was claimed that Obama hated white people and America. The birther movement also was back. Trump even said the birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton. Trump would call Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Republicans became the party of white grievance.


Chapter 10: Death Panels. That means Sarah Palin. Obama’s death panels, untrue, but picked up by Limbaugh, senators, and Gingrich. The lunatic fringe. Claims that the IRS audited only Republican groups, ditto. Benghazi: Hillary Clinton repeatedly blamed for American deaths. Five Republican hearing committees, 1,100 segments on Fox. It was discovered Hillary had a private email server, then claims of mishandled classified documents. Obama functioning like the Gestapo. Obama would end Medicare. Obamacare would kill people, ration care, database on medical records, jailing doctors. So much for trying to move to universal health care.


Chapter 11: Don’t Retreat—Reload. Palin again, pushing the Second Amendment as unlimited gun ownership including threatening Congress. Eric Cantor called it “reprehensible”—not the attacks, but “reckless complaints” by Democrats, another blame-the-victim claim. (He would lose in the 2014 primary.) This time Gabby Giffords was shot and six others killed. Antigovernment rage would continue against Democrats, now called “anti-American.” New groups sprang up like the Oath Keepers. McConnell claimed he only wanted to accomplish making Obama a one-term president.


Ted Cruz joined the Senate in 2012 as a Tea Party radical with no intention of using his skill to improve public policy. His mission was disruption. Even Boehner called his a “reckless a--hole, Lucifer in the flesh, miserable son of a bitch, and a loudmouth jerk.” Republican-run states would do strange things like ban Sharia law. Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones went radical with conspiracy theories and worse. Ditto Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Obama was compared to Hitler.


Chapter 12 Wacko Birds and RINOs. Scalia died in 2016, but McConnell refused to fill the vacancy by Obama’s nominee. The Republicans “had gone off the rails—shattering norms and routinely sabotaging government and democracy itself for partisan advantage. The result was planned dysfunction and an erosion of democratic institutions that left American democracy vulnerable to populist demagoguery and creeping authoritarianism” (p. 190). Trust in government fell to 10% in 2011. Jim Jordan created the Freedom Caucus to be even more radical against Obama—“Obama hatred.” McConnell joined in to stay leader to create for Obama “an inventory of losses.” McConnell was concerned only for his own power, including disinformation and “gumming up the works and gridlock by design.”


Chapter 13: Truth Isn’t Truth. Giuliani after 2020 election: rigged voting machines, George Soros, Hugo Chavez, stuffed ballots delivered by truck, dead people voted, illegal aliens by the millions, climate change a myth, vaccines caused autism, Four Seasons Total Landscaping for Pennsylvania voter fraud. Company sold “make America rake again” and “lawn & order” T-shirts. Giuliani went to Ukraine for dirt on Hunter Biden. Giuliani lost his law license in New York, faced a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, investigated for illegal lobbying.


Summary from Republicans: troopergate, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, death panels, Benghazi, Hillary’s brain damage, birtherism, reject vaccines, KGB-style, holocaust, school shooting faked, Hitler comparisons: disbelieve anything from scientists, experts, and Democrats. Paranoid style of politics: witch hunts, Illuminati, revealing distrust of authority, fake news by enemy of the people, promote QAnon, FBI agents as stormtroopers. Paranoia weaponized by Republican Party. “Trump could fool most of his supporters all of the time” (p. 228).


Identity-protective cognition for motivated reasoning to justify rejected facts inconsistent with partisan identity. Trump team of Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, and Michael Cohen. Presidential commission to prove Trump’s voter fraud claims. Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Spicer yelled at media about the crowds at Trump’s inauguration. “Trump had the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true” (p. 215). Huge market for conspiracy, not truth: ergo: 30,573 untruths in four years. “Trump’s fondness for the phony was matched only by his distaste for science and expertise” (p. 220).


Trump’s handling of Covid went from constructive to destructive, claiming Democrats politicizing the virus. He refused to mask up, followed by Republicans, discouraged testing. No cases without tests. He had vaccinations but discouraged other from getting theirs: a million plus deaths and counting, the world’s worst response. He had the best care possible when he got Covid. (Most others who got equally sick would die.) Conspiracy theories on pandemic outbreak by some definition of “powerful people.” Better solutions: hydroxychloroquine and injecting bleach. DeSantis blamed Hispanics and protesters for spread of Covid. The WHO was a tool of China.


Chapter 14: Very Fine People. White supremacists (plus neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates) in Charlottesville in 2017. Harassed synagogue worshipers, plowed into demonstrators killing one. Trump defended them as “very fine people on both sides.” “Trump made it safe for America to hate again” (p. 231). Standard attitude: “if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites” (p. 233), believed by 71% of white Republicans, 13% of Democrats. Ditto white men losing. power to women. Black protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not” (p. 238). Republicans claimed no “structural racism.”


George Floyd murder by cop portrayed as brutal criminal in a staged event, paid for by Soros. Giuliani called Soros the “anti-Christ,” Black Lives Matter “inherently racist,” “Black children have a 99% chance of killing each other,” Democrats “pro-criminal anti-police socialist policies” (p. 243). Trump’s appeal to Black voters: “What the hell do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. You get shot walking to the store” (p. 244). He repeatedly mocked the intelligence of black leaders. The “Squad” of minority women in Congress: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?” (p. 244). Before the election claimed caravans of criminals and gang members headed to the border. “Critical race theory” became a recent made-up menace, as a direct threat to whites.


Chapter 15: Sabotage. Trump tried to shake down Zelensky in Ukraine, withholding $400 million in security assistance. The Democratic National Committee was supposed to have its server in Ukraine; Ukraine did it, not Russia story. Giuliani would come and investigate Hunter Biden. The ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, was fired and threatened. The Trump team covered it up, in part by punishing anyone who revealed it. Once again, Party/Trump before country. Trump’s first impeachment trial would be over this. Officials proved articulate and testified against him (fired if they still worked for the government), while Republicans attempted character assassinations against them.


Trump had called NATO obsolete, shoved a prime minister, insulted multiple world leaders, shared intelligence with Russia, and boasted at the UN that “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” (p. 257) to laughter. John McCain was a loser, dead soldiers “losers and suckers,” accepted Putin’s denials of interfering with the 2016 election. Trump raided the Defense budget to build his wall and used acting officials to avoid Senate confirmation. Big bucks were funneled to his businesses. The federal government became Trump’s personal property, emulated by his appointees. Inspector generals were routinely fired for discovering improprieties. When Congress under Pelosi and Schumer (after 2018) refused to fund his border wall he shut down the government for 35 days.


Trump described political opponents as: “bad, dirty, horrible, evil, sick, corrupt, scum, leakers, liars, vicious, mean, lowlifes, non-people, stone-cold crazy” (p. 272).


Chapter 16: Trial by Combat. Alex Jones claimed Hillary Clinton personally murdered children. “The blundering Trump was no Hitler, but he had the autocrat’s distain for the rule of law, the autocrat’s instinct to blame minorities for the nation’s ills, and the autocrat’s embrace of violence as a political tool” (p. 276). “Gingrich impugned his opponents’ loyalty to country to gain power, Bush and Rove squandered the unity of 9/11 to expand power, Palin and the Tea Party crowd spread lies and racism and winked at violence to cut down their opponents. McConnell sabotaged the Senate and discredited the Supreme Court because it maximized his power” (p. 276). Before Gingrich voters were neutral about both parties.


“Scott Walker likened public sector unions to Islamic State terrorists. … Ted Cruz said the Obama administration was becoming the ‘world’s financier of radical Islamic terrorists.’ Mike Huckabee talked about Obama marching Israelis to the door of the oven. … Ben Carson called America ‘very much like Nazi Germany,’ labeled Obamacare the worst thing since slavery, and said a Muslim should not be president” (p. 278). Fourteen men were arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. “Trump brought out the rage—and Americans had responded with a combustible combination of venom and despair” (p. 283).


Trump wanted to change libel laws to stop criticism of him. Trump “used many of the fascist’s tools: a contempt for facts, spreading a pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis, portraying his backers as victims, assigning blame to foreign or alien actors, and suggesting only his powerful personality could transcend the crisis” (p. 385). Jason Stanley: “Goebbels talks about propaganda being best when it appeals to straightforward emotion: fear, suspicion, anger. … When our emotions are being overwhelmed, it’s because people are trying to manipulate us and drive us toward a desired goal” (p. 285). Trump stopped protesting abuse of journalists abroad and totalitarian countries increased abuse against journalists, calling them terrorists producing fake news. Trump claimed Israelis viewed him as the “second coming of God” and “the chosen one.”


Anthony Fauci got death threats after Trump attacks. Republicans portrayed Democrats at fomenting violence. Trump claimed voter fraud in 2020, although his cybersecurity chief in Homeland Security called it “the most secure in American history,” then Trump fired him. Trump called Brad Raffensperger in Georgia to “find 11,780 votes.” Fox News repeatedly stated conspiracy theories hundreds of times. “Giuliani, Flynn, Stone, and others were coordinating this last-ditch assault from a war room in the luxury Willard Hotel” (p. 299). The Capital Police on January 6 desperately needed help, but it took almost 3 ½ hours before the National Guard was given permission: “either a catastrophic failure of military command or a deliberate decision by Trump loyalists at the Pentagon” (p. 300).


Conclusions. Greene and Gaetz in Congress accused the FBI of orchestrating January 6. Gosar described them a ‘peaceful patriots.’ Clyde said “normal tourist visit.” Gingrich wanted to imprison those on the January 6 committee. Brooks said ANTIFA orchestrated the attack. Insurrectionists became political prisoners. States used “memory laws” to ban books for phantom threats like critical race theory. Voter suppression expanded in Republican-controlled states, including Texas. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was called “genius” and “savvy” by Trump.