The line from Helms to Trump

Published August 18, 2022

By Thomas Mills

Last night, Liz Cheney lost her primary to Trump-backed Republican Harriet Hageman. Hageman is typical of a lot of Republicans. She supported Cheney for years and, according the Washington Post, she “opposed Trump, calling him ‘racist and xenophobic’” in 2016. Now, she’s worshipping at the Altar of Trump.

Of course, Hageman was right in 2016. And Donald Trump certainly hasn’t changed since then. It’s Hageman and the whole mainstream wing of the GOP that has abandoned Buckley conservatism for Trump’s reactionary politics. 

So what happened to the Republican Party? David French, a conservative writer who left the GOP because of Trump, says that Republicans blame Democrats. He summarizes part of their argument as, “We reject the old rules of behavior. The left punches hard. We’ll punch harder. We tried nominating ‘good’ people—like Mitt—and the left painted them as racist and misogynist. We didn’t make the new rules, but we’ll play by those rules, and the new rules tell us to fight fire with fire.”

I respect French and read him regularly, but that’s bullshit. Maybe that excuse works for people who live where politics is more tame, but I’m from North Carolina. I grew up watching Jesse Helms and his Congressional Club using blatant racism and dog whistles to attract the segregationists and reactionaries into the Republican Party. His famous “Hands” ad used race to divide the state, saying, “You needed that job, but it went to a minority.” As a Senator, he ridiculed gay people and opposed the Martin Luther King holiday because he claimed King was a communist. Before he was a candidate, Helms defended segregation as a commentator on WRAL and before that he was an operative in Willis Smith’s campaign for U.S. Senate that smeared UNC President Frank Porter Graham for being too close to African Americans. 

In 1988, then-vice President George H. W. Bush smeared Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis with the infamous Willie Horton ad. The ad stoked racial fears and played on Black stereotypes. Bush strategist Lee Atwater said, “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.” Atwater repudiated the ad on his death bed, but most Republicans never have. 

In 2008, Republicans in North Carolina ran an ad attacking Barack Obama that was so racist that Republican Presidential nominee John McCain called for the party to take it down. The party refused. That same election, incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole accused her opponent, Kay Hagan, of being “godless.” 

So the idea that Republicans needed Trump as an attack dog to fend off vicious attacks from the left is laughable. Republicans have bludgeoning Democrats, using ugly ads to divide people along racial lines for decades. Trump just quit using dog whistles and outright summoned the modern equivalent the Ku Klux Klan to join the GOP. He praises neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, and Oath Keepers as a counter force to Antifa and BLM, imaginary threats to the republic that justify his encouragement of violence and insurrection.

No, the people who rejected Liz Cheney and embraced Donald Trump have been in the Republican Party for decades and they’ve been a force in America since its beginning. Bill Buckley-type Republicans, like French, have lived in denial about them for as long as they’ve been part of the GOP. They were the ugly underbelly of the party that no one wanted to acknowledge. They are descendants of the White supremacists who ended democracy in the South at the turn of the 20th century. They were Democrats back then, but today are solidly Republican. And, now, they control the GOP.

The people who have changed are the Harriet Hageman’s of world. They are people who know better but cherish power more than principles. They know that Trump is a liar and a conman. They know that the January 6 insurrection threatens our democracy and, yet, they have joined the mob. 

The Liz Cheneys, Mitt Romneys, and Adam Kinzingers of the GOP are certainly heroes for standing up to Trump and their party. It takes courage to stand in opposition to people with whom you’ve worked your entire political career. But they are also not blameless for where the GOP is today. The forces that surround and support Trump have been part of the party for generations and they ignored the racism and authoritarianism as long as it was in the background and not a threat to them. 

They stayed silent as the illiberal forces grew within the party. They rationalized that the perceived sins of the mainstream media justified Fox News and talk radio conditioning a large segment of their base to believe liars and reject facts. They supported Mitch McConnell as he rejected compromise as a governing principle and replaced it with obstructionism. 

Democrats certainly have their flaws and the left in this country has some illiberal tendencies of its own, but the party is still controlled by people who believe in the system of democracy and the principle of compromise. Republicans today are in thrall of authoritarian forces embodied by Donald Trump. 

While Trump may be their leader, the illiberal reactionaries who underpin him have been part of our political landscape forever. They were most recently beaten down in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, but they never went away. They’ve risen to power because of the encouragement of Donald Trump and willful neglect of otherwise mainstream Republicans. After Cheney’s defeat, it’s clear that the former Reagan Republicans cannot save their party.