From the Party of Lincoln to the Party of the Body Slam

Donald Trump has so thoroughly co-opted the Republican Party that it has given up everything it used to stand for.

BOZEMAN, MT - MAY 25:  Republican Greg Gianforte scelebrates with supporters after being declared the winner at a election night party for Montana's special House election against Democrat Rob Quist at the Hilton Garden Inn on May 25, 2017 in Bozeman, Montana. Gianforte won one day after being charged for assuulting a reporter. The House seat was left open when Montana House Representative Ryan Zinke was appointed Secretary of Interior by President Trump. (Photo by Janie Osborne/Getty Images)
BOZEMAN, MT - MAY 25: Republican Greg Gianforte scelebrates with supporters after being declared the winner at a election night party for Montana's special House election against Democrat Rob Quist at the Hilton Garden Inn on May 25, 2017 in Bozeman, Montana. Gianforte won one day after being charged for assuulting a reporter. The House seat was left open when Montana House Representative Ryan Zinke was appointed Secretary of Interior by President Trump. (Photo by Janie Osborne/Getty Images)

Does a dog resemble its master? Scientists have studied this important question and concluded that the answer is yes. Politics provides further confirmation. Just look at the Republican Party and the conservative movement that calls it home. Their master is now President Donald Trump and, sure enough, they are coming to resemble him in every appalling respect.

Republicans used to have a hostile view toward Russia, but today 48 percent of them see Russia as friendly. There is no possible explanation for this shift — which occurs as Russia remains in occupation of Ukrainian territory and continues to carry out war crimes in Syria and meddle in Western elections — other than the fact that Trump has endless and mysterious reservoirs of affection for President Vladimir Putin.

Republicans also used to berate Barack Obama for not being friendly enough to American allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Poland. Well, Trump just journeyed to Europe without condemning Russian aggression or affirming NATO’s mutual-defense provision, Article 5. He has created the worst rift in trans-Atlantic relations in decades, with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, pointedly saying: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the past few days.” French President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, compared the president of the United States to the dictators of Russia and Turkey. Yet Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls the trip “near perfection.” One wonders what sheer perfection would look like — formally disbanding NATO?

Trump returned to the United States to revelations that, before the inauguration, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had tried to set up a secret back channel to Moscow utilizing the Russian Embassy’s communications equipment. Republicans spent all of 2016 chanting “Lock her up,” because Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server may have compromised secret communications. So you might think they would be exercised about a proposal to entrust secret communications to servers controlled by a hostile foreign power. But you would be wrong. “I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not so good friends, is a smart thing to do,” said John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, supposedly one of the sober voices in the cabinet. “We’re not concerned about it,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, another reputed grown-up.

Yet another example of Republicans paying Trump the sincerest form of flattery is their widespread embrace of such bizarro conspiracy theories as the contention that Obama illegally eavesdropped on Trump Tower or that Seth Rich, a Democratic Party staffer, was murdered last year by a Hillary Clinton hit squad because he was a conduit of information to WikiLeaks. There is not a shred of evidence to support either claim, and much evidence to the contrary, yet this has not stopped Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and other prominent figures from peddling these falsehoods in a transparent attempt to create faux scandals to distract from Trump’s real ones. Sounding very much like O.J. Simpson vowing to find the real “killer or killers,” Hannity declared recently about the Rich case, “I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.”

Granted, the conspiratorial mindset has always existed on the right (and on the left). But in the past it was limited to such marginal quarters as the John Birch Society and the 9/11 “truthers.” Today it is at the very center of what passes for right-wing thought. As noted by Washington Post columnist (and former George W. Bush speechwriter) Michael Gerson, Trump has “legitimized conspiracy thinking at the highest level.”

It was Trump, after all, “[w]ho raised the possibility that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy; [w]ho hinted that Hillary Clinton might have been involved in the death of Vince Foster, or that unnamed liberals might have killed Justice Antonin Scalia; [who] not only questioned President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but raised the prospect of the murder of a Hawaiian state official in a coverup.” Now, by peddling the Rich hoax and the “Obama surveillance scandal,” mainstream conservatives are sounding every bit as deranged as the conspirator in chief.

Perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of how Republicans are imitating their master is in their vilification of the media and embrace of political violence. Montana’s Republican congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs of the Guardian on May 24, the day before a special election, for having the temerity to ask him about his views on health care. Gianforte’s spokesman than lied about the incident, blaming Jacob’s supposedly “aggressive behavior” for his pummeling.

The conservative response? Pro forma condemnation of Gianforte followed by a de facto defense of his conduct.

This is how Limbaugh described the incident: “This manly, obviously studly Republican candidate in Montana took the occasion to beat up a pajama-clad journalist, a Pajama Boy journalist out there.” Laura Ingraham jeered: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?” Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, crowed: “Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked.” At least Bozell’s animosity is understandable, because Jacobs has written a couple of exposés revealing that Bozell doesn’t write his own books or columns and that his organization engaged in at least one questionable financial transaction.

It is hard to think of any explanation — beyond the obvious one: that he approves of thuggish behavior — for Rep. Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, who responded: “It’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.” Unless the reporter deserved to be assaulted? Or for Rep. Glenn Grothman, Republican of Wisconsin, who said of Gianforte, “I think he’d be very welcome here. Seems like a good guy.” Or for Rep. Trent Franks, who blamed not the perpetrator but straw-man liberals: “The Left has precipitated this tense, confrontational approach.” Is Nancy Pelosi body-slamming conservative journalists? And even if she were, would this justify Gianforte’s misconduct? Republicans are all in favor of personal responsibility and fighting crime — as long as the miscreants aren’t Republicans.

Naturally Gianforte’s misbehavior did not cost him with Montana’s Republican voters, who elected him to Congress anyway. (In fairness, many of the votes were cast before the incident.) He even saw a surge of last-minute donations after his assault became national news.

If you’re wondering how the Republican Party, and the conservative movement it is associated with, could have sunk so low as to justify an assault on a journalist doing his constitutionally protected job, you can find the answer in the Oval Office. Trump has called the press “the enemy of the American People,” and vilifies the “Fake News Media” on a near-daily basis for telling the truth about his administration.

Trump, moreover, spent his campaign inciting violence at his rallies. “I’ll beat the crap out of you,” Trump told a protester in Dayton, Ohio. “Part of the problem … is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore,” he said in St. Louis. “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of,” he said of a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A federal judge recently ruled in a civil suit that it is plausible to assert that injuries suffered by demonstrators at a Trump rally in Louisville were the “direct and proximate result” of his incendiary words.

Is it any wonder Republicans have gone from excusing Trump’s vile conduct to imitating it? From conspiracy mongering to violence against journalists, from alienating allies to cozying up to Russia, Republicans have given up most of their principles and any pretense of independent thought to become faithful followers of the president. With only a few honorable exceptions — far too few! — they appear prepared to faithfully follow Trump into whatever circle of hell he leads them to next.

Republicans are like a mongrel that is constantly kicked by its owner. Every time it gets hit, it goes whimpering into a corner. But when the abusive owner returns, it jumps with joy and barks in welcome, because it cannot think badly of the person who feeds and shelters it. Instead of biting back against the true cause of its misfortune, the cur takes out its rage on smaller, more vulnerable pups. Can a dog be in a co-dependent relationship? Science hasn’t proven it yet, but contemporary politics suggests an affirmative answer.

Photo credit: JANIE OSBORNE/Getty Images

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot

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