Many are shocked when they learn it (apparently since I am assumed to be a far left liberal), but I was once a Republican activist, city committee member and precinct captain. At this point, that was many years ago and I don't see myself as having changed all that much. The same cannot be said for the Republican Party, especially as now personified by Donald Trump. I believe that much of the GOP's slide to the dark side to use Star Wars parlance tracks directly to the rise of militant conservative Christians - the Christofascists, if you will - within the GOP base. But there were others who helped in wrecking a once great political party and turning it into a more welcoming home for KKK members than thinking intellectuals who care about facts and objective reality. A piece in Esquire looks at the role that the late Lee Atwater played in the GOP's lurch toward toxicity. Here are highlights (kudos to my likely distant gay cousin James Hamar for posting a link):
"ATWATER," the plaque reads. "H. Lee. 1951-1991. Father, Leader, Husband, Son."I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon. I prefer the challenges of life to guaranteed security, the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will never cower before any master, save my God."
This, it says, is the Republican creed. This is not the most famous quote attributed to the late Lee Atwater, however. That would be his covertly recorded explanation of how the Republican Party rebuilt itself on the ruins of the white-supremacist South in places like South Carolina. It is the primary samizdat document on the Southern Strategy.
"You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
It was the father of the Southern Strategy, longtime South Carolinian political boss Harry Dent, along with Atwater, who invented the South Carolina Republican presidential primary in 1980. Shrewdly, they both saw the centers of conservative power moving south and west, away from establishment WASP-ish Republicans like George H.W. Bush. At the same time, they'd noticed how blue-collar white Democrats in the industrial north had flocked to the campaigns of segregationist idol George Wallace, first in 1968 and then again in 1972, until Wallace was shot and nearly killed in a Maryland shopping center. They both felt demographic and political tides that were gathering themselves behind a new vision for the Party of Lincoln.Atwater was honing his chops that year by leaking a rumor that former Texas Governor John Connally was trying to buy black votes. And that was how the South Carolina Republican primary was born—in carefully calculating realpolitik and in dirty tricks.
(Poor Connally got caught in a buzzsaw of South Carolina ratfcking. While Atwater was leaking those rumors about bribing the black folks, the Bush campaign, at Dent's encouragement, was whispering that Connally was a supporter of gay rights. Connally must have felt like he was back in Dealey Plaza again.)
By 1988, of course, Atwater was the acknowledged master of the political knife-fight. George Bush was running for president after eight years in Reagan's shadow and, like the true patrician that he was born to be, Bush needed to hire out the dirty work of politics. (Among other things, Bush was still dogged by "the wimp factor" which the Reagan people had used to great advantage on him in 1980.) Atwater was more than happy to oblige. He promised to "take the bark" off Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, and Atwater was as good as his word. The campaign degenerated into nasty squabbles about black criminality and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Not long after that campaign, of course, Atwater was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He spent his last days in public atonement for all the damage he had done to our politics. (He offered a public apology to Dukakis, which Dukakis graciously accepted.) In 1991, they brought Lee Atwater out to Greenlawn for the last time. He was barely 40 years old.
What Atwater did was more than inject into Republican politics a modern form of strategic viciousness. With it, he injected an entirely new form of strategic unreality. From that has come the party's inability to recognize or acknowledge the empirical. By creating an entirely new Dukakis in which his voters could believe, Atwater showed them how to build the bubble and to armor it against reality. The combination of strategic viciousness and strategic unreality has come full flower this year. We have Donald Trump, who is one ring of the circus all to himself . . . .
When I got to his grave on this bright morning, the vase of plastic flowers atop it had fallen over from its niche in the metal plaque. I placed it back upright and crossed myself and looked again across the pond and decided that here, right here, was the essential explanation for how Donald Trump had come to be . . .
The descent of the GOP into something hideous did not just happen. Party elites planned it and nurtured it, especially as the embraced racists, white supremacists and reality denying Christofascists.