How the Republican Party Became a Failed State

The GOP let its extremist insurgency in through the front door.

03.13.16 1:20 PM ET

I’m a Democrat who believes that we need a healthy Republican Party—a party that’s strong in the places ours is weak.

Democrats need Republicans to point out where tax dollars are being wasted, programs are being abused, and regulations aren’t worth the cost. We need them pushing us to reform education, and rein in the cost of government-funded health care and retirement benefits. We need them to fight with us over the right amount of immigration and gun control; over the right level to set the minimum wage; over the right price to put on carbon pollution.

Democrats need Republicans to argue that military action is sometimes necessary and even just, and that our right to privacy must be balanced with our desire for security. We need them to remind us about the importance of faith, family, and personal responsibility. We need them to call us out when we’re acting smug, self-righteous, and morally superior (oh, you didn’t think people noticed?)

Democrats have plenty of other problems, too. Our politicians can be overly cautious, packaged, and calculating; a little too close to Wall Street and too tied to Washington. Our presidential candidates hover around the age of 70, our bench of talent is too shallow, and the dropoff in young voters since 2008 is one of the reasons we got our asses handed to us in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014, costing us control of Congress as well as dozens of governorships and state legislatures.

Still, for all of our faults and challenges, the Democratic Party is a functioning institution. Our leaders in Congress command a high degree of respect and loyalty among Democrats in the House and Senate. Our primary is a contest between a candidate of the center-left and the far-left who have both showered praise on the leader they’re vying to succeed. And though Barack Obama has had his share of mistakes and disappointments, he has also quietly and steadily become one of the party’s most beloved and consequential presidents of all time. If Obama could run for a third term against any candidate we’ve seen, he would easily win.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, is no longer a functioning institution. It is a failed state, overrun by a nihilistic insurgency that is about to depose the establishment conservatives who let them in through the front door. It is a party that cannot govern itself, let alone the rest of the country.

In Washington, there is much pearl-clutching and think-piecing about how the storied party of Lincoln and Reagan could have possibly been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump and former Zodiac Killer Ted Cruz—as if, until this campaign, the Republican Party had been humming along smoothly as a big tent full of cheery capitalists enthused about freedom; as if we didn’t know about the crazies they hide in the attic between elections.

But of course, we did know. Many of us have seen this chaos coming for quite some time.

I first saw it in 2008, when the Republican Party’s original grifter, Sarah Palin, told an angry mob that Barack Hussein Obama “didn’t see America like they did”; that he was “palling around with terrorists,” plural. I saw it when she stood by and said nothing as the mob shouted “treason!” and “terrorist!” I saw it in the look on John McCain’s face when he was booed at a town hall meeting after telling a woman that Obama was a “decent family man,” and not an untrustworthy Arab, like she believed—a look that said, “What have I done?”

I saw the chaos coming in the early years of the Obama administration, when the opposition was less guttural but just as strident; when the Republican leadership ordered its members to oppose every part of the president’s agenda; when they openly strategized that the path back to power required denying Obama a single moment of bipartisan cooperation—even during a national crisis; even before he announced what was in a proposal; even when he offered a health-care plan that looked just like the Republican alternative to Hillarycare in 1993; a plan that was nearly identical to the reform that had just been passed by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

I saw the insurgency take shape in the apocalyptic response to a piece of legislation so radical that it maintained America’s system of private health insurance. But this time, it wasn’t enough for Republican politicians to simply oppose Obamacare—to say, “I think it costs too much because of X” or “I don’t think it will work because of Y.” Instead, they were advised by party strategists to tell their constituents that Obamacare was “a government takeover” because “takeovers are like coups—they both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”

What followed were the absurdist claims that Obamacare included death panels. We heard perpetually confused brain surgeon Ben Carson say that the bill was “the worst thing that happened in this nation since slavery.” We watched a congressman interrupt the President of the United States during a live national address to call him a liar for claiming that Obamacare wouldn’t insure illegal immigrants—which, by every account, was 100 percent true.

Is it any wonder, then, that Tea Partiers took to the streets? Is it really so shocking that one of them waved a sign outside the Capitol which threatened gun violence if Republicans failed to stop the Affordable Care Act? And when the bill still passed with a majority of votes in both houses of Congress—a radical strategy that Obama learned about from the Constitution—is it terribly surprising that Tea Partiers were swept into power on a wave of anti-government rage that was stoked by Fox and Rush and millions of dollars in bullshit ads?

We saw what came next. Over and over, President Obama would try to negotiate with Speaker Boehner on taxes and spending. The negotiations would fail. And Official Washington would blame the two men for not re-creating its favorite wet dream: Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, solving the world’s problems with a glass of whiskey and a handshake after a hard day’s work.

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Obama liked Boehner. He’d say the Speaker reminded him of the Republicans with whom he used to play cards and cut deals in the Illinois state Senate. Obama also knew the truth about Boehner: He was a man who wanted to compromise, but couldn’t. The Tea Partiers wouldn’t let him. The only Obama plan they’d ever pass would have to give Republicans 100 percent of what they wanted—all spending cuts, no taxes, full repeal of Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and on and on. If these demands weren’t met, they would shut down the government, or force a default on our debt that would cause an even bigger crisis than the Great Recession. And if Boehner chose to go around the Tea Party—if he decided to pass anything with the help of Democratic votes—the Tea Party would choose a new Speaker.

For a long time, Boehner decided to keep his job. He thought he could appease the hostage-takers, even though he was one of the hostages. And most establishment Republicans followed the same strategy—wink, nod, give the crazies just a little bit of what they want.

In the 2012 election, I watched Mitt Romney, the man who was once my moderate governor, say that 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims” and that he could “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” I watched him publicly embrace the endorsement of a man who funded an investigation to prove that the President of the United States was a Kenyan-born imposter—a decision that helped legitimize Donald J. Trump, the monster who now haunts America’s waking nightmare.

I saw Jeb Bush, who once called it an “act of love” to accept undocumented immigrants, say that America should only accept terrorized refugees who are Christian. I saw Marco Rubio, who once had the courage to work with President Obama to reform immigration, say that President Obama has hurt and weakened America—deliberately. And even now, as the party now faces the prospect of nominating a xenophobic demagogue who was, of all things, a Clinton donor, elected Republicans stand quietly by and repeat their hostage statements:

“I intend to support the nominee,” says Paul Ryan, moments after he called out Trump’s flirtation with the KKK. “I intend to support the nominee,” says Mitch McConnell, as he rallies the Senate to block hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court choice before even knowing who it is—one final attempt to delegitimize this President on his way out the door. “I intend to support the nominee,” say the presidential candidates, who, at the last debate, couldn’t even bring themselves to condemn Trump for the hate and violence he’s incited at his rallies. And now, finally, after scenes of chaos at a rally that had to be canceled in Chicago, Rubio and Kasich are wavering on that pledge with that same mixture of shock and sadness we saw from John McCain at that Town Hall in 2008: “What have I done?”

It’s a funny thing about appeasement. The conservative hawks are right—it doesn’t work. At the end of the day, the Tea Party did force John Boehner out of office. No one clapped for Jeb. No one cared about Mitt’s speech. Little Marco is on life support. John Kasich is 0-20. And the party is left to choose between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: the crazy insider vs. the crazy outsider; one of the most hated men in Washington vs. one of the most hateful men in America. And even if Hillary beats them in November, which I believe she will, the forces that have been unleashed will not go quietly into the night. You can already hear what they’ll say in order to rob her of the same legitimacy they tried to steal from Obama: “She’d be in jail if his Justice Department didn’t protect her.”

In the last few months, I’ve become frustrated, and at times scared, by this stark reality—which, I can tell you, doesn’t happen easily to an Obama Kool-Aid drinker like me. What’s worse is that I can’t seem to tear myself away from it all—the Nazi-like oaths, the dick-measuring debates, the Twitter taunting. You start to understand why the crazy is so addictive.

I was asked to offer some commentary one of these debates recently, and before I left for the studio, I started scrolling through the news to make sure that I was up to date on Donald Trump’s latest reaction to Donald Trump’s latest performance. But when I arrived at the studio, the guest before me was a man named Brent Brown, a lifelong Republican who had voted against Obama twice, and was particularly vocal in his opposition to Obamacare. Brown also had a serious autoimmune disease that nearly killed him because he couldn’t afford treatment. And the Affordable Care Act saved his life. And he wrote this beautiful letter to Obama that ends with, “Thank you for serving me when I didn’t vote you. Thank you for being my President.”

I sat there and watched the clip of Brent introducing Obama at a rally in Milwaukee that day, and then being interviewed by Chris Hayes. His voice was halting, a little unsure, like it was the first time he had ever spoken in public. And I thought about what it took for him to get there—to beat his illness, to write that letter, to go to that rally, to sit in front that television camera, to say, “You know what? I changed my mind.” It’s the kind of courage and grace you rarely see in public life, but it probably exists in more places than we imagine.

The President often says, “We are not as divided as our politics suggests.”

Now, more than ever, I hope that he’s right.