The pre-Trump delegitimization movement.

Photographer: Richard Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Republican Party Burns Down One Last Institution: Itself

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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There used to be some exceptions to the Republican Party's war on American institutions.

The party began aggressively attacking the news media and the academy in the era of Nixon-Agnew, undermining confidence in the validity of news reports and the integrity of journalists, while condemning the pernicious ideological influence of university professors.

Republicans added public schools to the enemies list as desegregation orders trickled through the nation in the 1960s and 1970s. The courts, the ultimate source of such orders, were cast as a radical den, home to judges who were delegitimized as "unelected," "liberal" and "activist." Racial conservatives resisted integrated schools while religious conservatives condemned public education as a godless swamp. More often than not, the religious and racial objections drew from the same well of resentment.

Hollywood, which adds more than a half trillion dollars to U.S. gross domestic product each year, became a target as the religious right cemented its place in conservative politics. Like the academy, Hollywood was accused of poisoning the minds of American youth, turning them against decent conservative values.

In the 1980s, Newt Gingrich began a sustained assault on the U.S. Congress, seeking to undermine decades of Democratic control by bringing the entire institution into disrepute. Gingrich inherited the rubble he created in 1994, becoming speaker of the House.

Republicans never stopped blasting at the institution, even when they controlled it. They called Congress wasteful, corrupt, arrogant and illegitimate. (It sometimes was.) Under Republican Speaker John Boehner, they grew increasingly comfortable with legislative anarchy and symbolic posturing in lieu of governing. Last year, they drove Boehner out of office. His replacement, Paul Ryan, has been dangling ever since, powerless to legislate except in rare instances.

The Republican assault on the presidency began as soon as Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993. After an eight-year Republican respite, the attack intensified when Barack Obama became president in 2009, and expanded to include the entire executive branch.

Congressional committees were organized with the goal of destroying the Internal Revenue Service, which was attacked with  phony allegations of political meddling by IRS agents into the activities of Tea Party groups.

As its own demographic and ideological weaknesses grew more apparent, the GOP resorted to more attacks to bolster itself, even attacking the franchise itself, the root of American democracy, with false claims of voter fraud. The attacks were aided by partisan media -- Fox News above all -- that echoed and advanced Republican messages and hyped stories, such as Benghazi, into "scandals" that further undermined conservative faith in governing institutions.

Having been told the Obama administration was a source of major corruption, conservative voters were even more irate that there were somehow no legal consequences for the high crimes alleged. The obvious conclusion: The whole system must be corrupt.

Enter Donald Trump. Before Trump, two institutions were off limits to Republican attacks. The military was one. Ever since Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, Trump's forebear in scattershot, seat-of-the-pants demagogy, had tried and failed to damage the U.S. Army in the 1950s, Republicans could be counted on to rally around the troops and their leaders.

No more. Trump has called the U.S. military "depleted" and "a disaster." He has alienated its leaders. His attacks on the parents of a heroic soldier killed in combat have been so relentless and callous that they have prompted what the Washington Post called a "bipartisan constellation" of military figures to condemn Trump.

The military seems likely to survive Trump's assault. But the final institution on the Republican hit list, the one that had been immune to attack for decades, may not.

The Republican Party is an institution, too -- an old and once respected one. Having devoted much of the past half century to undermining other American institutions in pursuit of its own power, the party has at last turned on itself. The ethos of destruction preceded Trump. But he is a natural conclusion of it. Many years of bad faith, and bad practice, in American politics have culminated in Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net