Opinion – Paul Krugman: Why have Republicans become so radical?

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Many political analysts spent years warning that the GOP was becoming a radical and undemocratic party.

Long before Republicans nominated Donald Trump for president, and long before Trump refused to acknowledge his electoral defeat, Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein declared that the party had become “a rebellious outsider” that it rejected ” facts, evidence and science” and did not accept the legitimacy of political opposition.

In 2019, an international poll of experts evaluated parties around the world on their commitment to basic democratic principles and minority rights. The Republican Party, after all, is nothing like the center-right parties in other Western countries. Instead, it resembles authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz or Turkey’s AKP.

Such analyzes have often been criticized as exaggerated and alarmist. Even now, with Republicans expressing open admiration for Viktor Orbán’s one-party regime, I find people who insist that the Republican Party is not comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have manipulated state legislatures to maintain control no matter how much they lose in the popular vote, which comes straight from Orbán’s playbook.) Yet, as Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently pointed out, “at every juncture in the last 20 years the American ‘alarmists’ were right”.

And in the last few days we’ve received even more reminders of how radical Republicans have become. The January 6 hearings established, in stark detail, that the Capitol Hill attack was part of a larger scheme to overthrow the election, directed from above. A Supreme Court filled with Republicans has been delivering overtly partisan rulings on abortion and gun control. And there could be more shocks — keep an eye on what the court is likely to do to the government’s ability to protect the environment.

The question that has been bothering me – beyond the question of whether American democracy will survive – is why. Where does this extremism come from?

Comparisons with the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars are inevitable, but not all that helpful. On the one hand, as bad as he was, Trump was not another Hitler or even another Mussolini. It’s true that Republicans like Marco Rubio often call Democrats — who are basically standard Social Democrats — Marxists, and it’s tempting to respond to their hyperbole. The reality, however, is bad enough not to need exaggeration.

And there is another problem with comparisons to the rise of fascism. The far right in interwar Europe emerged from the rubble of national catastrophes: defeat in the First World War – or, in Italy’s case, a victory that looked like defeat; hyperinflation; depression.

None of that happened here. Yes, we had a serious financial crisis in 2008, followed by a slow recovery. Yes, we have seen regional economic divergences, with some ugly consequences – unemployment, social decay, even suicides and addictions – in the abandoned regions. But the United States has been through much worse in the past, without seeing one of its major parties turn its back on democracy.

Furthermore, the Republican turn to extremism began in the 1990s. Many people, I believe, have forgotten the political madness of the Clinton years — the witch hunts and wacky conspiracy theories (Hillary murdered Vince Foster!), the attempts to blackmail Bill Clinton to make political concessions by blocking the government and much more. And all of this happened during what were widely regarded as good years, with most Americans believing the country was on the right track.

It’s a puzzle. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for historical precursors — cases where right-wing radicalism emerged even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

It’s important to realize that while this organization is named after the post-Civil War group, it was actually a new movement — a white nationalist movement to be sure, but much more widely accepted and less of a pure terrorist organization. And it reached the height of its power – it effectively controlled several states – in the midst of peace and economic growth.

What was this new KKK all about? I’m reading Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, which paints a “politics of resentment” driven by the backlash of small-town, rural, and white Americans against a changing nation. The KKK hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by “distrust of science” and “a broader anti-intellectualism.” Sound familiar?

Okay, the modern Republican Party is not as bad as the second KKK. But republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.

And because GOP extremism is fueled by resentment against the very things that, in my view, really make America great — our diversity, our tolerance of difference — cannot be treated with condescension or compromise. It can only be defeated.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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