The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives have long stoked distrust in government — and now we’re paying for it

The longtime strategy for binding the Republican coalition together is hurting the fight against the coronavirus.

People outside a San Diego Unified School District office protest a vaccination mandate for students on Sept. 28. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Ending the pandemic has proved hard in the United States, and decades-long political dynamics are a big part of the problem.

Not only has distrust in government contributed to vaccine hesitancy, but following a script too long in the making, many Republican leaders have encouraged citizens to see mitigation methods — like mask and vaccine mandates — as driven by malevolent motives.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, for one, suggested that President Biden’s policies weren’t actually focused on thwarting the spread of the coronavirus and its devastating impact. Instead Ricketts asserted that they were “about government control and taking away personal liberties.” In July, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) claimed that requiring masks in the House of Representatives was about “giving power to the government, and lessening the ability for individual choices.”

Right-wing media figures amplify and stoke these sentiments. As journalist Alex Shephard put it, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s questions about vaccine safety scream, “The elites are hiding something — likely something very sinister — from everyone else.”

And this framing matters, driving down Republicans’ concern about the threat posed by covid-19 as well as their support for mitigation efforts, because they see this resistance as taking a stand against a dishonest, manipulative effort to increase government power.

This is the Republican playbook in 2021. But it’s nothing new. This sort of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” epitomizes what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled “the paranoid style in American politics” almost five decades ago.

In fact, anti-government rhetoric has been the central strategy of the contemporary Republican Party and the glue that most reliably bound together its coalition dating back to Barry Goldwater and the rise of the conservative movement within the GOP.

This strategy has proved powerful in winning elections, undermining faith in institutions controlled by Democrats and waging successful issue fights without having to engage on policy substance. Stoking anti-government suspicions is particularly useful to the GOP because it can galvanize both social and economic conservatives — two groups that might not otherwise agree — without scaring off independents, as explicitly advocating more aggressive conservative social and cultural positions might do.

This rhetoric isn't even new when it comes to public health crises and health policy.

Democrats have prioritized increasing health-care coverage for Americans throughout the 20th and early-21st centuries. Each time, the GOP has deployed this strategy of distrust in response.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first Democratic president to broach such policies. In his 1944 speech touting a Second Bill of Rights, Roosevelt included “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”

Right-wing critics labeled Roosevelt and his New Deal policies socialist and communist.

In 1945, when Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, introduced a plan to provide health coverage to all Americans, GOP opponents once again proclaimed it a Trojan horse hiding dangerous governmental power.

Truman’s attempts to counter these claims fell flat.

Conservatives wielded this rhetoric about liberal conspiracy more broadly as well. While speaking on behalf of Goldwater at the GOP’s 1964 presidential convention, actor and activist Ronald Reagan starkly contrasted the nominee with “those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state.” In his speech accepting the GOP nomination, Goldwater himself proclaimed that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” This language — and the rejection of a plank denouncing the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society — signaled the GOP’s increasing comfort with incorporating the far right into its coalition.

Although Goldwater lost in a landslide, he won five Deep South states (plus his home state of Arizona) at a time when the South was still largely Democratic. These victories suggested an opportunity for a newly conservative GOP. As Republicans courted the South, White backlash to Democrats’ promotion of civil rights, voting rights and anti-poverty programs intensified the GOP’s focus on promoting distrust in the government.

Nixon’s appeals to White Southerners provided a blueprint for Reagan as he challenged President Gerald Ford from the right in 1976, and eventually captured the GOP nomination — and the presidency — in 1980.

Reagan relied heavily on rhetoric about the evils of government. Such bromides helped stitch together a coalition of evangelical Christians, young professionals and working-class Whites, especially in the Midwest. The professionals liked the emphasis on low taxes, the evangelicals distrusted a government that could legalize abortion, pass the Equal Rights Amendment and ban school prayer and the working-class Whites resented programs that they felt like they paid for but that benefited undeserving minorities.

Notably, Reagan saved his harshest anti-government rhetoric for populations like the “welfare queen,” a racially-coded trope, who was purportedly cheating, while boosting funding for programs favoring preferred constituencies such as White Midwestern farmers.

The success of this rhetoric enabled Republicans to capture five out of six presidential elections. In 1992, Bill Clinton finally ended this streak by running as a “New Democrat” who emphasized individual responsibility coupled with limited, targeted public investment — showing the power of the GOP’s formula.

Despite this centrism, the Republican opposition led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich railed against government programs while painting Democratic officeholders as corrupt and evil, pursuing powers beyond the Constitution and on the side of damaging cultural forces. Gingrich and his allies capitalized on a new media innovation, conservative talk radio, to speak to the public, and skillfully used polls and focus groups to craft messages that seized upon and cultivated public dissatisfactions.

In echoes of the past, Gingrich and his allies unleashed fearful, anti-government rhetoric against Clinton’s signature health-care proposal. In February 1993, Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) compared Clinton’s plan to the Canadian health-care system which, he said, practiced “Gestapo medicine.”

And this rhetoric worked, contributing to the deeply damaging defeat of the proposal, which helped propel Republicans to a historic midterm election victory. An internal White House report concluded that “Much of what the public thought they knew was in fact wrong,” a result “both of deliberately spread misinformation and disinformation” as well as of existing public “cynicism and mistrust in government.”

While Republicans had warned about an out-of-control, corrupt Democratic Congress in the 1980s when the GOP controlled the White House, after Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, he argued that only a robust Congress could check the president’s sinister designs.

And this became the norm for the GOP: Scaring people about government brought their voters out in election season and gave them a weapon to fight Democratic proposals. Republicans understood that both libertarians and social conservatives feared government power, and ruthlessly stoked these fears at every turn.

Donald Trump’s strategic uses of distrust were a continuation and expansion of this tactic.

Trump applied anti-government rhetoric to parts of the federal government Republicans previously had not. Beleaguered by charges of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and, later, by his weak performance on the international stage in Helsinki, Trump backed Vladimir Putin’s “strong denial” of interference over the word of U.S. intelligence officials. Deeming the intelligence community’s views as concoctions of a “deep state,” Trump deflected government investigations into his own actions by dubbing them “witch hunts.” While some Republicans previously raised the specter of voter fraud, Trump took this tendency much further in questioning the legitimacy of elections.

Trump created GOP unity and resolve by tapping into extant distrust, rousing restive grass-roots conservatives who disliked establishment Republicans and using conservative media to spew an overtly racialized and xenophobic version of the GOP’s now-standard message.

In 2021, Republicans’ use of political distrust makes it more difficult to control a pandemic that’s led to hundreds of thousands of Americans dying, many more suffering chronic illness and disruptions of our economy, education system and society. Yet Trump and numerous Republican officeholders continue to stoke distrust toward public health officials. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis even sells campaign merchandise saying “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” turning voter suspicions against public health officials at a time when the public needs them most.

Only by recognizing and countering this weaponization of distrust in government can we begin to safeguard American institutions that are the bulwarks against these threats. Yet so potent is the rhetoric of distrust that engaging in such efforts is difficult for Trump-critical Republicans, as disagreement with the “big lie” now ignites massive backlash from the party’s base.

Framing of beneficial policies — like masking, vaccines and broader legislative agendas — as evidence of how government can be a force for the common good can help undo this cynicism. Americans need to see government as a force for good, or else this distrustful rhetoric will continue to wreak havoc on our institutions.