The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump’s political style smothered the last substance left in the GOP

Review of ‘Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted’ by Jeremy W. Peters

Former president Donald Trump after a rally in Iowa last October. Jeremy W. Peters's new book traces the GOP's transformation into a party centered more on personality than on principle. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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INSURGENCY: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted

By Jeremy W. Peters. Crown. 400 pp. $28.99

How far back you travel to explain the hold that Donald Trump exerts over the Republican Party depends on whether you prefer to prosecute the present or interrogate the past.

Do you look back to Jan. 6, 2021, to see the lengths to which believers believe and enablers deny? Or to Charlottesville, to see the depths? Do you start with the escalator ride at Trump Tower in 2015, or with the torn illusions of the Great Recession and 9/11? Do you point to harbingers such as Sarah Palin’s death panels, Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America or Pat Buchanan’s cultural war? Do you dig up the roots of MAGA in Richard Nixon’s silent majority or Barry Goldwater’s forgotten America? You can always go deeper in the endless game of How did we get here, a query both sage and lazy, and one that in the practicalities of book form is constrained only by an author’s knowledge, time or imagination.

Jeremy W. Peters’s “Insurgency” is not the first attempt to take a long view of how the party of Lincoln became the party of Donald. “In many ways, the GOP had been Donald Trump’s for decades,” Peters argues, an idea more notable for the path it chooses than for its destination. Journalists such as Tim Alberta, with his comprehensive 2019 account, “American Carnage,” disenchanted thinkers on the right such as Max Boot (“The Corrosion of Conservatism”) and embittered campaign strategists such as Stuart Stevens (“It Was All a Lie”) have also peered back and found elements of Trumpism within the Republican Party well before Trump became its organizing principle. But Peters does not dwell on the excuses of the GOP establishment, nor does he plumb the debates over conservative orthodoxy. Instead, he emphasizes the activists, the operatives and particularly the right-wing media figures who helped mold the party into its Trump-ready state. It is a partial history, and it is not always obvious that its protagonists and scenes carry the influence that the author imagines. But “Insurgency” is persuasive in suggesting that the long-term transformation of the Republican Party is one in which a style of politics has overpowered, and then suffocated, any remnant of its substance.

The Trump era in American politics can feel uniquely disruptive, but Peters highlights earlier episodes that, put together, leave Trump looking like an inevitable outcome rather than an unlikely outlier. Palin’s selection for the Republican Party’s 2008 vice-presidential nomination was the “tip of the spear” for the emergence of voters obsessed with cultural resentments rather than the moral and economic issues that had supposedly animated the party. At the time, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, a recurring character of Peters’s, catalogued these voters as “Dennis Miller Republicans,” after the comedian and television personality, an early trigger-the-libber whom Peters calls the “ultimate aggrieved white alpha male.” Years later, Fabrizio would serve as Trump’s 2016 pollster, and just weeks after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol he pinpointed a new demographic of party faithful — “the 'Infowars’ Republicans,” those who believe in at least four of the baseless theories spread by QAnon. By his survey, such Republicans account for 10 percent of the GOP electorate. The journey from Dennis Miller Republicans to Infowars Republicans is, to a significant degree, the story of Peters’s book.

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The “Faustian bargain” of Palin’s spot on the 2008 ticket — through which the party sought to harness its populist base, only to give in to its basest impulses — was just one early sign of this evolution. Peters reflects on a 2009 congressional contest he covered in Upstate New York, in which moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, initially backed by the party establishment, withdrew after social conservatives threw their support behind a right-wing candidate, who eventually lost to a Democrat. Peters summarized the attitude of the conservative activists, exultant in defeat: “Moderate politics are dead, and we buried them right in Nelson Rockefeller’s backyard.”

The controversy in 2010 over a proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan (dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by critics because of its proximity to the World Trade Center site) also had a natural audience among tea party activists and conservative news media, Peters writes, with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, in particular, proving “essential to keeping the story alive.” Trump became a vocal critic of the project — even suggesting he would buy the site himself — in large part, Peters contends, because he could not resist the media frenzy or the opportunity to bash politicians, such as President Barack Obama, who supported the initiative. “The line between the mosque controversy and the widely publicized disinformation campaign he waged about Obama’s birth certificate is short and fairly direct,” Peters writes, “and much of it played out on the airwaves of Fox News.”

Peters obsesses over the impact of right-wing media to the point that it almost reads like a separate book within a book. It is an understandable impulse, yet at times it gives “Insurgency” a disjointed feel. He shifts away from the big-picture history of the Republican Party’s rightward lurch to dwell instead on the instincts and tactics of various players in the conservative media universe. The late Fox News boss Roger Ailes was drawn to “the most outrageous and provocative content” less because of his own beliefs than because provoking liberals would send his ratings soaring. (“This will make their heads explode” was one of his favorite lines.) And Rush Limbaugh, the town crier of the post-Reagan right, showcased a sort of proto-Trumpism in his assaults on government, media, academia and science, what he called “the Four Corners of Deceit.” Limbaugh also gave Trump practical governing advice — never cut deals with Democrats, he told him, because it’ll never be enough, and you’ll never get any credit for it anyway — and together, Peters writes, the two men “helped build the foundations of a philosophy for their followers that was rooted in a sense of victimization, exclusion, and systemic unfairness.”

“Insurgency” is especially fixated on the impact of Breitbart News and the endlessly self-promoting Steve Bannon. The on-again, off-again Trump adviser tells Peters that when he watched Trump taking that down escalator in June 2015 to deliver his presidential campaign announcement, his first thought was “That’s Hitler!,” explaining that it evoked Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” with visual techniques that depicted a character towering over all else. (“He meant it as a compliment,” Peters notes icily.) Breitbart formed a “full-blown strategic partnership” with the 2016 Trump campaign, Peters writes, chronicling, perhaps in excessive detail, how Breitbart reporter Aaron Klein helped bring women who had accused Bill Clinton of assault to St. Louis for the second debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. A not-so-dramatic tidbit: Paula Jones and Klein were in the same ticketing line at Reagan National Airport as veteran journalist Chris Matthews, and Klein positioned himself in front of Jones to obstruct Matthews’s vision and keep the plan from leaking to the press. (“It apparently worked,” Peters writes.) The author casts the entire effort — aimed at distracting from the infamous “Access Hollywood” video and creating a sense of bad-boy equivalence between Trump and Bill Clinton — as a climactic gambit. “In the history of modern presidential campaigns, no candidate had pulled off such a ruthless act of vengeance in public,” Peters writes. “It ultimately may not have changed any votes. But it changed the game, proving to Trump and his allies that there was nothing off-limits anymore.”

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It’s not clear that Trump and his allies needed any further affirmation of their transgressive tendencies. What such episodes do confirm is what Republican campaign strategist Todd Harris explains about the state of the new GOP, a party no longer supported, as it supposedly once was, by the three legs of social conservatism, economic conservatism and national defense. “Harris said there was now a fourth leg. . . that was all about attitude," Peters writes. "He called it ‘stylistic conservatism,’ reasoning that voters cared just as much, if not more, about the way a candidate talked as they did about what specific issues the candidate supported. The more aggressive, unfiltered, and politically incorrect, the better.”

It is in stylistic conservatism that the impulses and interests of Republican politicians and conservative media join together. During the Trump presidency, party leaders “defended the indefensible because they feared that doing otherwise would cost them their purchase on power,” Peters writes. “Its friendly media helped craft a world they and their audience wanted to see.”

And, in that world, another Trump run at the presidency becomes feasible. “He seems to genuinely believe that he will avenge his defeat in 2020 by running and winning in 2024,” Peters writes. Such a campaign could prove the ultimate expression of stylistic conservatism. “In my opinion, the single biggest issue today is not the border, it’s the scam election of 2020,” Trump tells Peters. If the voters of the GOP base once supported Trump because he channeled their grievances over trade, immigrants, abortion or race, now they support him because he channels their grievances about Trump himself — a party based on personality over principle.

Peters ends the introduction to his book by quoting the question Brian Kilmeade posed on “Fox & Friends” on the morning of Jan. 7, 2021. “So, how did we get here?” In light of the transformation of the party that Peters chronicles, How did we get here feels less vital now. What I wish a book would answer is: How did we get where? Where is here?

Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his recent book reviews, including:

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