A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
American Psychosis and the Reckoning of History
By David Corn September 17, 2022
Host Joe Scarborough and David Corn discuss American Psychosis on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on September 13, 2022.
History compels reckonings. That’s what I realized as I was making the rounds this week to promote my new book. As you no doubt know by now, American Psychosis A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy tells the story of the GOP’s seven-decades-long relationship with far-right fanaticism and chronicles how the party has exploited and encouraged right-wing extremism, bigotry, paranoia, tribalism, fear, and conspiracy theory. It’s a history of the dark side of the GOP that has generally been under-covered by the media and not acknowledged by the party. The big point is that Donald Trump is no aberration but a continuation (culmination?) of the party’s long-running efforts to stoke fear and hatred, from McCarthyism to the Tea Party to Trumpism.
Of course, liberals and Democrats would be receptive to the book’s grand theme. But I had wondered how never-Trumpers and what I call “recovering Republicans” would respond to this account of the party they once relished. When I heard that I was scheduled to appear on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss American Psychosis, I foresaw quite an interesting chat with host Joe Scarborough. A former Republican House member from Florida who served during the so-called Gingrich Revolution, Scarborough has been a consistent voice of opposition to Trump for years, and on a daily basis he takes his former party—he said goodbye to the GOP in 2017—to the woodshed and smacks it hard for its cultish devotion to Trump, the Big Lie, and other far-right craziness and for its creeping authoritarianism. But how would he take to the notion that the road to the Trumpism he detests was paved by crass and cynical GOP actions over the years that fed hatred and validated extremism for political gain? Can the Republicans who do see the dangers of Trumpism accept this hard truth?
After I had laid out this basic thrust of American Psychosis, Scarborough responded, “I’m going to get around to agreeing with you at the end but be patient with me at the beginning. You’re going to think I’m preaching a moral equivalence. I’m not.” I braced myself, for usually when someone says they are not engaging in moral equivalence, they are. And when cornered by a tough and uncomfortable facts, the temptation is often to exclaim, “Well, the other side does it, too!” I counter that argument in the book and show there is an asymmetry in American politics. No prominent national Democrats have ever engaged in anything like McCarthyism, embraced an outfit as extreme and irrational as the John Birch Society or the Tea Party, or promoted paranoia-driven conspiracy theories that demonize and dehumanize political opponents. In my mind, I began to compose a retort to Scarborough.
But I am saying that we have been a nation over the past 50, 60, 70 years that has been paranoid whether it’s conspiracy theories around JFK’s assassination or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon or Democrats saying that George H.W. Bush and the CIA took crack into inner cities to harm Black people or whether it was the truthers after 9/11. We have dealt with this. And sometimes it’s come from the left and sometimes it’s come from the right.
Okay, here we go, I thought. Show me one Democratic president who encouraged any of this. Or one who welcomed into his political coalition a group that included leaders who declared Americans who engaged in private conduct they deemed immoral should be executed—as Ronald Reagan did when he forged a close alliance with the Moral Majority, which was led by ministers who said that under “God’s word” gay people could be killed for engaging in homosexuality. I kept listening:
What disturbs me so much now are the very people that I knew best, the people that worked with me on my campaigns, starting in 1994…were people that actually…they watched news. They saw the news. You could have a conversation with them. They might say something crazy to you, and I’d say, “Well no, no, you need to read this.” And they’d read it, and they’d be fine. Now I talk to those people, and they say, “I don’t read the news anymore. I just don’t follow it because you just can’t trust the mainstream media.”...They get [their information] from QAnon. They get it from Chinese religious cult websites. They get it from the most bizarre places… We are now in a post-fact world. I can’t even talk to a lot of friends and family members and people I care so much about and I have for my whole life…Tell me about that development because, by the way, I’ve been in the Republican Party until about five years ago. It was never this bad. How did it get this bad?”
A tone of pain was in Scarborough’s voice, as he had shifted course to note that the conservatives and Republicans in his world had gone nuts or become captured by fringe conspiracism. I wanted to make sure that no viewer could interpret his initial comments as an argument of equivalence and explained that though conspiracy theories and wacko ideas have existed on both the right and the left, the GOP, not the Democrats, has taken advantage of this for decades. I concurred that “things have gotten worse” on the Republican side but added that one could look to the 1950s and McCarthyism to see that this embrace of irrationality and paranoia has long been part of the Republican brand. Given the history recounted in my book, present-day Republicans cannot portray recent developments in the party as an exception. There needs to be accountability for how the GOP has long galvanized extremist forces.
Scarborough cut in and agreed that not a single Democratic leader fed the 9/11 conspiracy theory that George W. Bush was behind that horrific attack or allowed it to happen. And he then referred to an episode that leads off an early chapter of American Psychosis: When Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president in 1952, he spent a day campaigning with Sen. Joe McCarthy in Wisconsin, McCarthy’s home state. He considered adding to a speech that he would give that evening a paragraph that would be a denunciation of McCarthy and his reckless Red-baiting. Yet top GOP officials, horrified at the idea of castigating a Republican whose outlandish and fact-free conspiracism was resonating with millions of fearful voters, persuaded Ike not to do it. Instead, Eisenhower delivered an address that echoed McCarthy’s demagoguery.
Scarborough noted that Eisenhower passed on the chance to condemn McCarthy and McCarthyism: “Ike is a hero of mine… [He] refused to say a damn thing about it, and there are parallels to that and where we are today.”
Bingo. I pointed out that this Eisenhower moment might be considered the “original sin” of the modern GOP, when a leader went along with craziness that he knew was both wrong and dangerous for the nation because of “political transactionalism.” Scarborough agreed. “And after that point,” I added, “it happened again and again and again in the party you once loved.” Scarborough replied, “Yep.”
The conversation moved on. (You can watch the entire exchange here.) So Scarborough had been correct in his prelude. He had not resorted to a false argument of moral equivalence. And he did not challenge my charge that decades of Republicans accommodating and exploiting extremism led to the triumph within the party of Trumpism.
I know it is not easy for a onetime life-long member of the GOP to see this. A far less difficult path would be to claim that the Grand Old Party, with Trump at the wheel, only recently went off the rails. But I have been impressed with never-Trump Republicans who are able to absorb this important revisionism. I had a long and fascinating conversation about all this with Charlie Sykes, once a conservative radio show host, on The Bulwark podcast. Ditto with Rick Wilson, a former GOP consultant, and Tara Setmayer, a former Republican aide on Capitol Hill, who are both with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
The reason why such discussions are important is that there is a sentiment within the political media world that it might be possible to boot Trump, flip a switch, and return the GOP to its days of presumed non-craziness. Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden have in the past espoused such a notion—though Biden certainly has moved away from that position with his recent speech excoriating MAGA extremism and warning that Trump was leading the GOP toward “semi-fascism.” American Psychosis shows that there has never been a time when the modern GOP was free of hateful and irrational extremism. Nostalgia for your father’s Republican Party is unwarranted.
To understand the present, you must know the past. The GOP’s descent into Trumpian madness reveals the deep roots of the party’s longtime alliance with extremism. We can now clearly see the results of the party’s previous actions and calculations. Newt Gingrich’s efforts to demonize and dehumanize Democrats (they’re evil and hate children!); both George Bushes legitimizing Pat Robertson, a loony and antisemitic conspiracy theorist who claimed Democrats, Jewish bankers, and the Federal Reserve were all part of a Satanic plot to impose a totalitarian one-world government on the entire planet; the GOP going ga-ga over Sarah Palin, as she vilified Barack Obama as a terrorist pal who wanted to bring socialist tyranny to the United States; the Republicans’ promotion of the Tea Party, which claimed Obama was setting up concentration camps and death panels on the way to becoming dictator—all of this and more helped radicalize the GOP base and create an increasing demand for hate-driven and irrationality-drenched politics. It legitimized crazy and set the stage for Trumpism.
Consequently, it’s time to place what used to be considered a sideshow of the GOP—it’s relationship with the fringe—at the center of the party’s story. This is the reckoning that Republicans (past and present) must now face.
You can read more about the positive reception American Psychosis has received here.
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at email@example.com
Dumbass Comment of the Week
This week I didn’t have time for current-day stupidity. I was, as you know, relentlessly flogging my book. That meant there was less time for trawling social media for inane remarks. I was just too busy, as I went from one media hit to another, discussing the ignorance and irrationality exploited by Republicans over the past seventy years.
Most of the response to my reminiscence of the brief encounter I had with President Barack Obama about the 47 percent video scoop were positive, however one reader declared it “too autobiographical” and canceled his subscription. Oh well. Lois Vitt, though, wrote:
Many thanks for today’s story and for your response to President Obama when he thanked you for that Romney video. I am grateful to you too. In contrast, think of the dozens of comparable (and much worse) shocking Trump videos and tell-all articles and books that so far seem to have little if any effect on Trump’s past or prospective voters! Worrisome, isn’t it?
Good point, Lois. In fact, in May 2016, during the Republican primary contest, when Mitt Romney finally lashed out at Trump, Trump counterattacked and blasted Romney for the 47 percent remark: “He came up with the 47 percent. He demeaned 47 percent of the people in our country, right? The famous 47 percent. Once that was said, I’ll be honest, once that was said, a lot of people thought it was over for him.” Yet, as I reported at the time, Trump, during a 2015 interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, said essentially the same thing as Romney: “The problem we have right now—we have a society that sits back and says we don’t have to do anything. Eventually, the 50 percent cannot carry—and it’s unfair to them—but cannot carry the other 50 percent.” Here Trump was claiming that 50 percent of Americans—3 percent more than Romney’s calculation—were lazy bums looking to ride on the back of hard-working Americans like Trump. As I wrote then:
His comment, not surprisingly, didn’t cause a stir. He’s been spraying a fire hose of outrageous remarks since he entered the presidential race, and this one got lost in the wash. It’s also a statement fully in sync with his arrogant schtick that divides the world into winners and losers. Though he’s now blasting Romney for the original 47 percent insult to Americans, Trump, too, apparently views many Americans as parasites. The only difference is that his estimate is higher.
In a somewhat normal political time, Romney’s insult dismissing 47 percent of the country as no-good loafers was explosive. In the era of Trump, Trump’s denigration of half the nation was just the same-old/same-old.
There was a mixed reaction to my piece on Andy Kroll’s great new book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, particularly my take on Julian Assange. George Davelis wrote, “Your innuendo and smears against Julian Assange demean you and further diminishes freedom of the press.” Yet George provided no examples or evidence to back up this complaint. In fact, everything I noted about Assange and his role in Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 election and his cynical and devious promotion of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was accurate and supported by numerous reports.
Tom Cleaver had a different take than George:
Julian Assange should be taken out and hanged, and the press defending anything he did as "press freedom" takes you all to a place you don't want to be at, with the way the public already holds too much of what the press does in contempt. Nothing he did is defensible. I say that as a journalist.
That is harsh, Tom. I made it clear that Assange, despite helping to uncover government secrets that deserved exposure, bears responsibility for tremendous wrongdoing that has had a significant and awful impact on the United States and the world. Still, let’s not become a lynch mob. Press freedom advocates are right to worry about the case the US government is prosecuting against Assange. But that is no reason to lionize him.
There were a few nice notes about the release of American Psychosis. Paula Doubleday emailed:
Mr. Corn, or can I call you David? I am long a follower of your TV punditry and have read your books. While I'm not a paid subscriber of your newsletters, I did get one this morning and read through. I am also a Rachel [Maddow] fan and heard her support/excitement about your new book last night so to get the newsletter and your brief synopsis was a nice surprise. I have just downloaded it on Audible.com and will let you know what I think. I just wanted to say I appreciate you.
Thank you. And please call me David.
Bette Piacente wrote:
I have pre-ordered your book in Audible format so you can walk with me now that the heat wave has subsided. I want to the full truth of how we got to where we are and I know you can tell it! I just hope I am strong enough to endure the telling. Thank you for all you do.
Thank you, Bette. I should say that I did not record the audio version of the book. I did voice my book on the Obama administration, Showdown, and that was an arduous task. This time, I was happy to leave it to a professional, Steven Jay Cohen, whom I helped select for the job.
Tom Cleaver was a prolific correspondent this week (see above). He also sent in an email regarding American Psychosis:
I don't know yet—the book arrives today—whether you ever read Richard Hofstadter's "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," written way back in 1954 and using data from 1949, but [authoritarianism on the right] has been going on a loooooonnnnnnnngggg time.
I can assure you I did my homework and read plenty of Hofstadter for this project. Here’s a link that Tom provided for that seminal article.
Shawn Gilbert wrote:
I am a retired high school history educator in the S.F. Bay Area... I know I am going to enjoy your newsletter based on what I was reading in today’s Mother Jones features. [Note from David: I presume this is the referenced article.] I am hoping to read your newest book, American Psychosis, too. I truly relate to your title choice because over the past number of years, I have felt like our nation is reflecting some type of psychosis. It has been more than disturbing.. As the daughter of a three-war vet, I grew up knowing our democracy was important. My dad, at the age of 19 became a wounded survivor when his ship, the USS Princeton, sunk during WWII. As a military kid, I have struggled with trying to understand how fellow Americans can deliberately undermine our democracy and promote the ugliness that we are experiencing. It is a collective illness…a psychosis. After a lot of struggling to understand, I finally have come to accept that there are people, fellow Americans, who do not believe in democracy. This is so unnerving.
I receive a lot of emails and letters from people who think they have a whiz-bang political proposal that will help win an election or save the day in another way. Usually they’re not the silver-bullet solutions their presenters believe them to be. Denny Clancy sent in what he called a “Hail Mary of a political idea.” I’m not sure it will fly, but it was one of the more creative notions I’ve seen. I’ll let him explain:
What if Joe Biden at a strategic moment decided to switch with Kamala Harris and run as the VP for one more term? I know that this has never been done before, but I think it would take the wind out of the sails of his "age" problem. The country would retain the institutional knowledge of a proven "skilled uniter.” Biden would be lauded for his willingness to serve his country in a way that no other politician has ever done. When I have run this one by my close friends who are political junkies like myself, it has been well received. Biden could ride off into the sunset and Harris could hand off the VP to another rising Democratic star.
What do you think?
“Don’t you think you’ve done enough promotion for your book? You’re going to drive people crazy.”
“Moxie, you can never do enough promotion. It’s really tough to sell a book. I think our friends and readers understand that.”
“Besides, no one is going to buy this.”
“That I am reading your book now.”
“They’re going to know that I already read it in page proofs.”
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
September 13: What Barack Obama said to me about the 47 percent video; the release of American Psychosis; and more.
August 5, 2022: The January 6 Rudy Giuliani mystery; American Psychosis tease of the week; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Alex Jones); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
July 29, 2002: We need to worry about Christian nationalism; American Psychosis tease of the week; Stranger Things jumps a ghoulish shark; Steve Earle honors his forebears; Joni Mitchell’s glorious return; MoxieCam™; and more.
July 23, 2022: Trump’s trap for the GOP; American Psychosis update and tease; Dumbass Comment of the Week (John Cornyn); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
July 19, 2022: Announcing the forthcoming release of American Psychosis; Breitbart gets something right; The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and The Player (three decades later!); Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology; and more.
July 16, 2022: Does Steve Bannon buy his own BS?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Catherine Glenn Foster, Lauren Boebert, and Dave Yost); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
July 12, 2022: It’s about sex; Iran-contra flashback: the day reality died; a dangerous state Supreme Court decision; and more.
July 9, 2022: Why did the Atlantic enable Mitt Romney’s dangerous both-sidesism?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Marjorie Taylor Greene, again); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
July 2, 2022: Mark Meadows: one helluva liar; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Ali Alexander); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.