When Donald Trump was elected president, many on both the left and the right presented him as a break with the status quo of American conservatism. Trump, they argued, represented a descent into a new, more vulgar ideology that was far removed from normal right-wing discourse and practice.
There were, and continue to be, countless paeans to how previous GOP presidents, mostly Bush 43 and Reagan, were “different” in some capacity, along with hackneyed attempts to separate “honorable” Republicans like Paul Ryan from the dark underbelly of the Republican Party that Trump helped mainstream. Bush 43 giving Michelle Obama a piece of candy during John McCain’s funeral, while an incredibly low-stakes act, represents this fiction of a discrete, distinctively pre-Trump GOP perfectly, i.e. remember when the Norms Were Good and conservatives Deserved Respect Even If You Didn’t Agree With Them.
In reality, there’s an incredible continuity in the Republican Party, not just between Trump and Bush but all the way back at least to the reactionaries of the 1960s. Trump is a totally normal Republican politican.
Start with Brett Kavanaugh. Trump elevated him to the Supreme Court, but Bush 43 made him a judge in the first place. Kavanaugh also worked in the Bush White House, corresponding with the likes of John Yoo on torture. Before that, he worked for Ken Starr investigating various Clinton scandals, alongside Rod Rosenstein and Alex Azar – both future Trump Cabinet appointees.
Starr was of course Solictor General under Bush 41, who like Trump nominated to the Supreme Court a manifestly unfit judge credibly accused of sexual asault and then chose to stick by that nomination despite significant backlash. Like Trump, Bush 41 was accused of harassment by multile women, yet persists for many as a paragon of a different, gentler kind of GOP president. That’s a weird formulation for the man who employed Lee Atwater, mastermind of the Trumpesque race-baiting Willie Horton ads of 1988.
Bush 41 was Reagan’s VP for 8 years. Reagan is positively remembered even by some Democratic politicians, despite numerous similarities with Trump beyond just their shared background in entertainment. Reagan referred to black men as “strapping young bucks” and perpetuated the racialized welfare queen myth. He associated himself with segregationist Strom Thurmond and launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Missisippi, the site of a KKK lynching of volunteers during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Reagan was very conservative, even for the time – he challenged Gerald Ford from the right in 1976 and almost won, which is amazing in retrospect since Ford himself had incredible bona fides as a conservative. He helped stanch the damage to the GOP from Watergate by pardoning Nixon, plus he employed two pivotal figures who would go on to do immense damage in the Bush 43 administration – Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who served as WH Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense, respectively, in the Ford administration.
Nixon’s similarities to Trump are almost too obvious to discuss. A paranoid yet clever politician constantly in legal and ethical trouble, he precipitated one of the biggest crises in the history of American governance. Alongside Ford, he also campaigned heartily for Barry Goldwater in 1964.
The Goldwater presidential campaign is really where modern American conservatism coalesceded into a coherent movement. Goldwater captured the rabid racists who were once stalwarts of the Southern Democratic Party, in the process breaking the Solid South to win overwhelming victories in Mississippi, Alabama, and most of the Deep South. The KKK loved him. He opposed the various iterations of the Civil Rights Act as oversteps of big government, yet wholeheartedly supported aid to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in support of its ruling white nationalists – as if the question of whether “big government” is good is simply a matter of which race it’s hurting.
Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court is just one bridge on the continuous highway of conservatism from Goldwater to Trump. There’s no golden age of an honest, ethical, and sane Republican Party, clearly removed from Trumpsim, to look back on at almost any point after the Eisenwhoer Administration. “Noble” or “moderate” Repubclians won’t save us, as Susan Collins’ ‘yes’ vote for Kavanaugh demonstrates.