Op-Ed: My front row seat to the radicalization of the Republican Party

Future House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia looks over his shoulder as he arrives for a Capitol Hill news conference, Monday, Dec. 5, 1994 in Washington, after his fellow Republicans voted him as speaker. To serve alongside Gingrich, the Republicans voted Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, as House Majority Leader and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as House Majority Whip. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
Newt Gingrich at a Capitol Hill news conference on Dec. 5, 1994, after his fellow Republicans voted him in as speaker of the House. (John Duricka / Associated Press)
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Since before he became president, Joe Biden has told crowds, “Folks, this is not your father’s Republican Party.” As a political reporter, I’d been hearing that lament since the late 1990s, from far better sources — those Republican fathers’ sons and daughters.

The radicalization of the Republican Party has been the biggest story of my career. I’ve been watching it from the start, from the time I arrived in then-Democratic Texas just out of college in 1978 to my years as a reporter in Washington through four revolutions — Ronald Reagan’s, Newt Gingrich’s, the tea party’s and Donald Trump’s — each of which took the party farther right.

From this perspective, it seems clear that the antidemocratic drift of the GOP will continue, regardless of Trump’s role. He didn’t cause its crackup, he accelerated it. He took ownership of the party’s base, and gave license to its racists, conspiracists, zealots and even self-styled paramilitaries, but that base had been calling the shots in the Republican Party for some years, spurred by conservative media. Now, emboldened, its activists will carry on with or without him.

The first elections I covered in 1978, at the midterm of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, marked the beginning of the Republican Party’s reemergence from its Watergate ruins and the shift of its base from the north to the south. In a poll a year earlier, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans had identified as Republicans. Texas was a Democratic bastion. But many Democrats I met there were more conservative than Republicans I knew up north; they often bucked the national party, yet remained “yellow dog Democrats” in state and local elections — so loyal, the saying went, that they’d vote for a yellow dog over a Republican, just like voters elsewhere in the South.

Republicans revived nationally in the late ’70s largely because of the governing Democrats’ misfortunes — a global energy crisis, double-digit inflation, a stagnant economy, party infighting.

Evangelicals threw off their longtime aversion to earthly politics and took over local party organizations, becoming culture warriors. By mid-1978, the property tax revolt in California kindled an anti-tax movement nationwide. With both moderate establishment Republicans and insurgent conservatives seeing the possibility of retaking the White House in 1980, the two camps intensified their decades-long war to define the party.

It’s clear now that the norms-abiding moderates never had a chance. As right-wing activist Paul Weyrich warned, “We are different from previous generations of conservatives. We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure in the country.” That could stand as conservatives’ mission statement today.

That November, my election-night story for the Abilene Reporter-News included mention of the defeat of a young George W. Bush for a House seat representing Midland and Odessa.

Yet he and other Republicans across the South did better than expected. Some actually won, including third-time candidate Newt Gingrich in suburban Atlanta. Texans elected the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. It all signaled the wave Reagan would ride two years later, carrying other Republicans in his wake. The Democrats who won congressional races across the south, replacing some New Deal liberals who retired, were more conservative and allies-in-waiting for Reagan, many of them future defectors to his party.

By 1984, I’d moved to Washington to cover Congress and got to know Gingrich. While he was a backbencher in House Republicans' seemingly permanent minority, he led a maverick faction calling itself the Conservative Opportunity Society (Gingrich himself was more opportunist than truly conservative, his lieutenants grumbled to me).

After he read stories I’d written about the ethics scrapes of some Democrats in Congress, Gingrich would have an aide in his congressional office contact me with dirt on others, often just allegations culled from the lawmakers’ local newspapers.

That was just one sign that he was a new breed of Republican, more interested in ruthless partisanship than in passing laws and representing constituents. His goal was nothing short of ending Democrats’ decades-long lock on the House majority and leading the next Republican revolution.

In 1990, Gingrich — by then the second-highest ranking House Republican leader — made a prediction that I found unbelievable: Republicans would win a House majority in the 1994 midterm elections. He explained to me that if George H.W. Bush lost reelection in 1992, with a Democrat in the White House the Republicans could benefit from the midterm jinx for a president’s party, and win enough seats to take control.

Gingrich did his part to weaken Bush. Most famously, he led a conservative mutiny against a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal the president had negotiated, assailing him for violating his “no new taxes” campaign promise.

With Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton, Gingrich immediately looked toward 1994. Since the late 1980s, he had mobilized a nationwide network of right-wing talk-radio hosts emerging in local markets. They echoed his talking points daily.

On election day 1994, Gingrich was confident of big gains — if not a House majority — and certain that conservative media had helped. “I think one of the great changes in the last couple of years was the rise of talk radio, which gives you an alternative validating mechanism,” separate from the mainstream media, he told me. In fact, he was about to be interviewed by a new local host — a young guy named Sean Hannity.

The Republicans triumphed beyond even Gingrich’s messianic dreams, winning House and Senate majorities for the first time since 1952. As the new speaker who’d taken the party to the promised land, Gingrich led a cult of personality presaging Trump’s.

“Be nasty,” he’d tell followers, and he kept conservatives perpetually angry at Democrats and at government generally, with the aid of his right-wing media megaphone.

On the first day of the new Republican-controlled Congress in January 1995, Gingrich had set up “Radio Row” in a Capitol corridor — table after table of talk-show hosts interviewing Republicans for conservative audiences back home. Rush Limbaugh, the king of them all, was declared an honorary House Republican. Collectively, these local celebrities became a power center within the party.

Gingrich would find governing harder and less popular than campaigning, however. He overreached to please the base, shutting down the government in a doomed bid to force deep cuts in domestic programs, and then impeaching Clinton. Within four years, after election losses and scandals, he resigned.

Back in Texas, then-Gov. George W. Bush positioned himself as the un-Gingrich for mainstream voters — a “compassionate conservative” — while telling those on the right he was different from his father: that Jesus Christ was his personal savior, he’d slash taxes, and his foreign policy would eschew interventionist nation-building. (He’d break that last promise big time in Iraq.)

But even as Bush sought to soften his party’s hard lines to win election, the GOP’s nationalistic, protectionist and even nativist populism ran deep. As president, Bush had hoped to build a broader party — for example, by giving millions of undocumented, longtime residents a path to citizenship. But the growing xenophobia among the party’s increasingly white, older and rural base foiled him.

Trump didn’t unleash those forces 16 years later. He simply harnessed and amplified them.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, conservatives were rebellious against both Bush, for his immigration proposals, Mideast wars and rising debt, and the Republican majority in Congress for its overspending and corruption.

After the near-collapse of the financial system and its bailout by the Bush administration, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black American elected president. Almost immediately, the third Republican revolution took shape, this one a headless movement from the bottom up: the tea party.

Republican Party leaders sought to unite with tea party activists against their common enemy — Obama. In the midterm elections of Obama’s two terms, Republicans regained control of the House in 2010 and then the Senate in 2014.

Yet just as Gingrich found with Clinton, sharing responsibility for governing requires occasional compromise with the Democratic president on must-pass bills. And compromise infuriated the Republican base and conservative media. “They don’t give a damn about governing,” former Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican, told me in 2015. Latham, who was first elected in the 1994 Gingrich revolution, had just left Congress in frustration after 20 years.

A year later, against a field of establishment Republicans vying for the presidential nomination, Trump quickly rose to the top, speaking a language of aggrievement that resonated with the mostly white, less educated voters living in rural America and long-struggling industrial areas like my Ohio hometown.

They jumped on the Trump train and stayed on even after he’d lost reelection and the GOP’s control of Congress. As Donald Trump Jr. said of other Republican officials on Jan. 6, just before the attack on the Capitol, “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”

It was a straight line from Gingrich’s uncompromising, smash-mouth politics to the tea party and then to Trump.

Should Trump remain exiled at Mar-a-Lago, his MAGA army will soldier on, forcing party officials and 2024 presidential aspirants to fall in line. And if Republicans lose in 2022 or 2024, many seem poised to reject the result, turn to force or countenance those who do — Trump or no Trump.

Jackie Calmes is the White House editor for the Los Angeles Times. This article is adapted from her book "Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court,” which will be published June 15.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.