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Opinion: Wondering what happened to my old GOP?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shakes President Donald Trump’s hand at a rally in November 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shakes President Donald Trump’s hand at a rally in November 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

A few weeks ago, I bought a refrigerator magnet featuring photos of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump, and under these photos of the first and current Republican presidents were words spelling out the popular phrase WTF?

That is a question a lot of people, including this writer, are asking. What the #$%& did happen?

The impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump just concluded, and in spite of detailed, shocking, evidence of significant wrongdoing by the president, only one Republican member of Congress was moved to vote in favor of impeachment or conviction, and only two GOP senators even supported calling witnesses. Has the party of Lincoln truly become the party of Trump? Has a former real estate tycoon and reality T.V. star captured the Republican Party and transformed it into the Trumpublican Party? The answer to that question would appear to be “yes,” given that some 95% of Republicans claim to support the president, and in a recent survey a majority of Republicans said that Donald Trump is a greater president than Honest Abe.

Having worked more than two decades in various capacities for local, state and national Republican elected officials and party leaders, I do not recognize the political organization that today calls itself the Republican Party, and I certainly cannot identify with it. Not only is its titular head a proven liar and poorly informed narcissist, but also under his “leadership,” many well-educated, intelligent Republican office holders have begun to act as if they have forgotten their moral and political principles. It is bad enough that a man of Donald Trump’s poor character and judgment has become the face of the Republican Party, but it is in some ways even more disturbing that so many other Republicans, including formerly highly respected members of Congress, have seemingly lost all sense of judgment, fairness, decency, and even reality.

How does one explain the metamorphosis of Sen. Lindsey Graham from the thoughtful, independent, bipartisan friend of John McCain and Joe Lieberman into the thoughtless, hyperpartisan Donald Trump sycophant who embarrasses himself on nearly a daily basis attempting to defend the defenseless acts of this president?

How does one explain why senators as intelligent and well educated as Ted Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, as well as many others, unabashedly spew Russian propaganda that Ukraine meddled in our 2016 election — when they must know that it is total nonsense?

And what can explain why Doug Collins, an intelligent, well-educated Georgia congressman who once served as a military chaplain, would go on national television and accuse his Democratic colleagues of mourning the loss of Iranian terrorist Soleimani more than the loss of U.S. Gold Star families—a false and despicable statement for which he fortunately later apologized?

What has happened to the Grand Old Party? What is driving this madness?

The answer I hear most frequently from T.V. talking heads is that the madness in today’s GOP can be blamed squarely on Donald Trump — “a fish rots from the head down,” they say. “They” claim that Trump’s surprise victory and tight hold on his large base of GOP supporters has cowed other Republican office holders into abandoning their principles and reluctantly supporting the president no matter how much he lies or how crude, ruthless, or threatening to American values he becomes. But this explanation ignores the fact that Trump managed to defeat 15 other Republican candidates, including well-known and well-respected governors and U.S. senators, in the 2016 primary. If the Republican Party in 2016 was still the “Party of Lincoln,” how did an outsider, who had been a registered Democrat only a few years previous, manage to handily defeat so many well-known, longtime members of the GOP establishment?

Reflecting on Trump’s 2016 victory and on how easily and quickly so many Republican office holders have become Trump apologists and sycophants, I have come to the conclusion that the party that Trump captured in 2016 was not the party of Lincoln — or of Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or even Ronald Reagan. The party that Trump “captured” was no longer the party controlled by the traditional “old guard” Republicans, but rather a party dominated by evangelicals, tea party activists and nationalists who began making major inroads into the GOP in the late 20th century and had become the party’s clear majority by the 2016 election. Trump did not so much “capture” and reshape the Republican Party as he did recognize the mood, beliefs and frustrations of the party’s new majority and become the uncensored, unapologetic voice they sought.

I attended the 1988 and 1992 Republican conventions, and looking back, I now recognize that the

Party with which I had identified was already disassembling. In 1988, Rev. Pat Robertson had opposed Vice President George H. W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole in the primaries and had won four state primaries and a total of 9% of the total vote. In 1992, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan challenged the Republican incumbent, Bush, and won 23% of the GOP primary vote with a nationalist themed campaign, “Putting and Keeping America First.”

By the last two decades of the 20th century, the moderate old guard “country club” wing of the Republican Party was increasingly challenged by highly dedicated and motivated religious and nationalist conservatives, and by 2016, the moderates had lost the battle. Trump and his advisors recognized that the new Republican majority was not terribly concerned about the old principles, values and issues of the GOP (balanced budgets, strong alliances, free trade, democracy and freedom), but that they cared fervently (in some cases, maniacally) about three issues — abortion, guns, and immigration. All Trump needed to do to win the nomination was to declare loudly and convincingly that he would “build a great wall,” throw abortion doctors in jail, and “protect your Second Amendment rights.” It didn’t matter to the true believers how crudely Trump said these things or that he had previously been pro-choice and in favor of some gun controls, as long as he could convince the Republican core that he was the most reliable candidate on these three critical issues.

But, how could a brash, womanizing, crude, amoral, untruthful former Democrat convince the new Republican majority of evangelicals and nationalists that he was truly worthy of their support? I think the answer lies at least in part to the fact that Trump and many of today’s most rabid Republicans share a deep bond in their common distrust of science, “experts,” and ‘intellectuals,” as well as a desire for simple solutions to complex problems and a propensity to believe myths and conspiracy theories. It is quite relevant, I believe, that at the time of the 2016 primaries, a Pew research study found that only 40 percent of Republicans accepted as true Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and at the same time — long after President Obama made public his birth certificate — a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll found that 72 percent of registered Republicans still doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Given the mindset of the current Republican faithful, is it any wonder that every Republican member of Congress except Mitt Romney chose to reject the strong evidentiary case in favor of impeachment and conviction and chose instead to accept Trump’s absurd defense?

What happened to the GOP is actually quite clear: Although there are certainly still many highly intelligent, well-educated Republicans who support President Trump for various reasons, including a strong economy, the party’s base is now dominated by people with very strongly held beliefs about only a few key issues — abortion, immigration, and gun rights.

Donald Trump did not remake the Republican Party. He simply told the party faithful what they wanted to hear in language that they liked and understood, and he let them know that there was nothing wrong with their values and their skepticism about the mainstream media, scientific theories and opinions of so-called “experts.” The president has made it acceptable and comfortable for his followers to reject facts and question inconvenient realities. Together, Trump and the new Republican majority have created this monster I call the Trumpublican Party.

Lee Raudonis is a former communications director and executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. He also worked for several Republican elected officials in Georgia and the U.S. Congress.