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Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk: They're the offspring of 50 years of increasingly fervent Republican paranoia. 

Trump, the billionaire real estate magnate, sits atop the vast Republican presidential field, according to recent polls. His rise to 18 percent -- all that's required in a field of more than a dozen candidates -- began when he suggested most Mexican immigrants are "criminals, drug dealers and rapists."

Trump's incendiary rhetoric, which happens to be quantifiably false, outraged Hispanics and panicked establishment Republicans, keenly aware that 21st century American demographics are working against them. But it also struck a chord with the GOP base, a collection of end-times subversives and terrified libertarians who believe the U.S. is on the verge of collapse.

Kirk, Illinois's junior senator, has been on a "say something ridiculous and then retract it" streak of late. His most recent now-walked-back comments accused President Barack Obama of wanting a nuclear Iran. But there's no penalty anymore for baseless accusations and fear mongering. It's just what many Republican candidates do because, unfortunately, it plays well with a certain demographic, which constitutes up to 40 percent of primary voters. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the freshest big name in the Republican presidential field, has been caught fabricating his fair share of bogus statements aimed at the terrified Republican base. The same could be said for at least a dozen of Walker's colleagues. Trump's candor is the only thing that sets him apart from the rest. Walker and the others courting the GOP's paranoid sect use code words to hit on the issues that most frighten the talk-radio set. Trump just wears his terror-hawking on his sleeve.

A party once dominated by the likes of centrist Nelson Rockefeller has ceded control to those who worship myth over reason, and prefer the echo chamber over a heady debate. 

Rockefeller's GOP relied on facts to frame policy. Today's GOP -- as made obvious by the likes of Trump, Kirk and Walker -- are more concerned with the narrative than reason. The story line is paramount, regardless of the facts on the ground, argues Boston College political historian Heather Cox Richardson.

The U.S. is in free fall, they say. The "American Dream" is under assault from leftists, minorities and women. The "good old days," primarily a hyper-romanticized version of the 1950s, should be the model. 

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It's a black-and-white approach that detests nuance. Emotion over data. The sense of "doom," as Richardson puts it, has increasingly driven American conservatism ever since Barry Goldwater ignited right-wing passions during his 1964 presidential campaign.

Richardson notes at Salon.com that Illinois played an especially important part in the GOP's assault on "egg head" politics. Phyllis Schlafly, president of Illinois Republican Women in 1964, penned "A Choice Not an Echo," in which she blasted the assertion that reasoned moderation was generally popular. The Republican machine, Schlafly argued, spun the claim that people liked reasoned argument for its own good. The polls were bogus, she said. The people wanted firebrand politics. 

In 1968, Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" flipped long-time conservative Democrats. Nixon played on the emotions of angry Southern whites, who felt burned when one of their own, LBJ, backed the Civil Rights Act. Reagan seized on the new alliance with the hard-line right-wing in 1980 to oust Jimmy Carter.

And, yet, the power of the fearful continues to swell. The Texas National Guard is on alert thanks to a standard military exercise. Self-named constitutionalist Sen. Ted Cruz is calling for the election of Supreme Court justices. Even GOP Sen. John McCain says Trump's supporters are "crazies," after the mogal blasted McCain's time as a POW. Those crazies are running the show.

Don't blame Trump. Don't blame Kirk. They're merely products of increasingly cynical GOP politics, where the boogeyman is the ultimate campaign tool.

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Jon Alexander is opinion page editor at The Southern. He can be reached at jonathan.alexander@the southern.com.

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