Long before Donald Trump insulted John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, Republicans were smearing Max Cleland and John Kerry with lies about their military service. When Mark Zuckerberg was still a kid enjoying his Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah, Republicans were circulating fake news about Clinton-orchestrated murders through email forwards and fax distribution lists. Our tornado of conspiracy theories and racial paranoia took a generation to build, but it didn’t develop on its own. To a remarkable extent, our broken political system is Karl Rove’s failed science project.
There were two parts to Karl Rove’s grand plan to build a new Republican majority. He succeeded in only one of them.
First, he planned to use the divisive tactics of his mentor, Lee Atwater, to build a narrow Republican governing coalition around the bigotry of the religious right. From that temporary platform he planned a pivot that would bring a rising Hispanic coalition into the GOP orbit. Rove discovered too late that the monster he built with the first phase of the plan would block his second move. What he accomplished instead was to convert the Party of Lincoln into the Party of George Wallace, seizing brittle, minority control premised on “base politics” while dooming Republicans to longer-term irrelevance. Along the way he unleashed forces that would dismantle the Pax Americana, leading us into an uncertain and dangerous global future. Donald Trump is Karl Rove’s Frankenstein.
The roots of Rove’s strategy can be traced beyond the start of his career, to an event that puzzled and fascinated political operatives in the Sixties. No one was prepared for the reception that George Wallace received among immigrant workers in Milwaukee in 1964. His challenge to Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination had been a publicity stunt, an angry but unserious campaign to express Southern frustration over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With no budget, little effort, and hardly any campaign beyond a brief visit, Wallace took a third of the vote in the Wisconsin primary and rocked the Democratic Party. Wallace explained, “If I ever had to leave Alabama, I’d want to live on the Southside of Milwaukee!”
We often hear talk of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but Republican politicos who cut their teeth in the Nixon Era learned far more subtle lessons elsewhere in the country. Rising support for racists like Wallace among blue-collar white ethnic groups in the North echoed a central reality of American life – no one is more zealously attached to white supremacy than new immigrants, struggling to define themselves as white. From the Irish to the Italians and beyond, new migrants quickly embrace the “real” American Dream: With hard work and a little luck, one day your grandchildren will tell racist jokes about people like you.
Assimilation means dropping that extra vowel, learning the correct date for Christmas, and sometimes even joining an evangelical church. All these moves are meant to draw a contrast with America’s black scapegoat. One day if you’re lucky, your grandchildren might be white people.
In Texas in the 1990’s, Karl Rove leveraged this understanding of race and the immigrant experience to craft a new future for the GOP. Hispanics in Texas had always been marginalized, blocked from political participation and locked into their own segregated communities. When they voted, which was rare, they had been solidly Democratic, but on an issue-by-issue basis, their preferences aligned well with traditional Republican priorities.
In the relative fluid environment of the 80’s, as earlier barriers to minority political participation were breaking down, Rove recognized an opportunity for outreach. His idea was premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the religious right. In short, as an outsider to the movement, he made the mistake of taking their rhetoric seriously. He took their apparent interest in abortion, school prayer, porn, etc. as sincere, and assumed that these issues could form the basis for a new Republican political appeal across lines of race and culture. He would never recognize the racism that lay beneath the phony religious appeal and as a consequence, to this day he still doesn’t understand why he failed.
Leveraging his most precious asset, his relationship to the Bush family’s black sheep son, Rove’s first step was to convince “establishment” Republicans like the Bushes, to make peace with the new wave of Dixiecrat bigots flowing into the Texas GOP under the banner of the Religious Right. Riding this unstable rabble to power, he would then pivot toward the Hispanic community. Appealing to the relative conservatism of Latino voters and the age-old American imperative toward assimilation, he would make Hispanics white, incorporating them into a new Republican “Big Tent.” With an influx of Hispanic voters, Republican moderates would then have the power they would need to curb the insanity of the loony religious fringe and establish the GOP in ascendance for a generation.
What Rove did to accomplish the first part of his plan destroyed his ability to execute the second. Religious conservatives were wildly unpopular. Building them into an electoral force required the ugliest of tactics, deployed relentlessly, under rhetoric that grew ever more toxic, bigoted and occasionally insane. It was often described as a “base strategy” in which no energy would be expended to earn more than 50.1% of the vote. Getting to 50 with nutty, unpopular candidates meant poisoning the political atmosphere in ways that drove sensible, reasonable people out of politics and ruthlessly marginalized minority voters. Republicans would focus all of their energy on turnout of their core demographics. In a base strategy, you win by choosing your electorate, rather than having the electorate chose you.
Rove’s strategy was fairly successful in Texas, thanks to conditions unique to that state. Texas is the only Confederate state with a sizeable, long-standing Hispanic community. In fact, Texas’ Hispanic community is older than the US. Like the other Deep South states, Texas has never embraced two-party democracy. It has only ever been governed by a single party, with little or no political competition. When the state’s white voters finally switched parties at the state level, they did so en masse, between 1994-2002, quickly reinstating single-party rule under the new party.
Texas Hispanics had been Democrats before the switch largely because that was the state’s only viable political party. When Republicans assumed that role, the dynamic flowed in reverse. In the 90’s, George Bush won almost 40% of Hispanic voters in Texas. Even today, Republican Governor Greg Abbott still attracts somewhere between a quarter and a third of Hispanics. The racism and bigotry Hispanics faced from Republicans in Texas was relatively unremarkable. They’d been treated much the same by Texas Democrats (many of whom were now Republicans) for decades. It was priced in to the equation. However, when Rove tried to take his Texas Two-Step to the national level, his plan fell apart in spectacular fashion.
Rove’s scorched earth tactics helped GW Bush survive a close 2000 Election. A toxic wave of terror-hype and gay-bashing helped him secure reelection in ’04. Rove then found himself serving as assistant to the president, deputy chief of staff and senior adviser. It was time to rein-in the convenient idiots that had brought Bush and the Republicans to power and construct a new bloc that could solidify their future.
Those idiots had other plans.
Immigration reform was the axis of Rove’s planned pivot. Lining up Republicans around a humane, pro-immigration bill would theoretically open the party to Hispanic voters. To make this possible Rove needed to paint Hispanics white in the eyes of his base voters, describing them as “family-focused” and “hard-working” people who shared their core religious values. As it turned out, Religious Right voters didn’t actually care about those religious values. They cared about keeping their country white. This new bloc of bigoted white voters was in no mood to embrace Hispanics. The moment Republicans lined up behind immigration reform the base began their rebellion.
Rove’s critical immigration bill was stalled in Congress in 2005 as the Virginia Governor’s race was playing out. In Virginia, Rove watched his plans fall apart. Republican nominee, Jerry Kilgore, started the race with a ten-point lead in a state Bush had just won. However, the President was increasingly unpopular and Republicans were losing ground. As the race tightened, Kilgore rolled out a series of racist, anti-immigrant ads that excited the base, but alienated Virginia’s swing voters. Kilgore lost the race, but his message was resonating with an increasingly vocal bloc in the GOP. Their anger was complicating Rove’s plans for immigration reform.
Back in Texas, one of Rove’s convenient idiots was off the leash, stirring up opposition to Governor Rick Perry’s signature ambition, the Trans-Texas corridor. Nutjob conspiracy artist, Jerome Corsi, had helped organize the “Swift Boating” of John Kerry. Now he was spinning “globalist” conspiracy theories against Perry and the Bush Administration, feeding fake news to rural Texas voters about the sinister impact of Perry’s transportation program and the Bush Administration’s immigration plans.
As his immigration reform bill hits its critical push in 2006, Rove faced an open rebellion from the nutjob wing. Lou Dobbs warned CNN listeners of shadowy Republican plans for a “North American Union” that would eliminate US sovereignty. Rightwing idiots were organizing the Minuteman Project, putting fat white guys with assault rifles on the border to harass brown people. Rove had been counting on the religion of the Religious Right to enable a humane immigration reform. He did not understand what truly moved them. The same engines of racist paranoia Rove had leveraged to place Bush in power were now deployed to destroy Rove’s most critical ambitions.
Republicans killed Rove’s immigration bill in 2006, making outreach to Hispanics difficult. Rove was demoted into a campaign position focused on the ’06 midterms. Democrats in ‘06 seized control of both houses of Congress, stripping Rove of the power to set the agenda. Rove’s acolytes still held out hope for immigration reform, but by 2007, the Bush Administration was coming apart at the seams, with the Iraq War out of control and a terrifying economic collapse unfolding.
Late in 2007, the conspiracy networks Rove had helped foster lit up with a new theme. Through email forwards, message boards, and shadowy websites, Republicans saw their first images of a new North American currency that would soon replace the dollar, The Amero. In reality, a single coin artist named Daniel Carr had designed on his own what he called an Amero as a concept. Republicans, fed for years on a steady diet of Rove’s signature distortions, had no interest in reality. Armed with online images of the new coin, paranoid white Republicans had proof that they were being betrayed by globalists in the party’s “establishment.” Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck would feature the Amero on their CNN shows. Time had run out on Rove’s plans. His monster of racist paranoia was off the leash.
On the campaign trail in 2008 John McCain found himself tamping down mobs ranting about Obama’s secret Muslim ties. When McCain was defeated, the future of the Party of Lincoln belonged to Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, and millions of racist wingnuts. So-called “establishment” Republicans like John Boehner had planned to ride an unruly tide of convenient idiots to power. Those idiots would pick them off one-by-one. The Big Tent was set on fire by the Tea Party. In time, the Tea Party would rot into the steaming pile of MAGA. Now the Republican Party that once dominated places like Orange County and the Philadelphia Main Line is being extinguished from its old haunts. Republicans are the party of the Confederates and their white, aging, rural sympathizers elsewhere in the country.
Donald Trump is a singularly terrible and destructive political phenomenon, but he did not emerge from nowhere. Karl Rove planned to ride the paranoia of white racists to power. He then planned to neutralize those bigots by opening the party up to Hispanic voters, white-washing them in the eyes of the Republican base and using them to drive a more moderate, business-friendly agenda. Only the first part of his plan succeeded. Rove destroyed the Republican Party. Now the orange Frankenstein he spawned is threatening the republic itself. One day we might decide to confront the racism at the core of our American experiment. Until then, it remains a lever to be pulled by ambitious cynics, a lingering threat to our health and survival.