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The Republican Attack on Democracy Didn't Start with Trump
Matt Bernardini argues that, far from being an outlier, Trump is merely the logical extension of decades of Republican attempts to undermine our democracy
As far back as 2013, Nancy Pelosi urged Republicans to “take back your party”, from what she views as its extreme wing. Last year she made the same appeal calling party a ‘cult’. Unfortunately, her pleas show a dangerous myopia that misunderstands the fundamental ethos of the Republican party for the last 50 years. That ethos is based solely on gaining and holding onto power at all costs.
Of course Pelosi is correct when she says that Donald Trump’s presence represents a repeated threat to US Democratic institutions, as his response to his arrest this week clearly showed. Trump conspired with several foreign powers to help him win the 2016 presidential election. In 2020, he attempted to overthrow the government just to stay in office. However, while his recent actions are extreme, they are not unique. They are not a break from the Republican party, rather they are merely a logical conclusion of a movement that has used anti-democratic tactics to win elections for decades.
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Many Americans were rightfully outraged when they finally got, at least partially, an understanding of the Trump campaign’s actions to win the 2016 presidential election. His campaign manager Paul Manafort met repeatedly with Konstantin Kilimnik – whom the US has asserted is a Russian intelligence agent. Manafort handed over detailed campaign polling data and discussed a plan that would allow Russia to effectively control eastern Ukraine by having it declared an ‘autonomous region’.
Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone maintained contacts with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange throughout the election and was eventually convicted of lying about his contacts with Russia. Trump pardoned him near the end of his time in office.
Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn secretly called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks after the 2016 election and suggested that the Trump Administration might take care of sanctions that had been levied against Russia by the Obama Administration.
However, while egregious, the Trump campaign’s actions were not unprecedented.
A recent report in the New York Times confirms what many have long suspected. In an effort to win the 1980 Presidential election, Ronald Reagan and his campaign sought to delay the release of the 52 Americans who were held hostage after a group of militarized Iranian college students took over the US embassy in Tehran.
The Times article centers on a man named Ben Barnes, who was an associate of former Texas Governor John Connally. Barnes tells Peter Baker that he and Connally traveled to several Middle Eastern countries in the summer of 1980, where they met with several Arab officials and told them to tell Iran that they should wait to release the hostages until Ronald Reagan became president.
The plan worked. The hostage situation damaged Carter’s standing and Reagan won the election. Just minutes after his inaugural address on 20 January 1981, the hostages were released. Reagan would go on to serve eight years and secretly sell arms to Iran later in his administration during the infamous Iran-Contra scandal.
Once again, as egregious as they were, Reagan’s actions weren’t unprecedented. Just 12 years earlier Richard Nixon had done something similar in a bid to win the 1968 Presidential election. As the Smithsonian Magazine notes, during the Paris Peace talks of 1968, “the US was ready to agree to cease bombing Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, in exchange for concessions that would halt the decades-long conflict.” But the day before the 1968 election, South Vietnam walked away from the negotiating table.
FBI records and notes from Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman have shown that Nixon used Anna Chennault, a Republican donor with connections throughout Asia, to torpedo the peace talks and convince the South Vietnamese government that they would get a better deal if Nixon was elected president. Then commander-in-chief Lyndon Johnson got word of Nixon’s plan and ordered the FBI to follow Chennault. However, Johnson never went public with the revelations because he lacked airtight proof.
Nixon ended up winning the election and the Vietnam war would go on for another five years. He famously resigned as President in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, where he once again tried to interfere in an election by bugging the Democratic headquarters before the 1972 presidential campaign.
Many of the characters mentioned in these scandals have made their living in Republican politics. Stone made a brief appearance at the Watergate hearings and famously has a tattoo of Nixon on his back. Then in the 1980s, Stone and Manafort teamed up to launch a lobbying firm that made its living working with Republican politicians and kleptocrats around the world.
Even KT McFarland, who served as the Deputy National Security Advisor under Michael Flynn, recognized the connection between the Trump campaign’s actions and the actions of Nixon and Reagan. In an interview with the FBI, she defended Flynn’s post-election activities by citing Nixon’s involvement with the Vietnam peace talks and Reagan’s involvement with the hostages.
For decades, Republican administrations have been perfectly willing to sell out the Democrats and the country just to gain power. If Democrats continue to portray Trump as some sort of weird outlier, instead of the logical conclusion of a party that has grown progressively more authoritarian over the last 50 years, they will fail to sufficiently address the current threats to our Democratic institutions.
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