Joe Scarborough surrenders: MSNBC host admits party has "shattered its brand," but won't confront what's driving the GOP's crisis

Conservative host accepts “depressing” reality about the GOP without acknowledging what got the party to this point

Published March 14, 2016 4:27PM (EDT)

Joe Scarborough, Donald Trump   (MSNBC/AP/Jae C. Hong)
Joe Scarborough, Donald Trump (MSNBC/AP/Jae C. Hong)

After much grumbling, it appears Joe Scarborough has finally noticed what the country already knew: The Republican Party is filled with infantilizing politicians and dupable voters. On Thursday, a day after the last Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Scarborough engaged in what can only be described as on-air catharsis.

The GOP has “shattered its brand,” Scarborough told his audience. Referring to the policy-driven debate on the Democratic side, Scarborough said, “The contrast is absolutely staggering, and as a Republican, I've got to tell you it's extraordinarily depressing.” Republican debates “focus on the size of hands, personal insults, the size of – suggestions about the size of body parts that we won't even mention on this morning news show.”

Scarborough didn't stop there, however.

Republicans, he conceded, operate “on a fifth-grade level,” sending “one clown after another clown after another clown up on the national stage and tarnishes the Republican brand in the way that they have for years now.” “It remains one of the great mysteries of this Republican Party that is, again, dominant on every level and yet humiliates themselves every four years in debates on the national stage.”

The conservative MSNBC host went out of his way to clarify that he wasn't talking merely about Donald Trump, the current ringleader of the Republican circus, but also “about Sarah Palin types, Michele Bachmann types, Herman Cain types that run around yelling 9-9-9 every four years.” “The Republicans that run this country from governor's mansions and from state legislatures,” he concluded, “just never seem to break through in this primary process. Something is deeply wrong with the way Republicans select their nominee every four years.”

To be fair, Scarborough has been groping his way toward this revelation for a long time. In 2012, exasperated by the Todd Akin debacle, he said he was tired of the GOP being the “Stupid Party,” that they had become too ideological to govern effectively. Later that year he warned that a growing obsession with optics and guns was overshadowing the party's traditional focus on less taxes and smaller government. In 2013 Scarborough continued to sound the alarm bells on his MSNBC show, telling viewers that CPAC's embrace of Sarah Palin proved that movement conservatives cared more about "talk radio ratings" than "electoral victories."

As recently as August 2015, Scarborough expressed incredulity at the state of the GOP. Discussing the spat between Trump and Jeb Bush over Asian "anchor babies," Scarborough asked, "Why are we having this conversation in August? Why can't my party get its hands out of the blender? When Hillary Clinton has FBI helicopters swirling around her headquarters and is basically saying, 'Please, please, I'm obstructing justice, please take me away.' And we're talking about, it's really the Asians' fault versus the Hispanics' fault?"

If Scarborough seems suddenly panicked, it's probably because he thought the Trump circus would fade and the party would rediscover its sanity. In a July Facebook post from last year, he wrote that "If the Manhattan billionaire is as dangerous and undisciplined as party insiders fear, then they have nothing to worry about. The savagery of the American political process will grind Mr. Trump down like it does all those who dare to reach for the political holy grail." Like nearly everyone else, he was gloriously wrong on this front.

While I applaud Scarborough for his honesty about the Republican Party, it has to be said: His overall diagnosis is far too superficial. Regressivism has permeated the entire GOP at every level – local, state and national. You've got criminally negligent governors like Bobby Jindal and Sam Brownback, both pandering theocrats who've bankrupted their states in defense of discredited dogmas. You have ludicrously offensive – and willfully stupid – congressmen like Todd Akin and Steve King, neither of whom believe rape can produce babies, and have said so in front of cameras. Let us not forget the Republican senator who argued, also in front of cameras, that the discovery of a snowball disproved climate change. And there are Republican extremists in states like MississippiNorth Carolina, Alabama and Texas who continue to use junk science and religious propaganda to deny women their constitutionally protected right to privacy.

There are countless other examples, but the point is obvious enough: The GOP has been an ideologically rigid, backward-looking party for some time now -- and the problem isn't confined to the nomination process.

Some of these Republican purists are true believers, but I'd wager most of them are pandering to the demands of their uncompromising constituents, just as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are pandering to rabid primary voters across the country. Contrary to Scarborough's claim, the problem isn't the process; it's the people. Yes, Republicans are still winning elections, but gerrymandered districts and the incumbency effect have a lot to do with that.

Ultimately, conservatives like Scarborough will have to face the fact that Trump and Cruz and Palin and Cain and Bachmann exist because Republican voters allow them to. They ought to ask themselves why there is no political equivalent on the Democratic side? That fact alone suggests there's a demand-side problem in the GOP that doesn't exist in the Democratic Party. This is what the Republican Party has become; it's the party that Fox News and talk radio have built. That's the “depressing” reality Scarborough and his fellow “moderates” continue to pirouette around.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Joe Scarborough Republican Party Sarah Palin Ted Cruz