From John Birch to Donald Trump: How the GOP got "devoured by their own Frankenstein monster"

Experts on right-wing extremism have grim predictions for the future of the Republican Party

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 12, 2023 5:42AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump pumps his fist after taking the stage prior to speaking at a Nevada Volunteer Recruitment Event at Fervent Calvary Chapel Church Saturday, July 8, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump pumps his fist after taking the stage prior to speaking at a Nevada Volunteer Recruitment Event at Fervent Calvary Chapel Church Saturday, July 8, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Trumpocene has lasted more than seven years. With Trump's indictments for federal crimes in connection with the Espionage Act and the probability that he will face other serious charges in connection with the Jan. 6 coup attempt, it feels to many observers and professional politics watchers as though the Trumpocene and that long national nightmare may finally be nearing an end.

Unfortunately, fascism disrupts our collective sense of time and reality – and in many ways what is deemed to be possible and impossible in a society. In that way, escaping the Trumpocene and the larger democracy crisis involves a balance between pessimism and optimism, hope and despair, and overcoming learned helplessness to then do the hard work necessary to create a better democracy and more humane society here in America. When understood through that framework – and most importantly that the Age of Trump is about much more than any one person or leader(s) – the American people are not as close to escaping this crisis as they and the mainstream news media and many members of the responsible political class would like to believe.

In an attempt to work through and make sense of these anxieties about Trump's enduring popularity and power as the frontrunner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, the consensus narrative that he is in great peril and his defeat appears to be inevitable, and more general concerns about what comes next for the Trumpocene and America's democracy crisis, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

This is the second of a two-part series.

Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock."

I am a card-carrying member of both the mainstream media and the pundit class, and I see no rational universe under which Trump could prevail. But we are not living in a rational universe, we're living in one where a Trump-appointed judge just barred the Biden administration from protesting false information on social media, Trump continues to insist that the system is rigged and that he won the 2020 election, and nearly two-thirds of Republicans tell pollsters they believe or suspect that fraud put Biden in the White House. The risks of undermining and attacking the core of democracy, our elections and election workers, can't be overstated. I have often said I don't know how I would have handled the 2016 and 2020 elections as a campaign reporter.

I understand the need for balance, objectivity and horse race coverage, and wrote by those tenets for decades. But to normalize Trump and his supporters, to write anything that overlooks the obvious threats to the republic and many people who live in it, is dangerous. The pundit class can write that. Mainstream media reporters who see reality, and I'm sure most if not all of them do, have a tougher challenge of how to deal with the conflict between misinformation and facts, between balance and truth.

I hope lessons have been learned from elections past and from CNN's nightmare town hall with Trump. The first GOP primary debate is on Aug. 23, hosted by Fox News and sponsored by the Republican National Committee. How will mainstream print and TV outlets handle it? That will be a test – both of the media and of whether voters will come away with information they need, instead of misinformation they want and believe to be true. Election Night 2016 was a scarring experience for many journalists.

"Now that the fringe dominates the Republican Party, the hope that Trumpism would wither without Trump — that mainstream John Thune-like sensibility would prevail — ignores just how hard it will be to dislodge the fringe from its spot atop the GOP."

A USA Today column I wrote with a conservative Never-Trump colleague that night was headlined, "Congrats America. You Blew It." What readers couldn't know was that it was our second column of the night. We were sure Trump would lose so we wrote a column assuming a Hillary Clinton victory. Late that night, realizing to our shock and devastation that Trump was headed for a win, we wrote a whole new piece. My husband went to sleep early after I had assured him Clinton would win, and woke up to President-elect Trump. I am still gun-shy about making predictions, not least because he reminds me of that one every time I say Trump can't possibly win in 2024. It is a good cautionary tale, given that millions of us have been wondering for years when (not if) the Republican fever would break.

Trump has now been indicted for risking national security and may soon face state and federal indictments for his role in trying to overturn the election and keep power. Trials requiring his presence could be ongoing through the 2024 primary and general campaign season. At 77, he's facing real accountability for the first time in his life, and he's playing the victim instead of the Putinesque strongman. Republican primary voters so far are buying it. My bet is that American voters writ large will not, in numbers large enough to reelect Biden.

Wajahat Ali is the author of "Go Back To Where You Came From." He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast,  MSNBC Daily and co-host of the Democracy-Ish Podcast.

I believe Americans should be focused on the risks and consequences of a Trump presidency rather than focus on the political horse race, which, admittedly, is a necessary fixture of the election cycle coverage. What does it say about the modern GOP that their leading candidate remains a twice-indicted, twice-impeached vulgarian whose popularity with his base grows with each new scandal and cruel invective he hurls out against his critics, American institutions, and the marginalized? We are dealing with a radicalized and weaponized conservative movement that has fed and nurtured an extremist MAGA movement that has now overtaken the "adults" in the room, who are in the corner, terrified, sucking their thumbs, and hoping they can avoid being devoured by their own Frankenstein monster. Just look at the House Freedom Caucus - they just removed Marjorie Taylor Greene for being openly critical of Lauren Boebert and vouching for McCarthy. Conspiracy theories, antisemitism, all-around nutiness? All good. But how dare she break ranks! The Trumpification of the GOP is complete, and even if Trump is a losing candidate, which I believe he is, we have to contend with a conservative movement that is waiting to anoint his heir who can achieve political victory without the self-destructive baggage.

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DeSantis was the heir apparent, but as I've said along, he is a limp, wet noodle who will wither in the national spotlight. Trump is the main attraction, and the base belongs to him until he's dead or in prison. That's the reality the GOP establishment and big, conservative money machine doesn't want to admit or acknowledge. Due to a rigged Supreme Court, the electoral college, and voter suppression, it is a possibility that Trump could still return to power even if he, yet again, loses the popular vote. For mainstream media, many are not built for this moment or made for this fight. They, unfortunately, can't adapt or evolve to the changing political reality where the GOP is no longer a normal political party. They continue to distort reality with a skewed, "both sides" lens that mainstreams extremism. Example: ABC News recently referred to extremist group Moms for Liberty as "joyful warriors" who are "fighting back." Lovely.

It's like Groundhog's Day if it were remade as a dystopian horror movie. No one has learned the lessons of the past 8 years.

David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist, and former elected official. His new book is "Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American".

I think he will win the primary, easily, and lose in the general. The indictments and even trial won't impact his base of support in the GOP, especially with a very weak field running against him, and essentially echoing his false narrative that these are all politicized witch hunts. I think he is a weaker general election candidate than he was in either '16 and '20.

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When it comes to Trump, the primary and the various investigations and indictments, I think the media is covering major events and assessing their implications as they always would. And all those things SHOULD be covered. The difference is that the core GOP support for Trump is so intense, none of those events hold him back in the primary.

The media and other observers would be better off dispatching half of their DC bureau staffs (how many reporters really need to chase McCarthy around the hallways of the Capitol to all get the same quote as he sprints by?) out to state capitols—where more of the damage to democracy is being done and where there is woeful little coverage at any level. That lack of coverage and transparency is fueling the decline

Matthew Dallek teaches at George Washington University and is the author of Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right. 

The "Trump is in trouble" narrative privileges short-term over more durable realities, surfacing unfavorable developments (Trump's felony criminal indictments) over the relative popularity of Trump's brand of politics within the GOP. A majority of GOP voters have become more radical over the past decade.

And Trump is the most effective exponent of this brand of extremism. His blend of conspiracy theories, explicit racism, anti-interventionism, culture wars, and antiestablishment, apocalyptic rhetoric help account for his continued strength within the Republican Party and help explain why none of his opponents have been able to dislodge him from the top slot yet.

Still, Trump won 74 million votes in 2020 even after four years of his nonstop lies and abuses of power, so dismissing his chances of winning the White House in 2024 isn't borne out by political reality. I'd add that media coverage going forward ought to account for this paradox: Trump's internal GOP strengths also make him a comparatively weak general election candidate. A majority of the electorate has rejected most of Trump's views (abortion bans, election denialism) and chafed at his alleged criminality. MAGA is not a majoritarian movement.

Can Trump win? Absolutely. But I wouldn't bet on it. A word in defense of the mainstream media: by and large, over the past seven years, it has done a pretty solid job of exposing who Trump is and what he stands for; anyone who cares to look can find many smart, meticulous reporters unearthing Trump's corruption, disinformation, and the effects of his policies and rhetoric. They have often done it with speed and accuracy.

But one problem I see in the months ahead is that Trump is still good copy and still good for business, so I fear that the mainstream media still gives him more oxygen than he merits. The most obvious example of undeserved coverage is the CNN town hall infomercial before a Trump-loving studio audience in New Hampshire. While the media describes Trump as the frontrunner, the virtual coronation in much of the press also seems premature and unresponsive to the fact that the primary elections are still many months away. Sometimes privileging silence over Trumpian noise—in essence, ignoring him—is the most newsworthy, civic-minded approach. In my recently-published book Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, I try to chronicle a slow-motion takeover of the conservative movement by the far right, arguing that the capture of the party required six decades and that the process was halting and contingent. But now that the fringe dominates the Republican Party, the hope that Trumpism would wither without Trump — that mainstream John Thune-like sensibility would prevail — ignores just how hard it will be to dislodge the fringe from its spot atop the GOP.

But the Republican Party is hardly consigned to extremism forever. If Trump and other MAGA-backed election denialists were to lose in 2024, the defeats pile higher and potentially empower some institutionalists to take back power from the fringe. Also, let's not overdo the pessimism about the health of American democracy. The institutions guarding democracy are frayed. The institutions that constrained the Birchers in the 1960s are no longer so robust. But guardrails still exist, and they continue to function. Trump's 2020 election loss; the successful prosecution and jailing of roughly 1,000 J-6 insurrectionists; the defeat of MAGA candidates in winnable senate and governors' races (see Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada); the Supreme Court's rejection of many of Trump's efforts to shield himself from investigations; and the ongoing probes and Trump's felony indictments are all evidence that democratic institutions continue to exert at least a bit of a check on Trump's efforts to undermine democracy. That should be a cause for hope.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast "White Flag with Joe Walsh."

Trump does not look like a losing candidate. He's looking more and more like a winning candidate to me. He's locked in his base and he's locked in the nomination. You throw another indictment or two out there, and more and more republicans & independents outside his base are going to say "what the hell, this seems like overkill, let him be, quit targeting him…" His support could increase, and you combine that with Biden's age, the uncertainty around Biden, and the utter out of touch aspect of the Dems, Trump will have a decent shot to win.

The mainstream media and pundit class are blinded to Trump's realistic shot at getting elected again because once again they're so caught up in "Trump, Trump, Trump" 24/7, and their own personal bias that thinks there's no way Trump can win again. He's so good for ratings the media doesn't see how their over-coverage of him normalizes him.

He tried to end our democracy in 2020. He'll be the nominee in 2024. And my fear is that we the people and the media, soon 3 years removed from Jan 6th and 4-7 years removed from his presidency, have forgotten the threat he truly is and are caught up again in him as just a clown, an entertainer. We'll elect a clown, an entertainer again, we won't elect a true threat to our democracy. If he is perceived just as a clown, he'll win again. That's my fear.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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