How Donald Trump reduced the GOP to groveling sycophants

The GOP made the same bargain the Prussian generals made in 1933 — and the consequence is their total destruction

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published February 4, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion.
— George Orwell, 1939, reviewing Bertrand Russell’s "Power: A New Social Analysis"

It was said that Prussia, the nucleus of the German state, was not a country with an army but an army with a country. The army achieved an exalted status as the engine of German unification during the 19th century; officers became an elite to which civilians were expected to defer. 

When World War I went bad — a war the German army had largely provoked through its hair-trigger invasion plans — the Prussian officer corps called for an armistice, forced the abdication of the Kaiser (to whom they had sworn obedience) and blamed civilian politicians for the defeat. They intrigued throughout the Weimar Republic period, unseating governments, conspiring with enemies of the republic and, in 1933, helping to give the final shove that toppled democracy.

The army tacitly understood Adolf Hitler, the new chancellor, as a pliable figurehead whom they and the monied classes could control. Yet within a year, they were lined up and forced to swear an oath of “unconditional loyalty,” not to Germany, but to Hitler personally. The rest, as they say, is history: The fabled general staff were reduced to the level of office boys as Hitler unleashed a war that destroyed them as a warrior caste and destroyed Germany as a state. Most of the generals knew he was leading them to destruction, but they could not break the habit of obedience — in the aftermath, some of them pathetically claimed that they could not betray their oath to Hitler.

The fate of the German army is a serviceable analogy for the Republican Party. Since the 1980s, the GOP has been able to “wire” the Boston-Washington axis and other American power centers like the Texas oil patch, while taming the media and creating an immersive right-wing counterculture of think tanks, alternative media, educational institutions (such as Hillsdale College and Liberty University) and “experts” for hire. The massive financialization and deindustrialization of the economy that has transformed the country followed the Republican blueprint to the letter. They control much of the national agenda, whether they are formally in power or not.

The lazy view of the history of the last four decades (that is, how it is commonly perceived) is largely delivered through Republican optics: Reagan won the Cold War and conquered inflation, Clinton’s two terms are barely remembered save for his philandering, 9/11 remains a symbol of righteous victimhood, Obamacare is a bureaucratic tangle — and then we have Hillary’s emails. 

The Republican Party, remarkably, has been the default governing party, at least in psychological terms, during this whole period, despite losing the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. (We might observe that the vaunted German general staff went 0-for-2 when the guns started firing.)

Like the German army in the 1930s, Republicans bet on what they thought was a malleable figurehead who would shower money on the plutocracy, shovel resources to the military and bust the unions.

The GOP’s grandees, capable of implementing their agenda in season and out, determined that when an interloper named Donald Trump captured the party’s nomination in 2016, they would know how to control him. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed to know the score: “He’s not going to change the platform of the Republican Party, the views of the Republican Party. I think we’re much more likely to change him because if he is president, he’s going to have to deal with sort of the right-of-center world, which is where most of us are.”

Republican wise guy and coat-holder for billionaires Grover Norquist wasn’t fazed either. He had already pronounced on the kind of pliable ATM machine he envisioned as chief executive: “Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States,” presumably to sign bills that further cut taxes for Norquist’s masters.

Just as the German army did, Republicans bet on what they thought was a malleable figurehead who would shower money on the plutocracy, shovel resources to the military and bust the unions. In both cases, they mostly got what they wanted. But in both cases, they also failed to foresee that their intended stooge would not only break free of their control but exert such total domination as to reduce them to cringing toadies forever protesting their loyalty.

It is a rule of human behavior that those who kick down will always kiss up, that bullies are the most fawning bully-worshippers. Sociologist and historian Richard Hofstadter described this behavior as “a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.”

What of the powerless nobodies several rungs below the McConnells and Norquists, people without status or the privilege to kick down, who are a necessary part of the machinery that raises a bully to power and keeps him there? They are essentially mob-men (and women) who likewise have a disturbed relationship to authority. Forever demanding freedom, they really seek servility. Varying somewhat by era, country and circumstance, the mob invents its chosen oppressor in its own image. 

In post-World War I Germany, mob-man elevated a nobody, a corporal wounded on the Western Front, an enlisted soldier like millions of others — someone with no qualities or achievements other than the trick of inflaming dormant resentment and promising vengeance for humiliation. 

In present-day America, there is nothing like the mass trauma and poverty of defeated Germany, and in any case, those now at the bottom of the social heap are too busy looking for their next meal or a place to stay to give much thought to politics, never mind the fact that they usually constitute the bogeymen, rather than the followers, of demagogic populist cults. 

Given the inordinate status-seeking and social-climbing that permeate American life, it was inevitable that the foot soldiers of America’s authoritarian populism would be the middling sort: well enough off by traditional standards, but aggrieved at their perceived lack of influence and alienated from the very country they claim to be theirs. They never cease to be jealous of those people, the demon-figures of conservative propaganda who haunt their dreams.

Naturally they would form a cult around a self-described successful businessman whose own elitism is camouflaged by his vulgar tastes in food, décor and lifestyle, replicating the mob’s kitsch fantasies about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Compared to the tacky glitz of Mar-a-Lago, the Parthenon would no doubt offend them. So weak is their sense of self that any perceived criticism of their chosen billionaire-deity sets off a flood of hysterical denunciation, harassment and death threats. Our experience with the last decade suggests we must invert Hannah Arendt’s dictum and acknowledge the evil of banality.

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Having such manipulable human material at its disposal explains why populist authoritarian regimes display a peculiar mix of drive, menace and spectacular incompetence. The showy displays of sycophancy seen at rallies and staged pseudo-events (like Sen. Tim Scott’s cringeworthy public declaration of love for Trump) create the illusion of unchallengeable power and authority.

Unquestioned leaders and servile followers tell us why the German army marched into Russia without overcoats — the leader had decreed that the campaign would be victorious by autumn, and that was that. It explains why the Obama administration’s comprehensive plan for countering a viral pandemic was thrown in the trash can by Trump’s lackeys when the worst pandemic in a century struck. As he explained to Bob Woodward, Trump valued pumping the stock market with false optimism over saving human life. 

Inevitably, the foot soldiers of America’s authoritarian populism were the middling sort: well enough off by traditional standards, but aggrieved at their perceived lack of influence and alienated from the country they claim to be theirs.

Writing in the wake of the most destructive war in history, Arendt explained this symbiotic relationship between despotism and incompetence: “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

So much for the myth of American individualism; those who bray about it the loudest are the most ardent conformists, always adjusting their opinions to the party line and forever on the lookout for heresy among their peers. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a petty mob mentality par excellence, exemplifies this behavior: "Not only do we support President Trump, we support his policies, and any Republican that isn't willing to adapt [sic] these policies we are completely eradicating from the party."

At the height of Joseph Stalin's personality cult, his speeches became a time-consuming chore. Choice lines were followed by the obligatory prolonged applause. The clapping wasn’t just enthusiastic; it was frantic — no one wanted to be the first to cease applauding, not with the secret police monitoring the crowd. Even the Soviet dictator became annoyed by ovations that could last more than 10 minutes, so he hit on a solution. He had a buzzer installed in his lectern, so that when the adulation lasted long enough for his ego, he would ring it so the attending cult would know when to cease clapping.

History may not repeat itself, at least not exactly, but Tim Scott and Marjorie Taylor Greene, like good Soviet apparatchiks, are doing their best to make it rhyme. 

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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