How This Happened

Author: Gary Hart

In an attempt to determine how Donald Trump polarized the nation along authoritarian lines, some of us have assumed he started it all.  He didn’t.  Like good, evil has roots.

One of the best political observers of recent times, Tom Edsall, set out the history of how this happened [“The Audacity of Hate” NYTimes, Feb.19, 2020].

The re-election campaign for George W. Bush in 2004, replaced get out the moderate vote strategy with one focused on voter anger and fear and activating resentment and hostility.  This was the first attempt to “make this the centerpiece of a mainstream presidential effort.”

This misdirection was compounded by the economic meltdown of 2007-9.  The stock market lost $2 trillion, there was a catastrophic mortgage crisis in which 10 million Americans lost their homes, and millions more lost faith in political and economic systems.

This led to the emergence of the Tea Party in Republican politics which “mobilized racially and financially apprehensive whites who felt abandoned” by traditional mainstream Republican leaders.  On top of this, immigration and school integration struggles compounded the pessimism.

The Tea Party in turn enabled Trump, when he came along, to openly inflame racial and ethnic antagonisms.  Starting with occupation of the ridiculous “birther movement”, he then moved on to Muslims and Latin American immigrants.  He further understood how right-wing Republicans were eager to polarize opposition to liberal elites.

Edsall quotes two scholars: “The GOP has radicalized into an anti-system party that does not accept the legitimacy of its opposition and enables a slide toward autocracy.  Very dangerous times for American democracy.”

Democrats were no longer merely an opposition party; they were objects of hostility.  Dissent from this view inside the Republican party was penalized quickly and brutally.  The very moderate and congenial Republicans of my era were driven out in the 1980’s by more right-wing party candidates.

Edsall and other analysts concur that hyperpolarization has become the new normal and will continue without a major party realignment.

“Trump thrives when the climate is chaotic and disruptive,” concludes Edsall, “and he is the prime example of lost legitimacy in American politics.”  If correct, this conclusion offers little if any hope for a return to relative normalcy any time soon.

And it didn’t begin in 2016 and looks to continue into 2020 and beyond.  Starting with the radical Republican strategic departure in the 2004 national campaign, “American politics were irrevocably transformed, polarization strategies became institutionalized and the stage was set for the explicit racial and anti-immigrant themes dominating Donald Trump’s campaign for election and re-election.” [emphasis added]

This compressed analysis rings true and establishes that at least a dozen years before Trump’s emergence the groundwork was being laid for a figure much like him.

It also shows how ingrained many of these norm-shattering new practices have become and how difficult it will be, absent major political realignments, to return to traditional politics with its insistence on boundaries against polarization on social issues and at least a degree of comity and respect across ideological lines.

This is a pessimistic reading and one hopes not as dire as it seems.  But it does go a long way to explaining how this happened and where it could lead.

One must further hope that, given American principles and ideals, no more than a third of us are prepared to succumb to authoritarianism, particularly in the form of a Trump oligarchy.

12 Responses to “How This Happened”

  1. Jim Says:

    He missed the start by 8 years. It actually began in 1976 when Newt Gingrich began treating the Democratic Party as the enemy instead of the opposition party. Gingrich totally changed the attitude of Republicans by refusing to work for the interest of the American people and taking a totally obstructionist position.

  2. Jack DuVall Says:

    Senator Hart is right to attribute part of the worsening of American politics in the first several years of this century to the Republican presidential campaign of 2004. Example: There was evidence of falsification of voting in certain counties in Ohio that moved a decisive margin of votes from African-American precincts to George W. Bush rather than the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry. Losing Ohio lost the election.

    As for Tom Edsall’s analysis of these years, it strikes me as too quick on the draw. He declared that “American politics were irrevocably transformed” thanks to Republican disruption of multiple elections. “Irrevocable” goes too far. Democrats won in 2008 and 2012, not only because the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 strengthened the desire for new leadership, but also because Barack Obama’s reassuring and judicious conduct in office reasserted confidence in a Democratic administration. The startling undoing of our electoral system happened with Trump’s accession to power.

  3. JD Kinnick Says:

    How this happened is the Democratic Party continued their leftward lurch in 2016 by coronating, err…nominating Hillary Clinton. I proudly served as a County Chair for Sen. Hart three times in Iowa (’84, “87, and the re-start in ’88) I left the Democratic Party in 1989 or should I say they left me as they left the mainstream. Endless gender and race based pandering along with an anti-Christian bias took over the party. Ironically I was likely the only former county chair for Sen. Hart in attendance in Cleveland at the 2016 RNC convention. While I’m no fan of Pres. Trump’s outrageous behavior my 401k is quite happy with the economic progress of the current administration. I see the current Dem frontrunner Sen. Sanders is praising the policies of Fidel Castro. I tried to convince Dems in ’84 that Mondale would be an electoral nightmare. I see the same scenario happening for the DNC in 2020 and wouldn’t be surprised if Milwaukee is another “Chicago” full of turmoil.

  4. Michael Says:

    I don’t think it’s very complicated. There is a straight line from the development of a right-wing media, which started on AM radio and later migrated to TV with the creation of Fox News. When the Republican Party became willing slaves to a well-funded media complex, which painted all established media as ‘biased’ and ginned up their audience daily by amplifying white grievance over all else, it should be no surprise that, after twenty or thirty years, it would all lead to a demagogue like Trump.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    Addendum to this essay: The even darker side of this narrative began under Nixon with quite a number of dirty tricks during the McGovern campaign. It recurred in the beginning of the 1988 effort when I was leading H W Bush in national polls [James Fallows, Atlantic, Nov. 2018, Was Gary Hart Set Up?]. Then came Willy Horton [Dukakis], hanging chads [Gore], and Swiftboat [Kerry] thereafter. Democracy has been under threat from the right since Nixon. GH

  6. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    “One must further hope that, given American principles and ideals, no more than a third of us are prepared to succumb to authoritarianism, particularly in the form of a Trump oligarchy.”
    Hope springs eternal . . . Hard work gets results. Get off your duffs, get people registered, get them informed, get them to vote.

  7. Brian McCarthy Says:


    I’d say that democracy in the US has been under attack since Day 1 and “how this started” began with Alexander Hamilton wanting a President for life with kingly powers and no Bill of Rights. Most of those writing the Constitution agreed on excluding ethnic minorities, women, and the poor from having any real power. Democracy was under attack by the Know-Nothings, by President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, and by the three times in the late 1800s that the popular vote winner didn’t become president. Samuel Tilden is on a short list, which also includes you, of people who did not become president because of attacks on, or failures of, the democratic process.

    I’m exceeding my brief, as usual. My point is that the erosion of American democracy dates back much farther than the 1970s – it goes back to the very first days of American independence.


  8. H Patrick Pritchard Says:

    Do the American people trust their government to govern in accordance with the principles by which this country was founded? Not so much in this day and age!

    When considering collaborative relationships the four most common elements needed to develop trust are competence, reliability, integrity, and communication. If governing in a democracy is anything it is a collaborative relationship.

    Throughout our history as a nation we have struggled through imperfections to form a more perfect union. Ask the Native Americans who were here before us, ask the sons and daughters of slavery, ask women and minorities who fought and died to get the vote, ask the millions of folks who have suffered from economic downturns like recessions and depression, ask the Japanese Americans who were uprooted and placed in detention camps while their property and earnings were confiscated after Pearl Harbor. Ask the people of faith the Catholics, Jewish people, and more recently Muslims who have been scorned, mistreated, and lost their lives. Ask those people who have been abused, killed and persecuted because of their lifestyle choices such as sexual orientation.

    Ask those folks who have been severely impacted by economic forces that have shipped good paying jobs overseas, attacked unionization, and relegated many from the middle class to accepting lower paying jobs and seeking second and third part time jobs with little or no basic benefits. After the financial and housing crisis of 2007 they have seen financial institution and auto manufacturing bailouts, They see no bailouts for the victims! They have witnessed Congressional gridlock over dealing their needs, and the Senate and its’ Majority leader refuse to discuss and debate legislation dealing with their most adamant concerns.

    Ours is not a perfect union but up until recently it was a union struggling to become perfect. Have people given up on the struggle? Certainly some have become bitter, resentful and angry. The fact is I believe most people in this country would like to trust their government. From time to time during great crisis people do come together to do what is necessary to meet the challenge before them. They sincerely want to preserve this 200 plus year grand experiment in self-government.

    The trouble is a good number of these folks who live a day to day existence attempting to live their lives with a bit of dignity feel abandon and totally ignored by their government until election season. All the rhetoric starts, and the political games begin. More and more they see politicians more interested in preserving their jobs and pleasing lobbyists with access than taking action on issues of concern to the people who elected them.

    Many politicians forget these are the people who have lived with the traumas of the political process over past decades in this country. They have seen leaders of promise cut down by assassin’s bullets and question the findings of the subsequent investigations. They have experienced the sheer terror of race riots, racial profiling, unbridled stop and frisk tactics, ignored acts of abuse and violence against women, mass shootings in public facilities and innocent individuals gunned down on daily basis in the streets of any city because of political inaction to deal with gun violence and injustices.

    These are the folks who lived through senseless wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and to a certain degree Afghanistan and sacrificed the lives of their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters only to find out through documents like the Pentagon Papers and similar exposures that our political leaders knew all the time those wars were not justified or winnable.

    These everyday citizens watched the scandals of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Financial Crisis of 2007 unfold as laws were flaunted, corruption was rampant and many of these folks lost their homes, pensions and their livelihood. A corrupt President was pardoned, few if any CEOs were held accountable or tried and went to prison for their fraudulent actions.

    My point is a simple one. The forces that have conspired to bring us to era of Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party, to the polarization and division, Rush Limbaugh, and to Donald Trump and his supporters have been festering over several decades to create these currents of anger and mistrust. Newt, Rush and FOX News, and Donald exploited these currents to obtain their desire for wealth and power.

    A number of people are beginning to realize this current government of Mr. Trump isn’t draining the swamp. He is expanding it. Some will continue to support him as long as their 401(k) holds up. Some will support him because they really fear becoming a minority group for the first time and that immigrants will take their jobs. Some will support him because they fear Climate Change may be real, but they want to believe it is not. Some will support him because his tax cut and deregulation efforts have made them richer.

    I want to believe there are a majority of everyday citizens who may have flirted with Trumpism or who have disengaged over time from politics all together through their disenchantment with the whole process. Some realize Trump is a self-serving fraud and a crook, or some realize their own inaction and inattention have contributed to the country going to hell in a hand basket. 2018 stirred some of these folks to run for office and participate in the political process.

    Democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport, yet many have treated it that way. You want to keep it you’ve got to participate despite the sins of the past! Many of the younger generation realize this and the risks that lie ahead and are responding. It is their future that is in jeopardy. They do not fear Climate Change they want to conquer it. They do not fear diversity they embrace it. Perhaps it will be they who save us from ourselves and our democratic principles when we should be teaching and leading them. In the final analysis the people must demand collaboration in government, competency in government, integrity and communication. The people must demand it through all means of communication and most importantly at the ballot box. It is the only way this system will work and preserver. Will they? Only time will tell.

  9. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    How has it happened and how can it get back on the right track?

    I am so happy for Senator Biden and so I just had to tell somebody, everybody!

    When I stop crying, I’ll have more, maybe … 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂


    Senator Hart, correct as ever to question. The answer is as is mentioned herein.It began with Gingrich vs Clinton.

    It continued with Star vs Clinton.

    It is continuing apace with Trump et al vs all!

    This march towards divisiveness by the right, is now met by a more or less equal and opposite reaction ideologically from the left. The way it began is the way it should cease. By leadership in another direction. Ahead. Not towards the far left as antidote to the approach of the farther right.

    And on that note we indeed must echo our terrific friend Elizabeth herein and welcome the win of Biden. I would vote for him or Buttegieg in the contest thus far, though would back Warren or Sanders if they are the candidate. We must though beat Trump!

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    Congratulations, Elizabeth. This one’s for you.

  12. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    This one was for America. Hopefully, for the future of America, this one won’t be the last hurrah.

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