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How the GOP Lost Its Mind: Rule and Ruin

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In her fiery CPAC speech this year Sarah Palin accidentally outlined the thesis of the fantastic new book, Rule and Ruin, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. Palin awkwardly demanded that the party's presidential nominee be someone who always 'instinctively turns right.'

Nothing could better define the dysfunction that plagues the Republican Party. An organization that always turns right can only move in circles, or more accurately, in an ever tightening spiral. Rule and Ruin aims to explain how the GOP came to be drawn into its accelerating tornado of extremism.

Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice describes the rise of extremism in the Republican Party detail by excruciating detail, in a tale that stretches back to Eisenhower. The bulk of his work is focused on the ideological struggles of the '60s, when progressives, liberals, moderates, and conservatives launched the modern struggle for the shape of Republican politics.

The image of a progressive Republican winning the occasional battle over GOP policy is so exotic to the modern reader that the book has an almost science-fiction quality. Some of the notable moderates and progressives who influenced the party in the Nixon era were Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Mitch McConnell, Leon Panetta (who became a Democrat in 1971), and Romney (George, not Mitt).

His portrayal of the tactics that came to dominate the struggle is sometimes humorous. A radical conservative group in its 1962 struggle for control of the Young Republicans appointed someone to be "liaison with the nuts" to harness the energies of the "lunatic fringe" without letting them tarnish official efforts. Kabaservice cites what may be the first use of the term RiNO, dating it to a 1965 Young Republicans attack against California Sen. Thomas Kuchel.

Rule and Ruin describes the efforts by the Birch Society to disrupt grassroots Republican politics, including harassment against a young Christine Todd Whitman (who became the governor of New Jersey and EPA head under Bush II):

When she attended a YR meeting in her home county she found that the group had been taken over by Rat Finks, many of whom were tied to the John Birch Society. She was taken aback when one of the Rat Finks 'stood up, looking straight at me, warned that the club had to watch out for communist-fascists who were trying to infiltrate the organization.' Another woman in the New Jersey YR's was subject to harassment bordering on terrorism, including an incident in which her car was forced off the road and rocked violently by Rat Finks screaming insults and threats.

The book outlines the slow evolution of the Southern Strategy, the development of the 11th Commandment, and the maneuvering that led to Reagan's victory. However, the book trails off after the 1980 election, dealing with the rise of religious fundamentalism only as a postscript. That's unfortunate because the book includes some early hints that foreshadow fundamentalism's emergence, including a disturbingly prescient incident from 1970.

Brent Bozell was a brother-in-law of William F. Buckley who ghost-wrote Goldwater's landmark The Conscience of a Conservative. Bozell was an early leader of the party's disillusioned arch-conservative wing who was angered by Buckley and Goldwater's efforts to isolate the Birch Society. An enthusiastic convert to conservative Catholicism, Bozell was deeply impressed with the Spanish fascist regime of Francisco Franco. He ran afoul of Buckley's conservative core by openly embracing theocracy over liberty.

Rule and Ruin describes an incident in 1970 when Bozell's small Catholic organization, dressed in Spanish fascist uniforms, broke into what they mistakenly thought was a D.C. abortion clinic by smashing down the door with a large wooden cross. The police, taking Bozell for just another hippie protestor, beat the crap out of him and left him in jail.

Bozell disappears from Kabaservice's narrative after the incident and that's a shame, because his influence doesn't stop there. One of Bozell's ten children, Leo, has become a poster child for the GOP's modern descent into madness, running multiple fringe groups including the Media Research Center and the Parent Television Council, which polices the rampant filth in our Super Bowl halftime shows.

By ending the story with Reagan's election, Rule and Ruin creates the impression that it was the internal GOP fight over its identity that led us, directly, to the mess we're in now. While it's true that conservatives eventually prevailed and placed their indelible stamp on the Republican brand, it's a stretch to tie that victory directly to the nutjobbery that dominates the party now. Prior to the '90s, the tin-hat brigades were always under some degree of containment. The book fails to describe how that genie escaped the bottle.

Conservatives are not solely to blame for harnessing loonies. The left wing of the Democratic Party was overrun with weirdos until Clinton-era operatives found ways to shove them back to the fringes. Reagan can be accused of exploiting the lunatic fringe, but he never let them run amok. Reagan's success grew from his ability to appeal beyond conservatives to Republican progressives like Jack Kemp and to blue-collar Democrats.

The GOP spun out of control after Reagan went home. Over the past two decades fundamentalists and the vestiges of the Birch Society have forged a loose Neo-Confederate alliance that dominates the GOP in the form of groups like the Tea Party Movement and figures like Rand Paul. Rule and Ruin gives only cursory treatment to this crucial period.

Geoffrey Kabaservice has masterfully documented the rise of the conservatives while hinting at the extremist strains they brought in their wake, but the story of how wilder elements escaped from isolation in the post-Reagan era to build our modern Republican nightmare remains to be written.