We are all familiar with the metaphor of a boiled frog. The metaphor is based on a premise that if a frog is put into a pot of water and if the temperature of the water is slowly raised to the point of boiling, the frog will not perceive the danger and will be boiled to death. Contemporary scientists have proven the premise to be false. However, as a metaphor it has a useful application. The metaphor refers to the inability or unwillingness of people to be aware of or to react to dangerous and sinister threats which gradually develop over a period of time.
I would suggest that the Republican Party under Trump has become “a boiled frog.” This article is about the gradual distortion and perilous transformation of the party of Lincoln.
In the 1950s, we had the first inklings of a shift with the notorious Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. McCarthy, probably the most unliked Senator in the U S Senate at that time, was a politician obsessed with the threats of Communism in the United States. His witch hunts destroyed the careers of many innocent citizens. Homosexuals, the State Department, and the military were his favorite targets. His dishonest and cruel tactics fanned the flames of fear and paranoia in the American public, and few politicians on either side of the aisle had the courage or integrity to challenge him. But eventually the alcoholic and unhinged Senator overplayed his hand and died in disgrace. The turning point in his demise came with the famous question asked by Joseph Nye Welch during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. During these hearings McCarthy began assassinating the character of an innocent young man in Welch’s Boston law firm. Welch finally responded with these words: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” McCarthy resumed his attack on the young man in question. Welch interrupted the Senator and said, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” At this point in the hearings, the gallery erupted in applause and the chairperson called a recess. (We shall return to McCarthy at the end of this article for a very telling observation.)
The anti-Communist message was revived by Barry Goldwater in his run against Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. By then, most Americans had seen the folly of this obsession, and Johnson was overwhelmingly elected President.
Johnson went on to pressure Congress to pass major civil rights legislation during his tenure as President. However, he predicted that if the Democratic Party (with the help of a number of moderate Republicans) was successful in passing such controversial bills, the Democrats would lose the South for two generations—a prediction that was chillingly accurate.
Richard Nixon, still chafing from his loss to JFK in 1960, saw an opportunity to win the South and secure his election through the infamous “Southern Strategy.” This strategy was conceived and implemented by political agents like Harry Dent and Fred Buzhardt—both of whom had been aides to the racist Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond. In 1964, Thurmond switched parties (from Democrat to Republican) in reaction to the Democratic embrace of civil rights. Over a remarkably short period of time, the entire “Solid Democratic South” became the entire “Solid Republican South.” (Thurmond was a member of my home church. He ran for President in 1948 on the Dixiecrat Party in opposition to Truman’s desegregating the military, the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the elimination of states’ poll taxes, and supporting the drafting of federal anti-lynching laws. Here is a quote from one of his campaign speeches: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and to admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Thurmond won four states and 39 electoral votes. Much to Thurmond’s chagrin, Truman was still reelected. Thurmond also held the “distinction” of giving the longest filibuster in the U S Senate. The bill he filibustered against was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and his filibuster lasted for 24 hours and 18 minutes. I served as a page in the U S Senate in 1963 through his appointment. I came to know him well and even at the young age of fourteen, I recognized his extreme racism. His second wife, Nancy Moore, was a senior in high school when I was a freshman. We both were in the band, and I was a guest in her home. South Carolinians elected him their senator for 48 years.)
This “Southern Strategy” used the slogan of “law and order” which was (and still is) a “dog whistle” for a racist agenda. Both the opposition to the Viet Nam war and the advancement of civil rights were enough to convince Southerners, who overwhelmingly supported the war and were opposed to civil rights for Blacks, to vote Republican. Nixon finally achieved his goal of winning the Presidency only to resign in disgrace because of the Watergate fiasco.
Ronald Reagan opened his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. Surrounded by Confederate flags, he praised “states’ rights”—another “dog whistle” used for over a hundred years to defend slavery and segregation. Reagan, who had never demonstrated any obvious religious grounding, also captured the adoration of Evangelicals as he pandered to their obsession with the Rapture, Armageddon, and creationism. Reagan’s goal was to dismantle any legacy of FDR’s New Deal. His “aw shucks” public demeanor allowed him and his administration to carry out some of the most despicable and unjust policies both nationally and internationally.
George H. W. Bush ran against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential election, calling Reagan’s proposed economic policies “voodoo economics.” However, his reservations about a Reagan Presidency evaporated when he was asked to run as Reagan’s Vice President. Bush’s successful run for President in 1988 was, in part, due to the infamous “revolving door” ads concerning Willie Horton and the weekend prison furlough policy in Massachusetts. This successful “dog whistle” fanned the fears and racist tendencies of many whites. The result was a resounding defeat for the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, who was the governor of Massachusetts. Bush also chose the unremarkable Dan Quayle as his running mate. Quayle was perhaps the least qualified politician imaginable to serve as President should the unthinkable happen to Bush. But he was a darling of the Fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals and had married into one of the most reactionary families in the United States. Bush’s choice of Clarence Thomas to take the place of the civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall was a sinister move to ensure a radically conservative U S Supreme Court. Thomas’s appointment was opposed by the NAACP.
In 2001, George H. W. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, was elected. Bush pursued the Republican goals of securing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. His plan to partially privatize Social Security was met with so much opposition that the plan was shelved. He admitted that global warming was real but argued that the evidence was inconclusive as to whether the environmental crisis was man-made or naturally caused. Consequently, he chose not to pursue any aggressive program to deal with the crisis. His appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U S Supreme Court assured a conservative and at times a reactionary court for many years in the future with disastrous consequences for issues like campaign finance reform (Remember the “Citizens United” decision?), gerrymandering, voter suppression, civil rights, and environmental protection.
And then we have Trump. During the 2016 Presidential election, the “neverTrump” Republicans opposed his candidacy. They dismissed his chances of securing the Republican nomination for President. They publicly denounced him and warned of how dangerous his election would be for the nation. But as Trump amassed delegates to the RNC, the horrible truth began to sink in. And even though some Republicans chose to oppose him or simply refused to support him, the vast majority of Republicans embraced his candidacy. They hoped he would not be as bad as they feared. They were wrong.
Trump has largely dispensed with “dog whistles.” The blatant vulgarity and scapegoating seen in his racism, homophobia, treatment of immigrants, misogyny, greed, and corruption have no need for veiled language.He unabashedly speaks his “truth” of the day as he panders to the fears, prejudices, greed, and arrogance of his base. Of course, truth has no meaning or value to him. He will say or use whatever he must to feed his ego and secure victory at everything he does. He knows that if he can get away with having infants torn from their mothers’ arms and put in cages, he can get away with anything with his base. (I defy any Christian who still supports Trump to say and believe that Jesus Christ would ever condone such barbarism.)
One of the most shocking indictments of Donald Trump comes from Stuart Stevens, a Republican political consultant and strategist for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. In Stevens’ expose of his party (It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump, August 2, 2020), he compares the conservative Trump apologists (the adults in the room) as latter-day versions of Franz von Papen, the German chancellor who enabled the rise of Hitler in the complacent belief that Hitler could be controlled and the conservatives could maintain power. Even I shudder at this comparison. I hope it goes too far in its indictment. But I am beginning to wonder.
With Trump’s election, the Republican frog has finally been boiled. As I argue above, such “boiling” has been a long time coming. He is the tragic and exaggerated culmination of a decades-long descent of the Republican Party. And his supporters in Congress and around the nation either do not realize the ramifications of this tragedy or they do not care what harm is done to our beloved democracy as long as they can stay in office and/or share in the graft and glory Trump pursues.
But as I promised, back to Joe McCarthy. McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings was Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was perhaps the most despicable lawyer in American history and one of the most immoral humans ever to walk this earth. He just happened to be a lawyer for Fred Trump and his son Donald J. Trump. He was also one of Trump’s mentors. Journalist David Cay Johnston, in an article entitled “The Roy Cohn Playbook,” described the kind of lessons Trump learned from Cohn with these words:
What we could call “Roy Cohn’s Lying Without Consequences Playbook” includes: Throw up every obstacle you can use or fabricate. Toss legal brickbats with novel and bizarre legal claims. Be nasty. Be accusatory. Challenge the legitimacy of government. Attack the integrity of individual officials. Make claims of government action that bear no relationship to the actual issue. Insist that records are confidential. Claim records no longer exist because some random, low-level employee accidentally erased them or tossed them out. Claim that a broken water pipe flooded the accounting file room. Blame an act of God. And always delay, delay, delay in the hope that the salaried government officials will grow weary and move on to easier tasks.(Raw Story, October 31, 2019)
I suggest Trump took these lessons to heart.
My question for those who still support Trump and who may well enable his reelection for four more years of graft, racism, environmental degradation, a disregard for the Constitution, and the continued destruction of our democracy is this: “Have you no decency. At long last, have you no decency?”