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What happened to the Republican Party: How did the GOP get here?

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Dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania due to alleged fraud against former President Donald Trump gather on the steps of the State Capital on November 05, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania due to alleged fraud against former President Donald Trump gather on the steps of the State Capital on November 05, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump is under investigation for possible violations of the Espionage Act, election fraud and fomenting a crowd to storm the U.S. Capitol, among other things. But how did the Republican Party get here?

More than 70% of GOP voters believe the lie that election fraud led to Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. Several Republican candidates are running for office based on that lie.

Trump did not cause the GOP to embrace misinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism. But rather, he’s the culmination of a quarter-century trend, says Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist and author of “The Deconstructionists: The 25-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party.”

Milbank points out that years before Trump’s “Big Lie,” Republican officials promoted other big lies. The George W. Bush White House stoked fears and promoted the Iraq war by promoting baseless claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Candidate for Vice President Sarah Palin described so-called Obamacare “death panels,” or boards to determine who was eligible for lifesaving care. For years GOP officials have called the science around climate change a hoax.

Each of these could be debunked over and over. But Milbank says Republican leaders realized, “If you kept saying it, you could get a lot of people — 10s of millions of people — to believe these things.”

For example, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party brought thousands of activists to the Capitol when former President Barack Obama was in office.

“Capitol Police were struggling to keep them outside the building, and they got to within 50 feet of it,” says Milbank. “And you had Republican members of Congress out on the House balcony fomenting the crowd.”

It was remarkable at the time, but in hindsight, Milbank says it’s part of a bigger picture with iterations building to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

And, the lies leading up to the war in Iraq spread by former Vice President Dick Cheney laid the groundwork for the lies that are now dividing the Republican Party and opposing his daughter Liz Cheney.

Liz Cheney called out Trump for weaponizing patriotism. But Milbank says her father pushed the weaponizing of patriotism and the strategic use of lies two decades ago.

“It’s almost like a Greek tragedy in a way, when you look at the forces that are bringing down Liz Cheney right now,” says Milbank.


Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jahad also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on August 16, 2022.

This segment aired on August 16, 2022.

Celeste Headlee Twitter Guest Host, Here & Now
Celeste Headlee is a guest host on Here & Now, writer, journalist and author of "Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism — and How to Do It."

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Shirley Jahad Producer, Here & Now
Shirley Jahad is a producer for Here & Now.

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