"The Destuctionists" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“Washington Post” columnist Dana Milbank traces the history of the Republican Party between 1994, when Newt Gingrich briefly became Speaker of the House, and the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The author sees a clear line from “The Contract with America” to the January 6th coup attempt.
As a career editorial writer, Milbank claims “a front row seat for the worst show on earth: the crack-up of the Republican Party and the resulting crack-up of American democracy.”
This book details his conviction that U.S. citizens have witnessed the descent of the party of Lincoln and Reagan to its current iteration: a refuge for white supremacists, political violence, conspiracy theories, and authoritarianism.
He opens the book with an account of the scene on Sept. 27, 1994, when Gingrich stood outside the Capitol with 300 members of the Republican House minority who signed the “Contract With America,” a fiercely-worded political attack on bipartisanship.
But the crack-up had begun even before then. “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty,” Gingrich had challenged young campus Republicans in 1978. “You’re fighting a war. It's a war for power.” In a 1989 interview with reporter John Harwood, Gingrich described Democrats “grotesque,” “loony” and “stupid”. Later terms he publicly applied to the opposing party were “traitors,” “sick,” and “corrupt.”
This scrupulous and excoriating history is essentially divided into four sections:
A. The Clinton presidency when Brett Kavanaugh interrogated Bill Clinton with an obscene line of questions about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and tried to prove the Clintons had a part in Vince Foster’s suicide.
B. The George W. Bush presidential campaign when Karl Rove designed a Republican party political campaign to slander one of their own by attacking John McCain's character.
C. The Obama presidency which further fueled the oppositional rage of the Tea Party and during which Donald Trump and other Republicans fervently promoted the “birther movement” questioning Obama's citizenship.
D. The Trump era when Republicans conducted “their war on truth, their growing exploitation of racism and white supremacy, their sabotage of the institutions... of government, and their dehumanizing of opponents and stoking of violence.” Speaker of the House John Boehner observed: “There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump party.”
Newt Gingrich is currently serving as an advisor to Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy. “The man who started American politics down the road to destruction is returning to see his work completed,” Milbank laments.
“The Destructionists” is a well-researched analysis of the Republican Party family tree of leaders. Milbank contextualizes the current state of Republican politics by assessing the 25-year party genealogy and the politics that has made the party of Lincoln unrecognizable.
My staunch Republican Party forebears would be disheartened by the crassness, lack of compassion, and authoritarianism documented in this current analysis of the Grand Old Party. Milbank ends the book with limited solutions—only a few hundred words. “So there's not much we can do but ride it out-- and vote as if our way of life is at stake, for surely it is.”
About the Author: Dana Milbank is a political columnist for the “Washington Post.” His work is syndicated nationally and often appears in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch.” He is the author of the national bestseller “Homo Politicus,” as well as three other books.