How the Republican Fringe Became the Mainstream.

AuthorHeilbrunn, Jacob

Conspiracy theorists and far-right fanatics have long been present in the GOP. Now, they're running it.

Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind

by Robert Draper

Penguin Random House, 400 pp.

As the historian Richard Hofstadter once observed, the alarming thing about American politics isn't that most believers in conspiracy theories are crazy. It's that they aren't. "It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant," he wrote. Hofstadter's theory may sound like a description of Donald Trump and his followers, but it was, of course, written much earlier--in 1964, about the encroaching paranoia in American politics expressed by the presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared in his acceptance speech that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Goldwater's candidacy ultimately flamed out, but the passions and hatreds he inspired have only grown. Now more than ever, the Republican Party has become the vehicle for an assault not only on liberalism, but on American democracy itself.

In the present day, the GOP's delusions have become so pervasive that even former party stalwarts such as Liz Cheney have ended up as lonely dissidents, reduced to hoping that some sliver of sanity can be retrieved from the wreckage to rebuild the party. Even the events of January 6, 2021, proved no more than a speed bump for the Trumpian project, whose adherents are exploiting it as a kind of Beer Hall Putsch moment to double down on purging the GOP and ensuring fresh fealty to the former guy.

In his excellent new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion, Robert Draper does not delve into the GOP's past predilection for extremism. At most, he intimates in his introduction that in writing about the Republican Party over the past two decades, he may have been overly influenced by the example of his late father--a former Marine, capitalist, family man, and lifelong Republican--to view the party with a degree of respect it has not merited. Such an upbringing has only augmented Draper's current consternation at the GOP's conversion from a party into a Trumpian cult. Now Draper illuminates the enduring grip of the paranoid style in the party--and Trump's ability to gull his followers--by focusing on the aftermath of January 6. Draper, who is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, focuses on far-right House Republican firebrands such as Paul Gosar...

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