A straight line runs from Reagan to the Trump dead-enders.
Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss.
What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.
I’m not sure it’s right to say Republicans “believe” that, say, wearing face masks is useless or that there was widespread voter fraud. Framing the issue as one of belief suggests that some kind of evidence might change party loyalists’ minds.
In reality, what Republicans say they believe flows from what they want to do, whether it’s ignore a deadly disease or stay in power despite the voters’ verdict.
In other words, the point isn’t that the G.O.P. believes untrue things. It is, rather, that the party has become hostile to the very idea that there’s an objective reality that might conflict with its political goals.
Notice, by the way, that I’m not including qualifiers, like saying “some” Republicans. We’re talking about most of the party here. The Texas lawsuit calling on the Supreme Court to overturn the election was both absurd and deeply un-American, but more than 60 percent of Republicans in the House signed a brief supporting it, and only a handful of elected Republicans denounced the suit.
At this point, you aren’t considered a proper Republican unless you hate facts.
But when and how did the G.O.P. get that way? If you think it started with Donald Trump and will end when he leaves the scene (if he ever does), you’re naïve.
Republicans have been heading in this direction for decades. I’m not sure whether we can pinpoint the moment when the party began its descent into malignant madness, but the trajectory that led to this moment probably became irreversible under Ronald Reagan.
Republicans have, of course, turned Reagan into an icon, portraying him as the savior of a desperate, declining nation. Mostly, however, this is just propaganda. You’d never know from the legend that economic growth under Reagan was only slightly faster than it had been under Jimmy Carter, and slower than it would be under Bill Clinton.
And rapidly rising income inequality meant that a disproportionate share of the benefits from economic growth went to a small elite, with only a bit trickling down to most of the population. Poverty, measured properly, was higher in 1989 than it had been a decade earlier.
Anyway, gross domestic product isn’t the same thing as well-being. Other measures suggest that we were already veering off course.
For example, in 1980 life expectancy in America was similar to that in other wealthy nations; but the Reagan years mark the beginning of the great mortality divergence of the United States from the rest of the advanced world. Today, Americans can, on average, expect to live almost four fewer years than their counterparts in comparable countries.
The main point, however, is that under Reagan, irrationality and hatred for facts began to take over the G.O.P.
There has always been a conspiracy-theorizing, science-hating, anti-democratic faction in America. Before Reagan, however, mainstream conservatives and the Republican establishment refused to make alliance with that faction, keeping it on the political fringe.
Reagan, by contrast, brought the crazies inside the tent.
Many people are, I think, aware that Reagan embraced a crank economic doctrine — belief in the magical power of tax cuts. I’m not sure how many remember that the Reagan administration was also remarkably hostile to science.
Reagan’s ability to act on this hostility was limited by Democratic control of the House and the fact that the Senate still contained a number of genuinely moderate Republicans. Still, Reagan and his officials spent years denying the threat from acid rain while insisting that evolution was just a theory and promoting the teaching of creationism in schools.
This rejection of science partly reflected deference to special interests that didn’t want science-based regulation. Even more important, however, was the influence of the religious right, which first became a major political force under Reagan, has become ever more central to the Republican coalition and is now a major driver of the party’s rejection of facts — and democracy.
For rejecting facts comes naturally to people who insist that they’re acting on behalf of God. So does refusing to accept election results that don’t go their way. After all, if liberals are servants of Satan trying to destroy America’s soul, they shouldn’t be allowed to exercise power even if they should happen to win more votes.
Sure enough, a few days ago the televangelist Pat Robertson — who first became politically influential under Reagan — pronounced the Texas lawsuit a “miracle,” an intervention by God that would keep Trump in office.
The point is that the G.O.P. rejection of facts that has been so conspicuous this year wasn’t an aberration. What we’re seeing is the culmination of a degradation that began a long time ago and is almost surely irreversible.