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David Corn Interview: Pat Robertson Catalyzed Republican Psychosis

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David Corn

David Corn is a veteran Washington journalist and political commentator. He is the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine and an analyst for MSNBC.  He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff) and The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.

The investigative reporter’s latest offering, American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, published on September 13, 2022. In the book, Corn tells the wild and harrowing story of the Republican Party’s decades-long relationship with far-right extremism, bigotry and paranoia.

"Psychosis that people are buying into, and George H. W. Bush and the entire Republican Party are authenticating and validating Pat Robertson, the guy behind this. They’re giving his group, the Christian Coalition, money."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: David, what was the impetus for writing American Psychosis?

David Corn: In looking at the current moment of what’s happened to the Republican Party with Trump and how the GOP had long been in the business of encouraging and exploiting extremism, including racism, bigotry, paranoia, conspiracy theories, tribalism and the like, I discovered that nobody had ever looked at the history of the Republican Party through that lens. At least, I thought there was a market demand because I demanded such a history.

So I started pursuing this book a little over a year ago, and the more I looked at this premise, the more I couldn’t believe nobody had ever organized Republican history in this manner within this framework. You see again and again, going back to the 1950s until two minutes ago that the Republican Party has often partnered up with the most extreme elements on the right, and this did not start with Donald Trump. This is not a new idea. Now, Donald Trump has done it more in the open and more accessibly, and we don’t have any Republican presidents who have incited insurrectionist mobs to attack the Capitol and who have refused to accept election results and acted in a fascistic authoritarian manner. We don’t have that.

But going back to McCarthyism starting in the late 40s or early 50s, the Republican Party was indeed encouraging conspiracy theory and paranoia. It lionized Joe McCarthy. It showed him as a key to attracting votes for the Republican Party. What he was doing was in essence what we see Trump doing, peddling paranoia and fear and a conspiracy theory. I’m not sure people alive today my age and younger remember this. But Joe McCarthy claimed that there was a literal plot against the United States that was being mounted by high officials within the US government to weaken the country, so the Soviet Union would take over America.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. That was the “red scare” hysteria over the perceived threat posed by Communists in the US during the Cold War.

David Corn: McCarthy said they were actively plotting to turn the country over to Moscow. In 1951, McCarthy gave a speech on the Senate floor, and he pointed out the person in charge of this, the person at the top of this plot, the person running this cabal. It was George C. Marshall. He named him.

Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff during World War II and helped win the battle of the Nazis. He was then Secretary of State and came up with the Marshall Plan that saved Europe and actually helped the US and the West keep more of Europe from falling under the dominion of the Soviet Union. Then Marshall became Secretary of Defense at the point that McCarthy was making this charge. So this is like coming out saying, “Jim Mattis is a soviet agent.” McCarthy was a senator when he said this. He had the support of his party. When he appeared at the Republican convention in 1952 after making this and other ludicrous claims, he was celebrated. So here he is saying that the Democrats are an internal, subversive, radical enemy, and it was complete bullshit. Yet the party rallied around him.

Dwight Eisenhower campaigned for president in 1952 and wanted to criticize McCarthy and distance himself from him. Eisenhower was a good friend of George C. Marshall. They worked together in the Army, and Marshall picked him to be commander of the European forces to run the D-Day invasion. He was completely offended and upset that McCarthy would discredit him. So Eisenhower wanted to distance himself from McCarthy during the 1952 campaign when McCarthy was up for reelection, and they were campaigning together in Wisconsin. The party owners, including his own Chief of Staff for his campaign, begged him not do to this. The party went along with McCarthy’s nuttery. Then you can just draw this line from that to Barry Goldwater making common cause with the John Birch Society.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And the John Birch Society was a right-wing political advocacy group based on conspiracy theories.

David Corn: Whose leader believed that and said that Eisenhower was a commie agent. So Goldwater worked with the Birch Society and depended on them in the Republican primaries of 1964. You see Nixon getting the nomination in ’68 in part because he cut a deal with Strom Thurmond and other segregationists. In fact, he had John Mitchell’s campaign manager in ’68 tell Strom Thurmond that Nixon would give up on all the "pro-Negro crap" if the southern delegates, led by Thurmond, would stay with him at the convention and campaign with him in the Fall when Nixon was running not just against Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat, but George Wallace, the racist segregationist, who was threatening to take votes from Nixon in the South. So Nixon cut a deal with white supremacists, and you just keep going. Reagan praised the Moral Majority when members of the Moral Majority were literally calling for the execution of homosexuals because they didn’t like gay people. I don’t know how much more extreme this can get. George H. W. Bush embraced Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe you said in the book that Richard Nixon told Bush to dump fanatics like Robertson and Falwell.

David Corn: Yeah. Nixon, who embraced his own racist fanatics, told George H. W. Bush to stay away from the Christian nationalists and the far religious right. But Bush embraced them, and what’s really so bizarre about this is that Pat Robertson had put out a book called The New World Order, which is complete swill and conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory, including anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that European bankers of the Rothschild family were part of a cabal that’s been around for hundreds of years that has the goal of creating a collectivist one world government in society.

According to Pat Robertson, George H. W. Bush was part of this scheme by talking about a new world order after the fall and collapse of the Soviet Union. He was part of this satanic scheme. I mean, that’s what Robertson called it. He literally said it was a plot hatched by Lucifer. That’s what he said and that it involved the trilateral commission, J.P. Morgan, Henry Kissinger, European governments, Jewish families and George H. W. Bush.

The New World Order became a bestseller and sells hundreds of thousands of copies. What it’s doing is reinforcing this paranoid, crazy…

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Psychosis?

David Corn: Psychosis that people are buying into, and George H. W. Bush and the entire Republican Party are authenticating and validating Pat Robertson, the guy behind this. They’re giving his group, the Christian Coalition, money. They’re speaking at his conferences. They’re letting him speak at Republican conventions. They are embodying the Christian Coalition because it can deliver Republican votes to them.

So we’re now decades after McCarthyism, but the Republican Party is still playing, flirting, using, hoarding, taking advantage of, encouraging extremists who are not tethered to reality. Then it continues throughout the 90s. You have Republicans who are supportive of the anti-government right-wing militias who believe the black helicopters are coming to take over the US for the UN when the NRA is attacking federal agents as jackbooted Nazis, and members of the NRA are using the NRA’s bulletin board system to communicate. They’re posting bomb-making recipes and plans on how to fight the government when civil war comes.

Of course, Republican officials Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House then, are endorsing the NRA, supporting and protecting it when it comes under attack. They’re promoting conspiracy theories about the Clintons such as Bill and Hillary had something to do with the death of Vince Foster.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You also speak a lot in the book about the influence of Rush Limbaugh and the impact he had on the American people.

David Corn: The Republican Party lionized Rush Limbaugh who was a complete promoter of that conspiracy theory and other nutty, paranoid theories, including the notion that global warming is a complete hoax made up by far-left extremists who want to use it to take money away from rich people. So they are enabling and endorsing and supporting some of these tremendously extremist elements.

When George Bush claimed to be a compassionate conservative and ran for the presidency in 2000, he took a few stabs at the social conservatives for being too doomy and gloomy, said that a lot of people on the right don’t care enough about the poor and sounded like he was trying to distance himself from the more aggressive or abusive parts of the Republican conservative coalition.

But when he lost the election in New Hampshire to John McCain, and McCain threatened to take the nomination away from George H. W. Bush, Bush ran to Bob Jones University, which at the time was extremely biased against Catholics and did not allow interracial dating or interracial marriage and had recently not allowed Black people to even attend the school, and rallied the Religious Right, including Pat Robertson who had called his father a Satanic dupe, to help him in the South Carolina primary to beat back the McCain threat. So even when George Bush tried to be a different type of conservative, he still ended up running to the far-right and again validating Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other extremist elements because he needed them on his side. It just keeps going. It never stops.

In 2008, the tables were turned and McCain was the leading Republican contender and becomes nominee. He picks Sarah Palin who goes out there and accuses Barack Obama of being a terrorist. You had these elements at her rallies where people are declaring that Barack Obama is a Muslim, he’s a terrorist, he’s a secret socialist, he has a secret plan to destroy the US, and people are shouting at these rallies, “Kill him! He’s a traitor!” Political journalists covered these events, and I was one of them. I will tell you that the level of hate was unparalleled as McCain and Palin were demonizing Barack Obama and lighting a fire on the far-right extremists to help their campaign.

From there, we go to the Tea Party a couple of years later. Palin’s a big leader of the Tea Party, and you have Glenn Beck on Fox News, and they’re literally saying (going back to McCarthyism) that Barack Obama is a secret socialist Muslin who had intents to destroy the country and bring it to economic ruin so he can pose totalitarian dictatorship under his rule. This is what people at Tea Party rallies were saying almost every night on Fox News. Who came on to talk to Glenn Beck? John Boehner, House Republican leader, and other Republican leaders. They’re all telling his audience, “You should listen to this guy.” When they had the Tea Party rallies on Capitol Hill, Republicans appear there, and the crowd chants, “Nazis! Nazis!” dehumanizing the Democrats.

The Tea Party is just a short skip and a jump from Trumpism. So there’s this very, very clear pattern once you start to look for it that is a part of the Republican Party story. It’s the ugly side of the Republican Party. They don’t want to talk about it, and it doesn’t totally define the Republican Party throughout its years. Richard Nixon gave us the EPA and opened up our relations with China. Bob Dole was interested in nutrition programs and some form of health care reform. This isn’t the totality of the Republican Party, but it always, always, always has been there. The Republican Party doesn’t want to acknowledge it, and the media, I think, has done a poor job of covering it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Millions of Americans continue to spread Alex Jones’ misinformation even as he was publicly debunked, so there are still those people that live in an alternate reality. Why do they continue to believe falsehoods and conspiracy theories when the truth is staring them in the face?

David Corn: Yeah. That’s a really difficult question to answer. But this paranoia-style politics, which Richard Hofstadter identified in the early 1960s, has been a strong current of American public life in the modern era. It’s certainly going back earlier, if you want to go back to the Salem witch trials and the anti-masonic movements and all sorts of other conspiracy theories that have affected politics in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s. But it has always, always, always been there.

In the book, I sort of have a mini history of paranoia and conspiracy theory in American politics. Why it’s there? There have been a lot of great books written and a lot of great theories developed as to why conspiracy theories exist and why people believe in them. There are simple explanations to complicating questions, and often, people latch on to them if they fear their own status is being threatened by changes in the world or maybe demographic changes. There are a lot of reasons why this stuff is in the water and why human beings think in those ways.

To me, and what I was focused on in this book, is how this dangerous and ugly strain in American life is exploited by a political party, by politicians. The problem is not so much these days, but you can say this about McCarthyism as well or with Nixon cutting deals with segregationists. McCarthy, Nixon, Trump all pose problems, but they’re all eventually one person. The bigger problem is that they find an audience, that what they say resonates. The fear that McCarthy pushed, the hatred that Trump sells, the lunacy that the election was stolen, that there’s a secret cabal, a deep state trying to undo Trump and destroy the nation and the world. These things exist and people believe them. That’s the mega problem that allows these scoundrel politicians and conmen, like McCarthy and Trump, to take advantage of popular sentiment, resentment and grievance and give them easy answers.

It’s hard to come up with plans to reindustrialize the US. We need to and we should think about it, and there are people out there doing good work on this. But it would require a lot of heavy lifting policy wise and politically to figure out how we could once again expand the middle class. It’s much easier to say, “There are people out there who you can’t see who are plotting to bring in brown-skinned people to take your place, and we’ve got to do something about that.” Then they show you a thousand pictures of immigrants at the border and saying, “That’s the problem.” It’s easier. It pushes buttons and gives people a simple explanation.

Now, some of these conspiracy theories are not that simple. If you don’t like Hillary Clinton, someone comes and tells you, “The reason you don’t like her is because she’s running a sex trafficking ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.” That pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. I know because I’ve been there (laughs). Some people are a lot harder to hold onto than the reason you don’t like her is because of her positions on monetary policy. So it’s a deep problem why these conspiracy theories, why these stories that inflame fear and paranoia and fear mongering work so well.

But they don’t work so well all the time. You remember Trump lost the election and literally said that Biden was in the league with Antifa, terrorists, anarchists and Marxists and the Black Lives Matter destroy the American suburbs so people there would be at risk for crimes committed by very tough hombres. Trump’s terminology. Not mine. He got anti-Black sentiment, anti-brown sentiment going back to the old idea of commies and subversives taking control of the US, and that’s literally what he was saying the last few months of the campaign. We don’t think about it so much because we think more of what happened after the campaign. But he just turned up the dial to 11 in terms of hate and fear mongering, and it almost worked.

It didn’t work. Joe Biden got a lot more votes. But Trump came very close to getting enough votes in enough places to win the Electoral College. So it certainly hasn’t persuaded him to do anything different. It hasn’t persuaded the Republican Party that they should change course. So this stuff is still out there, and it’s still open to exploitation.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sadly, yes, it is. I’m of the definite opinion that no matter what the final findings are in the January 6 commission, Donald Trump will not be incarcerated for any crimes. What do you think?

David Corn: You know, when Trump became president, I was done making predictions. The fact that a person of his caliber could become president was indeed shocking to me. He’s been able not just to duck bullets, he’s been able to duck RPGs and heat-seeking missiles long before he got into politics whether it was the mob or not paying bills, lying to creditors or tax fraud. He’s just gotten away with so much.

Then he got away with aiding and abetting the Russian attack on the election in 2016 and may get away with inciting a domestic terroristic assault on the US Capitol. Will he get away with stealing some classified documents? I don’t know. At this point, I want justice to be done and take its course. But I think the most important thing for the sake of the nation, for the sake of our fragile democracy, is that he not be given a second chance at the White House whether that’s because he’s in jail or whatever else happens. I think American democracy has taken some really major blows because of him and the force of Trumpism. We could probably survive a few more, but at some point, there’s no guarantee that American democracy prevails.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You mentioned the classified documents. I read your recent article where you listed a few possible explanations as to why he stole them. My top two guesses: Trump thought it would be cool to take them home (think John Bolton said something to that effect) and that Trump was plotting to somehow use them against his political enemies. What do you think?

David Corn: Well, I write about how he continues the Republican practice of demonizing the political enemy. That’s exactly what McCarthy did in saying that the Democrats of that day were part of the soviet plot to ruin the country, undermine and sabotage it from the inside. You have the rise of the new right in the late 70s and the Religious Right, which helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

What they were doing at the time is kind of like what you see now through direct mail in which they were calling liberals and Democrats the real enemies that the country faces. They say they would destroy humanity and destroy patriotism. Not that they were wrong and had different ideas but that they would bring the country down. That demonizes them. That dehumanizes them and put the country on the path of a certain kind of tribalism.

In the 90s, New Gingrich said of Bill Clinton (before the Monica Lewinsky affair) that the Clintons and the Democrats were not normal people, that they didn’t understand America, and they didn’t see America the way America should be seen. Again, they were demonizing and dehumanizing the other side. Whether they had different ideas on the environment, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the budget, it’s, “No. They’re a threat to the country because they are not real Americans.” You have that, of course, with birtherism, which Donald Trump used to become the great conservative hero, saying that Barack Obama, the first elected Black president, was not a real American, that he didn’t understand America, that he wasn’t one of us.

So we’ve had this all along, this idea on the Republican side that the other side should, as Trump said over and over again, be locked up. Any accurate reading of history will show you that the leaders of the Democratic Party never engaged in that sort of demonization of the right. Yeah. They will be critical, and they will say that Bush and Cheney led the country into a disastrous war, and there are people on the left who will come up with conspiracy theories about Bush and Cheney or Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan and all that. I mean, that’s been there. But it hasn’t been reflected and accepted by Democratic presidential nominees or by leaders of the Democratic Party.

Joe Biden didn’t go out there in the last election and say that Donald Trump and Republicans were evil and aimed to destroy the country the same way Trump said that about him and the Democrats. He said Trump was wrong. He said he’d actually like to bring the country together, which in some ways, may not be possible at this moment since 33% of the country believes in Trump’s election denialism and QAnon stuff and all that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Should Joe Biden use tougher language to describe Donald Trump and the Republicans?

David Corn: Well, he recently said that some elements in the MAGA universe are fascists. I don’t know how you don’t say that. It’s a party that has denied an election and still accepts as its leader a fellow who tried to use violence to overturn the election and just recently said he believes he needs to be restored to the White House. Of course, that actually can’t happen under our Constitution. But those are all fascistic things to say and do.

Then the Republican Party gets its knickers in a bunch because Biden said something about MAGA-land during the 2020 campaign. Trump accused Biden of being a part of a far-left fascism. The Republicans are upset if the f-word is used for a guy who triggered a violent attack on the Capitol who won’t accept an election, but they feel free to use it themselves. So this is just a pattern that has gone on over 70 years now.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: David, I wish you great success with the book. Let me leave you with this mysterious question that will probably never have an answer. Does anyone really know why the Trump campaign adopted “Y.M.C.A” as their signature song? (laughs)

David Corn: (laughs) I don’t know. But if those people are still around, they must be getting a great kick out of it because, as you know, it’s a gay anthem that is now a Trump song.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And there’s a dance.

David Corn: Trump does have a little dance. I don’t know. It’s one of the many mysteries. (laughs)

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