How Donald Trump Captured the Republican Party

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INSURGENCY
How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted
By Jeremy W. Peters

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on the morning of June 16, 2015, there was little indication the event would alter American political history. Pundits dismissed Trump’s chances. He was polling at 4 percent; the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, suggested Trump was really seeking a job at NBC, not the White House.

But Trump did make an impression on Steve Bannon, a voluble conservative activist plotting his own takeover of the Republican Party. Watching the reality-television star deliver remarks from the Trump Tower food court to a crowd that allegedly included actors who had been paid $50 to hold signs and cheer, Bannon couldn’t contain himself. “That’s Hitler!” Bannon said. And, as Jeremy W. Peters writes in this spirited new history, “he meant it as a compliment.”

“Insurgency” chronicles the astonishingly swift transformation of the Republican Party, from the genteel preserve of pro-business elites to a snarling personality cult that views the Jan. 6 insurrection as an exercise in legitimate political discourse. Peters, a political reporter for The New York Times, depicts mainstream Republicans’ surrender to Trumpism as a form of political self-flagellation. From 1969 to 2008, Republicans occupied the White House for all but 12 years. And yet “one of the more peculiar features of American conservatism is that despite decades of Republican rule, many true believers grew embittered and resentful of their party. They thought it was run by weak-willed leaders who compromised and sold out once they got in power.”

The outlines of the Republicans’ hard-right turn are by now largely familiar. What distinguishes “Insurgency” is its blend of political acuity and behind-the-scenes intrigue. Much of the book’s opening material revolves around the first national figure to channel the base’s anger: the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who might have forestalled Trump’s rise had she chosen to run for president in 2012. Trump was sufficiently concerned about Palin’s potential to claim the title of populist standard-bearer that he invited her to Trump Tower in 2011 “to size her up in person.” He concluded that while she had “tremendous political appeal, she didn’t know what to do about it.”

Trump, of course, did. Peters is a fluid and engaging writer, and as the narrative of “Insurgency” unfolds and Trump inevitably, irresistibly, assumes center stage, you almost can’t help admiring — as Bannon did — the candidate’s raw, demagogic genius: “Devoid of empathy, incapable of humility and unfamiliar with what it means to suffer consequences, he behaved and spoke in ways most would never dare.” In one luridly fascinating section, Peters details how Trump defused the furor over the “Access Hollywood” tape by ambushing Hillary Clinton with her husband’s accusers at the second presidential debate in St. Louis. The stunt came about thanks to a “norm-shattering” partnership between the Trump campaign and Aaron Klein, a 36-year-old reporter for Bannon’s website, Breitbart News, who tracked down the women and cajoled them into attending.

“In the history of modern presidential politics, no candidate had pulled off such a ruthless act of vengeance in public,” Peters writes. “It changed the game, proving to Trump and his allies that there was nothing off-limits anymore.” So pivotal was Klein’s role in Trump’s upset victory that Jared Kushner later told him, “My father-in-law wouldn’t be president without you.”

Anecdotes like these make “Insurgency” worth reading, though it’s harder to say who would want to. The book contains too many examples of Trump’s manifest flaws to appeal to MAGA true believers, but not enough revelations of outright criminality to satisfy veterans of the #resistance. With the specter of a 2024 Trump candidacy looming, the rest of us could use a break while we can still get one. “He just dominates every day,” Bannon told Trump’s advisers in 2020, warning of voters’ exhaustion with the president. “It’s like a nightmare. You’ll do anything to get rid of it.” Easier said than done.

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