Republicans Confront the Consequences of Their Doomsday Rhetoric

The Capitol riot showed how the ominous tenor of contemporary GOP messaging could be fueling white conservatives’ extremism.

An illustration shows two dark arrows circling the white U.S. Capitol building. The illustration's background is red.
The Atlantic

Updated on January 9, 2021 at 10:06 a.m. ET

The Republican Party’s “Flight 93” revolution tragically, but almost inevitably, came full circle this week in a storm of insurrectionary violence at the U.S. Capitol.

Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, an anonymous author, eventually revealed as Michael Anton, a conservative scholar who later joined the Trump White House, described the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the “Flight 93 Election.” In his widely read essay, Anton insisted that a Democratic victory would change America so irrevocably that conservatives needed to think of themselves as the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11—the ones who chose to bring down the plane to save the U.S. Capitol from al-Qaeda hijackers. Letting the Democrat win, in other words, would doom the country.

Trump supporters’ rampage on Wednesday represented a bracingly physical expression of that belief—and a bitterly ironic inversion of it. To save the country, in their eyes, the pro-Trump rioters assaulted the same building that the actual Flight 93 passengers died to protect.

The riot showed how the ominous tenor of contemporary Republican messaging could be fueling white conservatives’ extremism. For at least the past decade, GOP candidates and conservative-media personalities have routinely deployed rhetoric similar to the Flight 93 argument. Only about 40 hours before the insurrection, at a campaign rally hosting an enthusiastic, virtually all-white audience in rural Georgia, President Trump insisted that if Democrats won the state’s two Senate runoff elections this week, “America as you know it will be over, and it will never—I believe—be able to come back again.”

Trump’s speech that night didn’t attract as much attention as his incendiary remarks in Washington on Wednesday, which fueled the riot and led to calls for his resignation, removal, or impeachment. Nor did his closing argument in Georgia succeed: The elections there tipped control of the Senate to the Democrats.

But Trump’s remarks showed how deeply apocalyptic imagery has pervaded Republican electoral strategy. When each election is presented as life-and-death for the country, it may not be surprising that more and more Republican voters and leaders want to maintain power by any means necessary. The claim that any Democratic victory will irrevocably reconfigure the nation taps into a deep fear among key components of the Republican coalition: that they will be eclipsed by the demographic and cultural changes that have made white people—especially white Christians—a steadily shrinking share of the population. When Republicans “say Democrats are a threat to America, I think they mean to America 1950,” the veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala told me. And in the years ahead, that vision of America will only diverge further from reality in a country where kids of color will soon represent a majority of the under-18 population, where a growing number of young people do not identify with any religious tradition, and where white Christians likely slip below 40 percent of the society.

In polling last fall by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, a larger share of Republican voters said that white people and Christians face significant discrimination in the United States than said the same about Black people and Latinos. In another national poll conducted earlier last year by the Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels, just more than half of Republican voters strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Fewer than one in six Republicans disagreed. (The rest were unsure.) Foreshadowing Republican voters’ embrace of Trump’s racist and baseless claims of election fraud in big cities with large Black populations, Bartels also found that three-fourths of Republican voters agreed that “it is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.”

Trump may be uniquely determined to inflame and weaponize Republicans’ willingness to accept (or even welcome) antidemocratic means of maintaining power. But the breadth of anxiety inside the GOP coalition about the fundamental demographic, economic, and cultural changes remaking America strongly suggest that these party tendencies won’t disappear when Trump leaves the White House. If anything, they could intensify as those changes accelerate and as the incoming Biden administration—which has given prominent roles to people of color, LGBTQ people, and women—embodies all of them.

After all, Trump is not the only prominent elected official to hammer Republican voters with doomsday messaging, including arguments that Democrats want a socialist takeover of the country. “The choice in this election is whether America remains America,” Vice President Mike Pence declared at last summer’s GOP convention. In an article on the Fox News website just before the Georgia vote, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida declared that Democratic victories would unleash a “socialist assault on our nation.”

That was also the daily drumbeat from David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republican incumbents who lost this week’s Senate races. The two are buttoned-down multimillionaire former corporate executives, who in an earlier era are easy to imagine as standard-issue country-club Republicans who want to cut taxes and regulation. Yet in the runoff elections, each centered their race on the idea that they represented the last line of defense against a unified Democratic government that would allegedly destroy America. Loeffler robotically called her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock, a “radical liberal” almost each time she mentioned his name in public, and said “we will lose America” if he won the election. On Monday night, Trump raised the ante on that argument: “There is no such thing as a moderate Democrat,” he said at the Georgia rally, in a distinct echo of the 1950s-era red-baiting politics of his former mentor Roy Cohn. “This party, this Democrat party is a Marxist socialist party—it’s a communist party.”

Such language has a long history in the Republican Party. It was especially popular from the 1950s through the early 1960s—particularly among the GOP far right—in the era of Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society. In a legendary 1950 California Senate race, Richard Nixon famously charged that his Democratic opponent, the representative and former actor Helen Gahagan Douglas, was “pink right down to her underwear.” In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan, then a fading actor transitioning into politics, delivered a speech for the American Medical Association in which he warned that if Democrats passed an early version of Medicare for the elderly, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” In Reagan’s classic 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, he likewise warned that Democrats were morphing into something akin to “the labor Socialist Party of England.”

But both Nixon and Reagan mostly muted such rhetoric as they moved onto the national stage and as the pitched social conflicts of the 1960s receded. Although they may have harbored those beliefs privately, neither Nixon nor Reagan typically described Democrats in nearly as ominous terms as they did earlier in their career—or as Trump does now. “Even if, at certain points in their lives, Reagan and Nixon entertained thoughts like that, they wouldn’t share it,” notes the historian and journalist Rick Perlstein, whose four-book series on the modern conservative movement includes volumes on both Nixon and Reagan.

Nixon’s and Reagan’s choice to temper their rhetoric reflected the reality that in the early years of the Republican political revival after 1968, both men still needed to attract voters and navigate around institutions sympathetic to the Democratic Party, which had dominated national politics since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“In the case of Nixon, that apocalyptic vision was clearly something that lived in his heart,” Perlstein told me, noting that Nixon expressed it in his once-secret White House tapes. But Nixon was also “tactically and strategically shrewd.” He “prepared obsessively, was extremely concerned about how he came off to the public, and was working in a context in which the dominant political institutions were largely liberal—both the media and largely Congress.”

Though Reagan was a more ideological figure than Nixon, in the big, signature speeches of his presidency, Reagan talked about Democrats more in sorrow than anger. He sought to attract wavering Democrats by noting that he had once belonged to their party too—before, as he charged, the party evolved away from him. Once Reagan took office, “he understood that he was the institutional embodiment of this country that had to put a public face forward to the world that was respectable,” said Perlstein, whose latest volume is titled Reaganland. “So he understood that he believed things that maybe the public wasn’t ready for.”

Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush often criticized Democratic policies and denounced their opponents as too liberal, but neither routinely portrayed the party as a threat to America’s fundamental traditions. Neither did the GOP’s presidential nominees in 1996 (Bob Dole), 2008 (John McCain), or 2012 (Mitt Romney).

The apocalyptic strain of Republican argument never entirely evaporated, though. It persisted in Newt Gingrich’s caustic portrayal of Democrats as the enemies of “normal Americans,” among conservative grassroots groups (particularly religious conservatives), and within the emerging conservative-media empire, led at first by Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio hosts in the late 1980s and by Fox News starting about a decade later. In 2010, the Tea Party movement, which erupted after Barack Obama’s first two years in office, revived charges of “socialism” against Democrats more forcefully than at any point since the 1960s, and merged them with the ongoing anxieties about cultural and demographic change that radiated through the social-conservative movement, talk radio, and Fox. That anxiety crystallized into the birtherism slur (promoted by Trump) against Obama.

Like an invasive plant species, the fevered Tea Party style steadily drove out the more restrained rhetoric deployed by both Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney. Trump has completed that transformation with years of messaging that’s portrayed his supporters—the virtuous “real America”—as under siege from a pincer attack by contemptuous elites above and dangerous minorities and immigrants below determined to steal “our country.” Changes in the electoral and media environment have reinforced this shift: Although in the era of Nixon and Reagan, Republicans tried to win voters not entirely in their camp, the party now operates in more of a closed circle. It relies primarily on overtly conservative media to mobilize a more homogeneously conservative electoral base. Those changes have not only allowed, but encouraged, Republicans to vilify Democrats more extravagantly.

Apocalyptic rhetoric has “absorbed all the available oxygen of the Republican ecosystem,” Perlstein told me.

Democrats over the past decade have generally grown tougher in their portrayals of Republicans too, and no shortage of them have described Trump as a racist or a threat to American democracy. But even leaving aside the (considerable) extent to which he’s justified those labels, there’s still an imbalance: Democratic candidates, with the need to build coalitions that are more diverse both demographically and ideologically than the GOP’s, are much more likely to pledge to work with Republicans than to portray the party as endemically extremist. The equivalent to Republicans labeling Democrats as socialists or Marxists would be if the Georgia Senate candidates—much less Biden—described Republicans as authoritarians or fascists. In competitive races, that simply does not happen.

This week’s outrage is not likely to dissuade Republicans from using Flight 93–style arguments, because Trump has changed the party’s electoral incentives in a way that pushes many (if not most) GOP candidates toward such inflammatory hyperbole.

Trump’s redefinition of the GOP as a vehicle for the white Americans most uneasy about racial and cultural change has alienated many previously Republican-leaning white suburban voters, even in previously Republican-leaning states—as this week’s Georgia losses painfully demonstrated to the party again. That means, to win elections, virtually all Republicans now need superheated turnout from the Trump base: white, non-college-educated, nonurban, and evangelical Christian voters. And that means Republicans of all stripes will feel pressure to continue portraying Democrats not merely as misguided or wrong, but as an existential threat to GOP voters’ lives—even as Wednesday’s riot captures how those alarms are exacerbating the greatest strains on the nation’s cohesion since the Civil War.