America has been in an abusive relationship with the GOP since 1980

tags: Ronald Reagan, GOP, Trump

​Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of ​history at Boston College and co-​host of NPR's politics and history podcast Freak Out and Carry On.

Since 1980, America has been in an abusive relationship with the GOP. 

It started as all abusive relationships do: with love bombing and promises. Ronald Reagan told people who felt left behind by the inflation and social rights movements of the 1970s that they were the most important people in America. He said he would take care of everything that was bothering them, and bring back a world of safety and security, if only they would put him in charge. Americans bought in.

But the new GOP policies Reagan’s people put in place only helped people at the top. So the GOP did what all abusers do: it pushed harder to isolate its voters and convince them that turning away from the protection the GOP offered would be a deadly dangerous thing to do. GOP leaders warned that lazy black people were stealing tax dollars, feminists wanted to kill babies, and Democrats were socialists trying to destroy America. And it worked. The GOP convinced voters to stay on board so they could push the policies they promised would help make things better... this time.

And things continued to get worse for everyone but those the GOP represented: those at the very top. So GOP leaders worked harder and harder to keep their voters on board by telling them stories that were more and more outrageous. It had to isolate them from reality to keep them believing that the GOP was helping them. It had to have flashy spokespeople tell really simple, moving stories about how the GOP was taking the side of good Americans against everyone else. Its leaders said that anyone who challenged their version of reality was a liar. 

Finally, the GOP moved so far into a fantasy world that a TV reality show host, a conman, became its leader. 

He was the most abusive GOP leader ever. He believed he was the best at everything, knew the best people, deserved to rule over everyone because lesser people didn’t know what was good for them. He could do anything he wanted, and no one ever told him to stop. Even if he made fun of disabled people. Even if bragged about assaulting women. Even if he supported neo-Nazis. Even if he said he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.

By then, most Americans—even those who had liked what they heard from Reagan—knew that the relationship wasn’t right. They wanted to break up. So the GOP lied to them and tricked them to stay in power. It called in friends to convince Americans not to dump them. And the GOP managed to keep Americans on the hook a little longer. 

But enough American women knew that the new president had all hallmarks of an abuser that they finally said no. They organized the largest one-day protest in American history to say no. And when they said no, other people started to speak up more and more often, too.

And so the GOP doubled down on gas lighting—insisting that what Americans saw with their own eyes wasn’t true—and on moving the goalposts, so that Americans couldn’t remember where the original lines of government were. The president stopped even pretending to care about boundaries or the people he was supposed to serve or even the law, and surrounded himself with friends who told him he was right and everyone else was wrong. He and his enablers kept acting outrageously so they could take control of everything, and people got more and more tired, because things came at them so fast they couldn’t breathe. For a while, it looked like the GOP would do what abusers often do: escalate their efforts for control until they ultimately murder their victim.

But finally, Americans are breaking out of the cycle. In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, new voices are calling out the GOP’s gas lighting, and they are refusing to back down, shut up, or agree to “alternative facts” to smooth things over. They are standing firm on reality. And, just like a victim who finally has to accept that the abuser has been lying all along, Americans are seeing that the GOP does not have their best interests at heart; it has been lying to them to benefit a few rich donors. And Americans are realizing that they are not isolated, or too stupid to know what is good for them, or powerless; they are strong.

With that recognition, Americans are reclaiming their grip on reality. The news of how President Trump and GOP leaders have lied and cheated is coming at breakneck speed and from all quarters. In the past few days, Jared Kushner and 30 others in the White House have lost their top secret clearances, news has broken that Kushner had taken hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from foreign countries while in the White House, communications director Hope Hicks had to resign after admitting that she lied for the president, the Washington Post broke a story that Melania Trump’s immigration papers were not in order, spending scandals have enveloped two more cabinet officers, the New York Times revealed that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have been handing information to Fox News. Witnesses who have testified before Special Counsel Robert Mueller have been showering the press with leaks. 

The sheer volume of news breaks is a story in itself: it shows that control of the narrative has slipped entirely from the GOPs hands, and that Americans are fact-checking the GOP’s narrative against reality.

When an abuse victim reclaims a grip on reality, dynamics change fast, and not in favor of the abuser. As a former slave turned Union soldier famously put it when he encountered his master being taken to prison after the Civil War: “Bottom rail on top, this time.”

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