Can the Republican Party rein in the conspiracies? Here’s what its history says

The Boston Globe
February 20, 2021

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell took the floor after Donald Trump was acquitted in his second impeachment trial and denounced the wild and unfounded claims of “a stolen election” spouted by the former president and the US Capitol rioters who scaled walls, shattered windows, and trashed congressional offices.

“This was an intensified crescendo of conspiracy theories orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch institutions on the way out,” McConnell said of the Jan. 6 attack.

McConnell, in the end, didn’t defy the consensus in his party, and was among the 43 Senate Republicans who ultimately refused to convict Trump of inciting the attack. But he is plainly disturbed and angered by the rising power of conspiracists in his party. And he is right to be. The GOP is increasingly a party of warring forces: the right versus the ever further right, Trump and his followers versus everyone else, sense versus something untethered from reality and democratic tradition. The battle is almost sure to be the other half of the American political story during the Biden years, and the collisions ahead could well dominate the road to 2024.

This widening ideological rift is the story of today’s GOP, but it is much older than that. For as long as there has been a Republican Party, it has had a conspiratorial strain. Often, it has flowed on currents of conservative populism, racism, fear of Black racial progress, and resentment over a dwindling white middle class, historians and political analysts said. Yet, history provides no real playbook for McConnell and other Republican leaders to stem the tide as they battle with rank-and-file members over the party’s direction...

“We shouldn’t make the mistake in believing that what we are seeing is completely aberrational or otherwise unprecedented,” said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. “The elements of conspiracism have been at play on parts of the left and the right for years.”

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