Westneat: What happened to the Republican Party under Trump?

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, file photo, President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, after returning from Texas. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey broke his silence to defend his company's ban of Trump as the right decision, but warned that it could set a dangerous precedent. The ban, he said, revealed Twitter's "failure" to create an open and healthy space for what Dorsey calls the "global public conversation." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

What, in the world, just happened in the Republican Party?

"A lot of people in the party have been close to brainwashed, it seems to me," says a former Republican congressman, Rod Chandler. "I hardly recognize it anymore."

Last Monday, Chandler signed a letter along with 25 former GOP U.S. House and Senate members calling for President Donald Trump to be impeached in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.

I called Chandler because he's a lifelong Republican I got to know well when I was a reporter back in the 1990s. He was heavily involved in conservative politics from the Reagan era through George W. Bush, including serving 10 years in Congress.

I wanted to explore two things: How did it happen that so many in the GOP came to back a delusional gambit to overturn a not-that-close election? And would another impeachment help snap it back to reality - or make things worse?

The second part first: "You have to impeach," Chandler insisted. He feels Congress almost has no choice. Politics doesn't work, he said, without guardrails - another way of saying that politicians usually will keep doing whatever you let them get away with.

What's gone haywire with the GOP, though, is a trickier question.

"I think fear has a lot to do with it," Chandler told me. "Some of them are plain scared of Trump's supporters. I think some of them really have worked themselves into believing the election was stolen. I don't know. I think it's become more of a cult of personality than a political party."

My sense is that what led to that insurrection goes well beyond Trump. The reason the riot happened was not because Trumpers are uniquely angry or violent. It happened because countless Republican officials enthusiastically embraced and spread a self-serving fantasy about how the election was supposedly stolen, without a shred of evidence.

The irony is that after more than two months of searching, the only election fraud with evidence was committed by Trump himself. This is when he called the Georgia secretary of state and pressured him to "find" enough votes to make Trump the winner. Now that's what a steal looks like.

That so many plunged after Trump down this conspiracy rabbit hole suggests we have a ton of work to do to reclaim a common reality. The delusions are potent: When asked in a poll by YouGov who was at fault for the Capitol riot last week, 52% of Republicans blamed ... Joe Biden! Not Trump or Congress. Not the rioters themselves. It was somehow that old guy they had previously mocked as senile.

Some critics say this is an example of how social media has been weaponized to channelize the American mind, across overlapping topics.

"The disinformation networks that drove the spread of COVID-19 falsehoods are integrated with the networks spreading voter-fraud disinformation and feeding the grievance-based violence that we saw on Jan 6," says UW informatics professor Kate Starbird, who has been tracking how conspiracies echo around the back warrens of the web since the rise of Trump.

That is powerful, but still I am not a fan of the big tech censorship going on right now. I just don't think it'll work. People will always find a way to communicate.

I keep coming back to this: No matter what's ricocheting around social media, it probably wouldn't morph into a mob rampaging the Capitol if political leaders didn't first embrace it and amplify it. The president, and then much of his party, became a mass bullhorn for a conspiracy theory. They created and then legitimatized a radical fantasy - to overturn a free and fair election.

Then - boom.

Now just about every elected official denounces the rioters, which is fine. But it's self-serving for Republicans to condemn the conned while letting the lead con man and all his shills off the hook.

If Republicans are serious about this "healing" they suddenly are talking about, it's got to start with breaking the fever dream - with GOPers acknowledging the election wasn't stolen.

Heal thyself, in other words. It can't start, won't start, down in that rabbit hole.

The Seattle Times