The upset victories of Donald Trump in a string of primaries and caucuses, not to mention swelling attendance at his numerous rallies and wall-to-wall television coverage, have brought him a level of national attention unlike anything he previously experienced in his 35-year odyssey from a marginal tabloid celebrity and reality-TV figure to his commanding perch as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
His eccentric agenda defies description in conventional political terms, but building on his stunning electoral success to date, Trump has gained a steady plurality of the vote throughout the primary season, dispatching one rival after another. He now hopes to retail his philosophy, such as it is, to disaffected Democrats, blue-collar workers, women, and minority groups.
Some Republican leaders, stunned by the primary results, question voters' awareness of Trump's character and qualifications, particularly his predilection for such discredited beliefs as that President Obama may be a Kenyan-born Muslim, that Mexico is deliberately sending criminals and rapists across the border, and that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz was involved in a conspiracy with Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.
"I do not believe he is a reliable Republican conservative nor has he displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief," said Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.), in sentiments echoed by former governors and Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
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One of America's two major political parties, battered by a string of national electoral defeats and fatally out-of-touch with its angry and disenchanted base, has been captured by an extremist political movement led by a wealthy, dangerously delusional egomaniac. It seems impossible, unthinkable, unprecedented. But is it?
It almost happened here before. In 1980, the Democratic Party was targeted for a hostile takeover by the political cult of Lyndon LaRouche, a mysterious but well-funded eccentric who seemingly materialized out of nowhere as a presidential candidate. When the votes were tallied, LaRouche was barely a footnote in that election, which blew out unpopular incumbent Jimmy Carter and ushered in the Reagan revolution. But LaRouche did not fade away. In fact, he'd been doing what Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not: pursuing a strategy not only to lay the groundwork for his own candidacy, but to build a movement that would advance his programs on a permanent, ongoing basis. His followers relentlessly solicited contributions year-round, mounted a public outreach campaign distributing sophisticated political literature in airports, post offices, shopping centers, and other public places; and ran LaRouche cult members for a variety of party committees and municipal and state offices across the county to promote his policy agenda, a bizarre amalgam of state capitalism, crash technology programs, opposition to environmentalism, and overtly Nazi-like racist, anti-Semitic, and viciously homophobic conspiracy themes.
LaRouche's lack of visible electoral success (before running as a Democrat, he had previously run in 1972 and 1976 on his own third-party ticket), his superficially incoherent ideology, and an aggressively litigious posture toward news organizations effectively discouraged critical media scrutiny of his activities. I was amazed at the utter lack of media attention to what was clearly an incipient fascist movement, and became one of a relatively small number of journalists pursuing the story. I produced an investigative radio documentary in 1981, which I expanded into a lengthy article co-written with one of the leading national experts on extremist movements. We spent several years vainly trying to interest mainstream media outlets. No one would touch it. Meanwhile, LaRouche and his organization, as in submarine warfare, ran silent and ran deep.
Everything changed on March 18, 1986, the day of the Illinois gubernatorial primary. The state's political establishment awoke the next day only to learn that a pair of previously unknown LaRouche candidates had defeated two establishment insiders to become the Democratic nominees for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson III--scion of a political family whose roots stretched back to the 19th century when his great-grandfather had served as Grover Cleveland's vice president--suddenly confronted a crisis: how could he top a party ticket in the fall where two of the top statewide candidates would be members of an extremist political cult?
The national news media were finally shocked into action. My phone ran off the hook with reporters clamoring to learn more about Lyndon LaRouche. The article that for five years we couldn't give away was snapped up within days and published in two parts by the leading Chicago alt-weekly. The LA Weekly, whose founding editor had earlier rejected the article for fear of a lawsuit, quickly reconsidered and ran a shorter version--with no repercussions.
Within two weeks, the New York Times weighed in with a front-page article, LaRouche Savors Fame That May Ruin Him. In fact--just to sharpen the contrast between demagogues then and now--my italicized lede here about Trump is a rewrite of that 1986 NYT lede about Lyndon LaRouche.
Sure enough, that October, barely seven months later, federal and state authorities swooped in on a coordinated raid of LaRouche's Virginia compound. The same day, a federal grand jury in Boston handed down a 117-count indictment alleging credit-card fraud, loan fraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The national media may have been napping, but not law enforcement, which had been quietly investigating LaRouche operations across the country since late 1984.
In Illinois, meanwhile, Stevenson had vowed "never LaRouche," refusing to head a Democratic ticket with his cult members. Instead, he ran on an ad hoc third-party slate with the blessing of the state Democratic Party. In November, barely a month after the LaRouche indictment, Stevenson was crushed by the incumbent Republican governor in a landslide defeat. Stevenson stuck to his principles and saved his party, but the debacle ended his own political career.
LaRouche was eventually convicted and sent to federal prison. He was paroled in 1994 after serving five years of his 15-year sentence. At the age of 93, he is still heading up what remains of his political organization.
That's how America's previous brush with an attempted proto-fascist party takeover concluded. We'll learn soon enough how this one turns out.