Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 18

The Grand Old Party helped put Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1861 — and Donald Trump in 2017. In the intervening century and a half, the vision the party espoused shifted radically. While Republicans in the 1860s stood up against slavery, in the 1960s they tapped an ultra-conservative presidential nominee who was opposed to civil rights and defended “extremism” as a virtue. Our expert guests on this episode say that moment marked a pivot in the GOP’s trajectory, and was a precursor to the illiberal politics of Donald Trump. What will it take for the Republican Party to repair itself and rebuild a broad coalition of voters?

Illustration via

When we launched this podcast a year ago, we made it clear we weren’t going to produce a show about “Democrats” in danger. But in the United States, one political party has come to epitomize the antidemocratic moment: Republicans remain devoted to a corrupt leader, intent on suppressing the vote and hostile to racial justice. With this episode, we wrap up Season Two and take a hard look at the GOP. Joining us: historian Nicole Hemmer, political analyst Larry Sabato and Barbara Comstock — a Republican and former member of the U.S. House who has dared to call out President Trump.

A few well-known figures in the Republican Party — such as former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Liz Cheney — share Comstock’s distaste for the cult of Trump. But Hemmer and Sabato are less than sanguine about the party’s future. Hemmer suggests that embracing Trump has become all but a precondition for Republicans seeking office. Even moderate GOP candidates, Sabato says, must pay lip-service to Trump’s “big lie” of election fraud in 2020 and support voting laws that amount to the disenfranchisement of minorities. Comstock, however, remains hopeful, not only that like-minded Republicans can save the party but also that they might work with Democrats to get traction on core issues that a wide swath of the American electorate care about.

About our guests

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Obama Presidency Oral History Project, and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). She’s also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, where she co-founded and co-edits “Made by History.” Hemmer has worked on her own various podcasts — including Past Present, This Day in Esoteric Political History, Welcome to Your Fantasy and the six-part series A12: The Story of Charlottesville. Follow Hemmer on Twitter @pastpunditry.

Larry Sabato, University Professor of Politics, founded and directs UVA’s Center for Politics as well as its Crystal Ball website. He is a nationally recognized leader in political analysis and election prediction. Sabato is the author of A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised (Bloomsbury, 2010) and the New York Times bestseller The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury, 2013). Follow Sabato on Twitter @LarrySabato, and the Center For Politics @Center4Politics.

Barbara Comstock represented Virginia’s 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019. Earlier she was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, worked on Mitt Romney’s and George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and was director of public affairs for the U.S. Justice Department. Since leaving office, Comstock served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics; led the Barbra Comstock Program for Women in Leadership at George Mason University; and was a contributor on ABC News. She now works as a senior adviser for the lobbying firm Baker Donelson. Follow Comstock on Twitter @BarbraComstock.

This episode first aired on June 15, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guests

Hemmer’s Messengers of the Right follows three “media activists” who shaped America’s conservative movement in the 20th century.

Last month she spoke with Ezra Klein of the New York Times about the “shrinking tent” of the Republican Party and the role the right-wing media has played in narrowing the party’s base and vision.

Hemmer recently warned about the potential for democratic collapse in the United States and the continued appeal of conspiracy theories on the American right in the post-Trump era.

A year ago, Hemmer joined us as our very first guest, for the debut episode “Illiberal Media.”

In The Kennedy Half-Century, Sabato assesses JFK’s lasting impact on the U.S. political landscape. He has also co-edited books about the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections.

Keep up with Sabato’s analysis in real-time: subscribe to the Crystal Ball newsletter.

Comstock has not pulled any punches in her criticism of Donald Trump or been shy about decrying her Republican colleagues’ fear of the former president.

She has also pushed them to support legislation that would fund a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6.

From around the web

Writing for the Washington Post, columnist Dan Balz argues that the Senate’s failure to act on a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 riot confirms Trump’s hold on the GOP leadership — and the stress weighing on the core institutions of self-government in the United States.

William Saletan of Slate is worried not only that Republicans don’t support a congressional investigation; he says a surprising number of Americans in general aren’t interested either.

Listen to “Insurrection,” our special episode published in the wake of that attack on Congress.

One hundred leading scholars, including Sabato, signed a joint letter on June 1 saying the efforts underway in many states to infringe on voter rights constitute a serious threat to American democracy.

Meanwhile, on the left, progressive activists are hoping their ideals can save American democracy and usher in an era of inclusive politics. Anti-Trump conservatives such as Paul Ryan are looking to Reaganism as their guide for the future.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.