On May 21, 1946, less than a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, physicist Louis Slotin performed a dangerous experiment his colleagues at Los Alamos called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” He took two half-spheres of beryllium, each containing a plutonium core, and brought them together as close to critical mass as he could without triggering a nuclear chain reaction.
Slotin had done this before, keeping the two half-spheres apart with the blade of a screwdriver. But this time, the screwdriver slipped, the half-spheres made contact and there was a bright blue flash and a burst of heat. Slotin quickly separated the pieces but had absorbed a frightening amount of radiation.
“Well, that does it,” he said. Nine days later, Louis Slotin was dead at 35.
We tell this sad story as a cautionary tale – although probably one told much too late -- to which the Republican Party nonetheless should pay heed. After years of tickling the dragon’s tail, flirting with the demagoguery of America’s right wing and egging on a growing rage within a core constituency of disaffected, working class white Americans, the dragon has started to breathe fire, and the flames have spread in all directions. The result is the maddening success of raving nativist Donald Trump and to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz.
Establishment Republicans are shocked, shocked that such a thing is possible. Late last week, Washington Post columnist and former Dubya speechwriter Michael Gerson fell into the prose version of a dead faint. He wrote that, “Trump’s nomination would not be the temporary victory of one of the GOP’s ideological factions. It would involve the replacement of the humane ideal at the center of the party and its history. If Trump were the nominee, the GOP would cease to be.”
Humane ideal? Gerson seems to fantasize a Republican Party that hasn’t existed since Wendell Willkie ran against FDR in 1940. This was followed by an article in The New York Times headlined, “For Republicans, Mounting Fears of Lasting Split.” Patrick Healey and Jonathan Martin reported, “Rank-and-file conservatives, after decades of deferring to party elites, are trying to stage what is effectively a people’s coup by selecting a standard-bearer who is not the preferred candidate of wealthy donors and elected officials.”
They quoted Leo Martin, a 62-year-old New Hampshire machinist: “The Republican Party has never done anything for the working man like me, even though we’ve voted Republican for years. This election is the first in my life where we can change what it means to be a Republican.”
In the GOP’s rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley tried to throw a cross block. “During anxious times,” she said, “it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation… Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”
Too little, too late (especially given the virulently racist response by some in social media to the Indian-American Haley’s speech, including, surprise, Breitbart and Ann Coulter). Yet in his Post column, Gerson writes, “Liberals who claim that Trumpism is the natural outgrowth, or logical conclusion, of conservatism or Republicanism are simply wrong.” But it’s Gerson and his chums who are in denial, refusing to see that their party has been sowing dragon’s teeth for decades.
Start with 1964 and Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” (not to mention his opposition to the Civil Rights Act). Then careen through Richard Nixon’s embrace of “the silent majority” and his 1968 dog whistle campaign slogan, “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” Pause as Ronald Reagan opens his 1980 general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just miles from the earthen dam where the bodies of civil rights organizers Goodman, Schwerner. and Chaney were found. Here’s George H.W. Bush and Willie Horton; and the Karl Rove-orchestrated whispering campaign on behalf of Dubya against John McCain in 2000, implying that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.
All of this and so much more have created the current Republican pickle. Add fear mongering that tramples reason and truth, the thoughtless pursuit of profit at the expense of factories and jobs, the slavish devotion to the hands that feed the party its campaign cash. Then stir in the desecration of checks and balances and the chronic dysfunction of government decried by those most responsible for it, in the manner of the fireman turned arsonist who strikes the match, then wrings his hands at the charred ruins he created.
This is not to say that Republicans invented inertia, corruption and dirty, race-baiting tricks, but you get the picture. GOP, you’ve really done it this time -- tickled the tail once too often and now you’re paying the price, as are the rest of us. At risk is not just electoral defeat but the collapse of an already frail democracy. Here be dragons.