The Gathering Storm: Robert Draper on the Post-Reality GOP

NYT writer and former Austinite sees a dark future in his new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion

Photo by Louie Palu

Near the end of my recent conversation with respected New York Times Magazine journalist Robert Draper, I had to admit that his new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion, while a totally absorbing read, had left me quite frankly rather depressed. Sighing audibly in recognition, the former Austinite cut to the chase: "Our democracy and political system functions with the expectation that its two dominant political parties will be healthy and one of them isn't, plain and simple. But its not just unhealthy because it doesn't have money or good candidates, it's unhealthy because it really has promoted these crazed delusions and I don't know how we un-flush that from the system."

Indeed, for those of us residing in the fact-based world, the era of Donald Trump has been particularly maddening. To this very day the former president continues to spout his endless torrent of lies regarding the 2020 election, falsehoods that are taken as gospel by his enamored followers. It's at this rancid milieu that Draper aims his deeply probing and richly detailed examination of our current political predicament.

Cutting his journalistic teeth at such Austin publications as The Daily Texan, The Austin Chronicle, Third Coast, and Texas Monthly, Draper says his initial plan "was to do a book about 'whither the Republican Party after Trump's presidency.' It presupposed the party would be facing a schism between the MAGA types and the post-Trump types."

That was before the events of January 6, 2021, a harrowing firsthand experience for Draper. "I was simply dumbfounded, I couldn't believe my eyes," he explained. "It was a tableau that one might associate with some of the conflict zones I've visited for National Geographic like Somalia or Libya, not the U.S. I really thought that I was witnessing democracy tilt off its axis."

Post-Jan. 6, Draper's focus began to organically change as Republicans, despite having feared for their lives that day at the Capitol and initially renouncing the president, now confronted a new political reality: Their base demanding continued fealty to Trump's lies and the Stop the Steal mantra that had been unceasingly pedaled to them via the right-wing media ecosystem and certain elected officials.

In hindsight, and unbeknownst to most observers at the time, the real turning point came a month later on Feb. 3, when Republicans met to decide the fates of Rep. Liz Cheney, who led the charge to hold the president accountable for the insurrection, and newly installed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon conspiracy adherent.

According to Draper, "There were a few Republicans in the room who realized they were facing an interesting moment. 'If we applaud and support MTG with her outrageous social media history, and we kick to the curb an upstanding Republican like Liz Cheney for just voting her conscience, then this will be duly memorialized as a sad inflection point.'"

Draper continued, "When I was first formulating this book you wouldn't have expected me to say the most important female Republican in Washington went from Liz Cheney to MTG but that's basically what's occurred and those are astonishing, opposing trajectories that I don't think anyone would have predicted."

In following this unexpected flow of events, Draper largely weaves his narrative through the rise of the unabashedly controversial MTG of Georgia and former tea party member Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona. Both are far-right, election-denying antagonists who represent important, formerly red swing states that have veered sharply right despite unexpected losses to Democrats in 2020.

If you follow politics closely you'll no doubt be familiar with the broad strokes of what's happened since that fateful election. Draper's book does a splendid job of going beyond the headlines and behind closed doors to fill in the gaps and provide a particularly nuanced examination of our fraught political times. His one-on-one interviews with MTG are particularly noteworthy because, as Draper puts it, "she's a case study in Republican politics in the Trump era."

But at the end of the day, what haunts Draper most is not whether MTG or her colleagues believe "the big lie" but rather, he contends, "the fact that tens of millions of Republican voters believe it. They also believe adjacent lies pertaining to January 6, the COVID vaccine, what is or isn't happening on the border, and their elected officials have done little or nothing to disabuse them of those lies so they get perpetuated and they insinuate themselves that much deeper. This delusion en masse has a direct bearing on the health of our democratic institutions and will outlast the Marjorie Taylor Greenes."

Robert Draper will be appearing as part of “On Trump and an Evolving Republican Party,” C-SPAN 2 / Book TV Tent (Congress and 11th), Sunday, Nov. 6, noon.

Weapons of Mass Delusion: How the Republican Party Lost Its Mind by Robert Draper, Penguin Press, 400 pp., $29

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