Three decades ago, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North took the Fifth Amendment in a private Senate hearing on the Iran-Contra scandal. North had carried out a scheme to violate the law and funnel arms to anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Conservatives rallied to North’s defense, insisting the law barely mattered in comparison to the noble intentions North was following. “It is not whether some technical laws were broken, but whether we stop communism in Central America,” argued White House communications director Pat Buchanan. By the following summer, when North — having been granted immunity — testified before Congress and unabashedly defended his illegal acts — he had grown into a conservative folk hero. The frenzy on the right he attracted propelled a career as a right-wing celebrity, politician, and now, the next president of the National Rifle Association.
The North saga prefigured many things, large and small, about conservative politics in the present moment. It reveals the naïveté of the common belief that President Trump would never dare to take the Fifth Amendment in the Russia investigation, or that doing so would carry an unbearable political price. Of course Trump’s base would tolerate, or even celebrate, his refusal to testify. Conservatives rallied to North’s defense because he was on their side, next to which the breaking of “technical laws” was a trifling concern. Trump can count on the same reflexive defense. It hardly even matters at this point that the heroic lawbreaker is now being persecuted for the allegedly higher cause of working with, rather than against, the Russians.
North was the 1980s version of a long line of right-wing populist heroes. Father Charles Coughlin, Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Oliver North, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump all filled a similar niche in the political culture. A plain-speaking demagogue electrified the right-wing faithful by forcefully defending their values and lashing out at their enemies.
That the demagogue runs afoul of the establishment, usually including the leadership of the Republican party, forms a key element of his or her appeal. North eventually became so erratic and dangerous that Republican leaders denounced him. By the time North ran for Senate in Virginia in 1994, Ronald Reagan himself attacked his former aide. When North won the nomination anyway, his critics launched an independent Republican candidacy of the sort Never Trumpers attempted to organize in 2016, and which won the endorsement of Republican John Warner, the state’s other senator.
As the Republican party has moved inexorably right over the decades, the restraining power of its mainstream wing has withered. John Warner, who fought a series of proxy struggles with North for control of the Republican party in Virginia, has become so marginalized within his party that he can now be seen endorsing Democrats like Mark Warner (no relation) and Hillary Clinton.
North-like candidates now pop up everywhere. Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter, lied about it, and was quickly rewarded by his state’s voters with another term in Congress. Roy Moore violated repeated court orders, sexually assaulted a series of young girls, and won his party’s nomination anyway, and came close to winning a Senate seat. Mining baron Don Blankenship, released from prison for ignoring mine safety laws and allowing 29 of his employees to die, is following the same model in West Virginia. For all these candidates, violating the law and attracting the opprobrium of the liberal elites or feckless party leaders proves their merit. The disqualification is the qualification.
We have come to think of Donald Trump’s nomination as a cosmic fluke, the Brownian-motion result of a massive field of candidates knocking each other out of the way like billiard balls, leaving Trump standing alone. Chance certainly played a role in his election. Yet another way to think of his election is that the party’s climate has grown increasingly hospitable to the demagogues who come along regularly to enthrall the right. The Norths, Palins, and McCarthys have gotten progressively harder to oppose. It was simply a matter of time until one of them actually attained the presidency.