Reviews for American Psychosis

by David Corn

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The veteran political journalist connects the authoritarianism and White supremacism of yore with the Trumpism of today. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, liberal Republicans tried to introduce a resolution to condemn the extremism of the John Birch Society and Ku Klux Klan and were shouted down by supporters of Barry Goldwater, who said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Corn’s vivid narrative starts there, but it goes back much further, to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothingism of the 1850s, where the author locates the beginnings of a recurrent theme: Just as Abraham Lincoln could not disavow the nationalists because he needed their vote, Richard Nixon had to ally with racist Southerners, and George W. Bush had to pal around with Christian fundamentalists to win the 2000 primary against a more principled John McCain. In turn, McCain turned to Sarah Palin to placate far-right, tea party supporters, a group that morphed into the Trumpists of today. It’s a zigzag line indeed, but Corn makes important connections. “Nixon attained the presidency by exploiting the paramount divisive force in American society—racism—and the sense of fear and dread spreading through much of the nation,” he writes, and substituting Trump for Nixon makes that sentence scan without a hitch. Much of the “psychosis” of recent years has hinged on a long pattern of lies. While the author makes clear that Trump is master of the form, he had plenty of predecessors, from Joseph McCarthy to Palin’s winking insinuations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, the latter yielding what Corn calls Palinism, “a combination of smear politics, conspiracism, and know-nothingism.” Since then, it’s only gotten worse. “Formed 168 years earlier to save the nation from the expansion of slavery,” writes the author, “the Republican Party, now infected with a political madness, [is] a threat to the republic.” A sobering look at the ideological destruction, born of cynicism and opportunism, of a once-principled party. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Corn (Russian Roulette), the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Mother Jones, documents in this colorful and persuasive treatise “the Republican Party’s decades-long relationship with extremism.” After sketching the party’s abolitionist origins, Corn details the rise of McCarthyism and President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision—out of fear it would cost him votes—to omit from a 1952 speech a paragraph defending Marshall Plan architect George C. Marshall from McCarthy’s attacks. Subsequent Republican presidents similarly sacrificed principle for political expediency, Corn argues, including Ronald Reagan, “an amiable vessel for a message of fear” who refused to repudiate the ultraconservative John Birch Society; George H.W. Bush, who “flirted with racism and nativism” during the 1988 presidential campaign; and his son George W. Bush, who responded to John McCain’s victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary by speaking at Bob Jones University, “the citadel of extremist fundamentalism,” in order to attract the evangelical Christian vote. Throughout, Corn draws incisive profiles of Stuart Spencer, Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, and other Republican operatives who “encouraged and cashed in on extremist paranoia, bigotry, and conspiracy theory,” and draws a clear through line from the rise of Barry Goldwater to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Though it covers familiar ground, this incisive political history persuades. (Sept.)