If I believed that the politicians who have hijacked the once Grand Old Party had any historical literacy, I would be tempted to believe that they had read about and decided to copy the tactics of the communist guerillas (AKA ‘partisans’) in Greece and Yugoslavia during World War II. At that time, the communists deliberately exploited the Germans to recruit volunteers into their bands. They knew that German Army doctrine called for mass retaliation on nearby civilians to prevent support for the guerrillas. The communists would regularly ambush and kill one or two German soldiers near a village unsympathetic to the communist cause. With Teutonic predictability, the Nazis would roll into the village in the next few days and select scores of innocent civilians, with a preference for the educated ones, and kill them. As soon as the Germans left, recruiters from the communist partisan organizations would appear. They would offer young men (and young women) who had just lost a parent or sibling the opportunity for revenge by joining their ranks.
In both countries, the communists prioritized fighting other non-communist resistance movements over fighting the Germans while preparing to take over after the Germans left. This tactic worked well because the non-communist groups in both countries had an aversion to militarily useless attacks on the Germans that resulted in the deaths of innocent thousands. Winston Churchill, in fact, wrote that the Greek communists “took our gold and money” and waited for the Germans to leave so they could seize power.
I used to regularly drive up the old road from Sparta to Corinth; virtually every village had erected a monument inscribed with the names of scores of villagers killed in reprisal by the German Army. Not a coincidence, this region, the districts of Arcadia and Laconia, have almost always voted monarchist and conservative.
I do not suggest that the American right-wing deliberately copied the Balkan communists; they probably never heard of them in the first place. However, evidence abounds that right-wing populists in America – like populists of every political color worldwide – have independently discovered that misery can be exploited for political gain. Historian Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas describes in painful detail a poor county in Kansas that consistently votes in favor of politicians whose policies actually increase the county’s crushing poverty. American populist politicians use the same formula as World War II communists. They recruit by offering “revenge against the people who did this to you;” in the Kansas case, the invisible and anonymous “liberal elites who hate America.” It worked with Greek villagers, and it works now with disaffected white Americans.
How else to explain the political appeal of gun laws that allow demented teenagers to legally obtain semi-automatic weapons originally designed for military use and massacre almost two dozen school children in Connecticut, Florida, and Texas? Look at Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, and Ron DeSantis. They don’t just defend the madness but use it as a political tool. Well-rehearsed lines leap from their lips moments after the attacks hit the news. Their subliminal message is simple; “It’s too bad but these children died as unavoidable collateral damage in a war to protect our freedom from the liberals who are coming to enslave you.” Ask yourself why is it that Republican-controlled state legislatures react to mass shootings by passing more legislation designed to loosen gun restrictions?
When avowed white supremacists drive hundreds of miles to slaughter Jews, blacks, and Hispanics in synagogues, supermarkets, and churches, the populist politicians dismiss them as “solitary cranks.” Is it not reasonable to assume that the politicians who espouse the “great replacement theory” – you know the one, the accusation that “liberals and democrats” are importing dark-skinned anti-Christian foreigners to replace the God-fearing native white population – secretly rejoice at these massacres? The subliminal message they deliver is that the murderers are sadly overwrought “victims” driven to excess by the “elitist” plan to extinguish white Christianity. How else to justify the actions of a 17-year old who drove 150 miles with an AR-15 to defend white people in another town against rioting blacks and then killed two people?
Creating misery for political gain goes beyond guns. How else to explain Florida Governor Ron DeSantis steely-eyed determination to obstruct healthcare measures that might have prevented thousands of Floridians from dying of COIVID as well as uncounted hundreds more who died because they could not get into hospitals that were swamped with COVID patients? DeSantis tells us he did it “to preserve freedoms.” Why else would the good governor (and wannabe Trump successor) launch a campaign to criminalize teaching or reading about the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and homosexuality in public schools? It enables him to argue that his enemies, you know the ones who hate America, are the ones who are taking away Floridians’ freedom. (DeSantis leaves out of his slogans that the ‘freedom’ he defends includes the right to die needlessly on a ventilator.)
Very skilled politicians can craft a message that will persuade people to blame others for their misery and vote for them. The southern racists, once known as Dixiecrats, who took over and killed my beloved Grand Old Party are political maestros. They honed their skills persuading poor white southerners that they had to defend themselves against blacks.