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How the Republican Party came to embrace conspiracy theories and denialism

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. In his new book, "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party," my guest, Dana Milbank, writes about how we got to where we are today. Some members of Congress and some of this year's Republican primary winners are election deniers that subscribe to conspiracy theories. One of Trump's major lies backed by conspiracy theories is that the 2020 election was stolen. His attempts to declare himself the winner led to the insurrection. In May of 2021, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 23% of Republicans agree that, quote, "the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child-sex trafficking operation," unquote.

Milbank's book looks back over the past 25 years, tracing the roots of today's political lies and conspiracy theories. He begins in 1994 with Newt Gingrich, then a Republican congressman from Georgia, leading his party to a landslide victory in the midterms with Republicans taking over the House and the Senate. It was known as the Republican Revolution. During the early months of that revolution, Milbank came to Washington, D.C., to cover Congress for The Wall Street Journal, and then he covered Bill Clinton's presidency and his impeachment for The New Republic. That led to becoming the White House correspondent for The Washington Post and covering George W. Bush's presidency. Milbank has been a political columnist at The Post for the past 17 years. His years covering Washington provided what he describes as a front-row seat for the worst show on earth - the crackup of the Republican Party and the resulting crackup of American democracy.

Dana Milbank, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to get your reaction to some of the comments that have been made as of this morning from Republicans about the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that the Justice Department has, quote, "reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization." And he said, Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents, and clear your calendar - implying that he's going to be subpoenaed if Republicans take over the House. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said that the raid was akin to political persecution seen in, quote, "third-world, Marxist dictatorships." Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's seen as a rival to Trump in - possibly in the presidential primaries, said the raid of Mar-a-Lago is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime's political opponents while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves. Now, the regime is getting another 87 million IRS agents to wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic. Lauren Boebert, Republican congressman from Colorado, tweeted, you may not realize it yet, but they're coming for all of us.

DANA MILBANK: Yeah. It's really ominous, Terry. This is a dangerous time, and I am fearful for the country right now. It's even a step worse when you look at the pro-Trump social media channels. They're saying things like tomorrow is war. They will cry out in pain. When does the shooting start? And you have Fox News echoing these themes of police state and tyranny and regime and third-world authoritarianism. This has ominous reverberations from - as I've written in the book, going back a quarter century in this case. This is very similar to the rhetoric we heard leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 on conservative talk radio from members of Congress talking about the government coming to get them with tyranny, imposing a new world order, a revolution, black helicopters - very, very similar rhetoric.

It's also similar to the rhetoric we heard from the Tea Party in 2010 - you know, the famous don't retreat, reload from Sarah Palin that - talking about, you know, throwing bricks through the windows of Democratic lawmakers, again, talking about the tyranny and of what the government is trying to impose going after people, images of candidates shooting off guns, much as we're seeing now. So it doesn't take a whole lot where we are right now for things to get out of hand. We've seen rising violence from right-wing extremists. We really need our leaders - opinion leaders and lawmakers to step in and calm things down. But they're doing exactly the opposite, and they're pouring gasoline on the fire.

GROSS: You're referring to Republican leaders?

MILBANK: Yes. That's what they're doing right now. It's reckless rhetoric. It is turning people against the government, turning people against the FBI and the Justice Department. And it is only natural to expect that this is the kind of thing that will lead people to desperation and to take matters into their own hands.

GROSS: So you're fastening your seatbelt.

MILBANK: I am. Look, I mean, we've been in a dangerous period of time for some time now. But, you know, the people who really track the pro-Trump social media saying - are saying this is really the most ominous time since right before the Jan. 6th insurrection.

GROSS: So if you haven't been following the backstory, of course, you'd be upset that the former president's home was raided by the FBI. But the backstory includes that he had taken 15 boxes of documents home which he was not legally allowed to do. There were classified documents in there. They were confiscated in a previous raid. The assumption is that this raid was looking for more such documents that Trump mishandled, and that could possibly be a criminal offense.

MILBANK: Well, of course, you would be. And if you are watching Fox News and reading Breitbart News and you're stuck in a social media silo where you're only getting highly filtered views, you probably haven't heard a whole lot about Trump's abuses of classified information. It's really in the Justice Department and the Biden administration's interest to get out more information right now. It's in the public interest to know what's happened here.

You know, we generally operate on some presumption of good faith that the government doesn't do things willy-nilly. But there is no good faith among the Trump Republicans right now. And it's really - the onus is on Merrick Garland to get out and say why this was important, why this needed to be done. So they need to do their part to erase some of the mystery. Now, will that get through the filters at Fox News and Breitbart? Perhaps only to a limited extent. But it definitely is in the public interest to get more information out.

GROSS: Dana, let's get to your book, "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." And let's start where your book starts - in the mid-'90s when Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia became the House speaker and took the House in a more divisive direction than it had been. In fact, you describe him as having pioneered savage politics. What do you mean by that?

MILBANK: Well, when people first heard Newt Gingrich speak, you know, during the runup to the 1994 Republican Revolution, it was - in a way, he was replacing Bob Michel, who had been this genial World War II veteran, a leader of the House Republican minority for 14 years. He shepherded Ronald Reagan's agenda through the House, through Congress, with some success, but he was all about making deals, about compromise. And then, here came Newt, this bomb thrower, and he spoke with an entirely different language. And he - in fact, he recommended to his congressional peers, Republican peers and candidates, that they need to start talking about Democrats as traitors, as liars, as cheaters. So this was an entirely different way of talking about your opponent, your opponent as your enemy, as opposed to just being your opponent. It was a revolutionary, really, way of speaking in politics, certainly at the high level of politics. And after Republicans won in 1994, he became the speaker of the House and certainly never had a speaker of the House talking this way. And then suddenly this man was second in line to the presidency with a whole different language. And he actually said, the problem with Republicans is they haven't been nasty enough. That was Newt Gingrich's quote. And he said, we need to raise hell all the time. And that's exactly what he did. And today we are sort of living in that world that Newt Gingrich birthed in 1994.

GROSS: What are some of the political tactics that you think he pioneered that are still being used today?

MILBANK: Well, when we think back to - I mean, we look at our politics today, a series of government shutdowns, a series of showdowns over debt default, this whole notion of defeating the agenda to prove that your opponents have failed, there have always been, you know, obstruction and disagreement in politics. I don't want to pretend that there was a golden age when everybody got along. But before the 1994 revolution, there really weren't such things as shutdowns. Or if they'd happen, it would be over a technical issue. It would happen for a few days at a time. You know, Ronald Reagan said it's ludicrous to talk about jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the U.S. currency. So this was an entirely different thing.

So if you look at the legislative output, another measure, under Gingrich, it was more than halved. Even comparing it to the do-nothing Congress of Harry Truman's day, that was well more than twice as productive as it was then. Now, more recently, we've heard Mitch McConnell talk about, you know, the most important thing we do is make Barack Obama a one-term president, talking about building up a whole library of failures for Obama, one after the other, and those build upon it, and that's how you defeat him. This is very much what Gingrich pioneered, the idea that you just bring one failure after another and the voters will reward you, the opposition party, for that. It wasn't necessarily wrong.

GROSS: For anyone who's thinking, oh, but that was like 20 or 25 years ago, like, where is Newt Gingrich now and? The answer is he's still politically active. What's he up to now?

MILBANK: Yes. He always pops up. Well, of course, he had his 2012 presidential run, which didn't get him to the presidency, although arguably he's just as influential in our politics if he had been. And lo and behold, who is advising Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans in the 2022 midterms? That is one Newt Gingrich. So he is - he has come back in force. I'm not sure he ever really left. He was, you know, of course, his wife was the ambassador to the Vatican during the Trump years. And now Newt is on the board of a America First think tank that's close with the Trump Organization. So he has very much kept his hand in the game. And, you know, as I noted earlier, we're very much living in Newt Gingrich's world now, and the rest of the party has come around to his way of thinking.

GROSS: And on Fox News, Gingrich said that members of the January 6 committee - of the House January 6 committee are going to face a real risk of jail after Republicans take over Congress.

MILBANK: He did. And this was actually right after The Washington Post reported that he was advising Kevin McCarthy. So we can only imagine what kind of advice House Republicans are getting right now. But think about that, the idea that you would threaten people who are running a legitimate congressional investigation with arrest and jail. That doesn't happen in a democracy. So what I'm trying to talk about in the book is, how did we get to a point where you can make such a threat at such a high level and people even take the whole notion seriously? And that is because at various stages along the way, people were pulling at the threads of democracy and the rule of law. And a key one of those was Newt Gingrich.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Milbank. His new book is called "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." We'll be right back after a short break. This is fresh air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Dana Milbank. His new book is called "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." He's been covering Washington politics since 1995, first for The Wall Street Journal, then The New Republic, and subsequent to that, The Washington Post, where he was a White House correspondent and has been a political columnist for the past 17 years.

I think part of the point of your book is that - well, you out and out state this - that you think Trump is the symptom, he's not the cause, that these past 25 years have enabled him to become so powerful. And even if he leaves the stage, what created him is still there.

MILBANK: Yes, Terry, I think that's the most crucial thing to understand. Now, you know, you and I and many of your listeners witnessed many of the events that happened over the past quarter-century. But they begin to take on a different context when you look at them through the lens of Trump. So, for example, we think of, you know, Trump as pioneering this America-first politics, you know, just speaking of immigrants as murderers and rapists. But that was very much what Pat Buchanan was talking about in 1992 and 1996, when he was lamenting the treatment of European Americans and non-Jewish whites. He had a very serious primary campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency. You know, we have the threat of violent white supremacy today. But back in 1994, you had Gordon Liddy on his radio show telling people, if federal agents try to come to disarm them, go for a head shot, and kill the sons of bitches. This was at the year, of course - a year before the Oklahoma City bombing. You know, and, of course, we think of Donald Trump in this whole new era of alternative facts.

But, you know, two decades earlier, the Bush administration led this country to war on what was entirely a false premise. Now, you can say that the intelligence was flawed, and it was. But it definitely showed that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, that we would not be greeted as liberators, and that Iraq was nowhere near having a nuclear weapon. So - and we could talk about the dysfunction, the sort of brutal dehumanizing of opponents. All of these things have antecedents in the two decades - 25 years - leading up to Donald Trump.

GROSS: So you came to Washington, D.C., the year Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House. You didn't have history covering Washington before that. What you were witnessing, you now describe as unprecedented. How did you think of it at the time? Did you think, wow, this is something totally brand new? Who knows what this will lead to? Did you ever suspect it would lead to what you say it led to now because you connect Newt Gingrich directly with where we are now with an insurrection?

MILBANK: I'd like to be able to say that I could totally have seen this Donald Trump phenomenon coming, but I...

(LAUGHTER)

MILBANK: That would not be truthful, and if one thing we've learned from Trump, it's to be truthful. I didn't see the Republican primary voters supporting Trump even in 2016. I - in fact, I said I would eat an entire column if he got the nomination. And indeed, they filmed me eating an entire column. What I thought in 1995 was something is really wrong here. Now, of course, looking back, those were still, you know, at least marginally functional days. And I've had many conversations recently with people I used to cover in the Bush White House say, can you remind me what it was that everybody was fighting about back then? Because it seemed like everybody was really at each other's throats, and it was really vicious.

But in retrospect, we were - they were all fair debates about policy. And, you know, to use the football metaphor, the argument was between the 40-yard lines. You know, what are we going to do with taxes? What is the correct response to terrorism? So I don't think I or Republicans at the time saw exactly where this was going. We definitely knew that this was not the way things had been done in the past. We definitely knew that this was a new language. We definitely knew that there was a new bitterness. There was a new dysfunction. Government just wasn't getting things done. But what we didn't realize is it could get a whole lot worse.

GROSS: Concurrent with the rise of Newt Gingrich was the rise of Rush Limbaugh on conservative talk radio and then Fox News. I want to ask you a little bit about Alex Jones, one of the - perhaps the prime conspiracy theorist in the United States. He has to pay $45 million in punitive damages to the parents of one of the Sandy Hook victims. And there are other suits pending now in which he will likely have to pay damages as well. What impact do you think that might have on conspiracy theorists who have media platforms to amplify their conspiracy theories?

MILBANK: Well, I'd like to think that it would have some chilling effect on that. I'm not terribly optimistic. We did see the same sort of thing with Fox News and with Seth Rich. This notion that this Democratic staffer who was killed in a tragic at - what the police believe was a holdup gone bad became the same sort of conspiracy theory, that he was killed because he was hiding secrets for Hillary Clinton. The problem, as I see it, is that Alex Jones may well be finished by these awards against him and by the exposure of this. But in a way, Alex Jones has already won because, you know, when he started Infowars, he owned conspiracy theories. At this point, the Republican Party and Fox News and the entire right sort of own the conspiracy theory space. It has become mainstream.

When Donald Trump was running for president, he would often cite and quote Alex Jones. He was interviewed by Alex Jones. But Donald Trump, during his presidency, would go Alex Jones one step further. So you had wild, ludicrous conspiracy notions being offered from the bully pulpit, from the very highest level of government. So in a way, we're all living in this conspiracy universe right now. So even if this means the end of Alex Jones, it has already become - it has gotten such a foothold in our culture. I don't see anything that happens with Alex Jones changing the broader picture.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank. His new book is called "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." We'll be right back after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER AND CARMEN STAAF'S "MLW")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Dana Milbank, a political columnist for The Washington Post. His new book, "The Destructionist: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party," traces the history of today's political lies and conspiracy theories over the past 25 years, starting with the Republican revolution in 1994, when, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the Republicans swept the House and Senate, leading to Gingrich becoming Speaker of the House.

In tracing how conspiracy theories entered the mainstream of Republican Party politics, you go back to the Clinton era and Vince Foster's death by suicide. And that was surrounded by a whole conspiracy theory that the Clintons ordered his murder, because this was during the Bill Clinton presidency. Tell us who Vince Foster was and his connection to the Clintons.

MILBANK: Right. He was an old friend of the Clintons, I think went back to grade school with Bill Clinton from Arkansas. He got a job as deputy counsel in the White House, remained friendly with the Clintons. And it was - his suicide was tragic, but it was pretty cut and dried. He had been depressed, told people he was depressed, was losing weight, got names of psychiatrist, had just gotten a prescription for an antidepressant, wrote a suicide note. Five different investigations of various parts of the government, including Republicans in the Senate and the Republican head of a committee, had all concluded that this was a suicide. But you had Newt Gingrich, you had Brett Kavanaugh, the future Supreme Court justice working for Ken Starr at the time, and others who said, we're going to continue to investigate this, not accepting those findings. What they were doing is winking and nodding at this entire conspiracy industry that was really being born and going mainstream. This - Richard Mellon Scaife was funding it at the time. Many others joined in.

But the whole notion was that Vince Foster, who was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a park in Virginia right outside of Washington, had, in fact, been killed somewhere off-site, rolled up in carpet. And then somehow, people carried his body 800 feet up a hill, with nobody in the park noticing, and somehow holding him in just such a position that no blood would be lost. And then it went on from there. And Rush Limbaugh broadcast falsely that somebody had reported that he was killed in an apartment with ties to Hillary Clinton. So suddenly, you had Rush Limbaugh, with his millions of listeners, you had the speaker of the House, you had a committee chairman and you had Ken Starr all giving credence to this wacky conspiracy theory. And, in fact, when Donald Trump ran for president, he brought up Vince Foster all over again.

GROSS: Yeah. And Kenneth Starr was a special prosecutor who also led the impeachment investigation of Bill Clinton. And Vince Foster had been deputy White House counsel. And he had been attacked in that position by Republicans, which is one of the things that apparently left him very depressed, because he felt like he was unjustifiably attacked and that it was seen as sport in Washington. But he was a real person who was very sensitive to this, apparently. So Brett Kavanaugh was working with Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor. And he investigated the conspiracy theory that Foster was murdered. And part of this conspiracy was that the Clintons conspired to kill him, right?

MILBANK: Yes, indeed. And it went further than that. The whole notion is that there's this long Clinton hit list, that they're sort of serial killers. It's on websites to this day, all of the people who have mysteriously disappeared by the Clintons.

GROSS: Do you know how seriously Brett Kavanaugh took that conspiracy theory? I mean, he investigated it for a couple of years, right?

MILBANK: Right. Well, we know because when he became - when he was nominated for the Supreme Court, a lot of his papers were out. So that's how we know a lot of this happened in the first place. And he said he was satisfied internally. He said that he was satisfied that Vince Foster had killed himself yet kept the investigation open for a couple of years. And that allowed speculation to continue in the press. And I think that's important, you know? We think now about the big lie. You know, how can so many people believe something that's false? What I think they learned with Vince Foster was even if you sort of know that it's not true, you can just keep repeating it or saying, we need to investigate this or we're just asking questions. It leaves the episode open for a period of time.

And, you know, a couple of years later, I think it was only 30, 35% of people accepted the truth that Vince Foster died by suicide. So that became sort of a template that could be used on and on, you know, whether it was Sarah Palin with the death panels, whether it was the birther libel, that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States, whether it was the claim that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and so on. The idea was you - if you just kept repeating it or suggesting that it was a possibility, well, a large number of Americans would accept it, regardless of the facts. So Donald Trump certainly didn't innovate this. He was - may have been particularly prolific in expanding the number of conspiracy theories in the public domain, but he certainly didn't invent it.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. His new book is called "The Destructionist: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Dana Milbank, a political columnist for The Washington Post and author of the new book "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party."

Let's get to Karl Rove. He was a political strategist who helped George W. Bush become governor of Texas and then helped him win the presidency. He was sometimes referred to as Bush's brain. And what are some of the tactics you think he pioneered that you see being used today - or not only used today, but taken even further today?

MILBANK: Right. Well, Karl Rove was known as a dirty trickster going back to his days with the college Republicans during the Nixon days, dumpster diving, that sort of thing, very active in Texas politics for a number of years. And in one famous case, it appeared that he had bugged his own office and then blamed his opponent for it or the opponent of the candidate he was working for. But I think when he came to the White House with Bush, that really the sort of signature achievement of Karl Rove was that they sat down after the election. It was, you know, the closest election there had been to that point. And people were thinking, well, Bush has to govern from the middle. Their innovation was that, in fact, that they were going to turn that on its head. There really is no such thing as the persuadable voter in the middle. And the key to politics is bringing out your side to the maximum extent possible. So if you maximize turnout of your base Republican voters, you win in elections. So we had this coming together of the nation after 9/11, great - huge levels of support for George W. Bush, bipartisan hugging going on on the floor of the House between Bush and Democratic leaders.

Karl Rove and the rest of his political team said, we have an opportunity here to politicize the war, basically to run on the war. And they made a decision to politicize that war. And it worked to their advantage in those midterm elections. But you had Bush out there campaigning every day for candidates around the country, saying Democrats don't care about the security of the American people. You had ads, a famous ad attacking Max Cleland, who was a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, linking him to Saddam Hussein and to Osama bin Laden. You saw it later in the swiftboating of John Kerry, basically turning his wartime heroism into cowardice and betraying the people that he served with. So you are now questioning the patriotism of your opponents. And everything you were doing was to drive turnout among your base.

GROSS: Yeah. So one of Karl Rove's tactics was political jujitsu. You take somebody's strength and turn it against them, make it their weakness, like saying that you think John Kerry was a Vietnam War hero? No. He lied about his medals. He lied about his Purple Heart. You think Max Cleland is a patriot because he fought in war and lost limbs? No. He's - we're going to link him with - we're going to show pictures of bin Laden in his ads and link him to terrorism. Do you think that that's a tactic still being used, turning an opponent's strength into a weakness by lying about what they did?

MILBANK: It absolutely is and particularly in this area of patriotism and of questioning. So you're not just saying that your opponent - I disagree with him. You're saying he is disloyal to the United States. And, of course, you know, Trump was famous for calling people who opposed him traitors. And Democrats, of course, were traitors. But the media was the enemy of the American people. And even Republicans who went against him were traitors. You know, there was a notion before that - of course, there was the McCarthy era. And I'm not suggesting that we ever held ourselves as a country to the notion that, you know, politics stopped at the water's edge. But there was a notion that you did not question the patriotism of the other side, that you accepted that they wanted the best thing for the country.

So that was, I think, the great innovation of Karl Rove, as well as this notion that you just need to bring out your own people to the polls. And that became we're going to govern with Republicans only. The Senate was split 50-50 then, just as it is today. And to everybody's surprise, they were able to push through Bush's tax cuts - famously causing a liberal Republican from Vermont, Jim Jeffords, to bolt the party. But the idea was you didn't need bipartisan cooperation. The other side was the enemy. The other side was disloyal. We just need to circle the wagons and get all Republicans on board, and then our base Republican voters are going to turn out for us.

GROSS: And I want to ask you about a kind of staged uprising during the Florida recount of the 2000 contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. And I'm referring to the Brooks Brothers riot. Would you describe what that was and how it was staged?

MILBANK: Sure. This was down in Miami-Dade, outside the elections board. And they were going to have a recount after that famously close election. So you had a lot of operatives, Republican operatives, flown in from around the country by Karl Rove's political operation in large part. They were summoned and organized. Among the people doing it was Roger Stone of future Trump fame. And they basically created this mob outside of the elections office. They were chanting, stop the fraud, stop the count, cheaters. Democratic officials were kicked and pushed and punched. There was support for this on conservative talk radio. And ultimately, they succeeded. They - the Miami-Dade Elections Board backed down, and they said they would cut off the recount.

So, you know, looking at it itself, you know, it's kind of jokingly called the Brooks Brothers riot because of all these, you know, young, white, well-dressed Republican men flown in to pretend they're rioting. But, you know, when we look at this in retrospect, it was not an isolated event. You know, we had John Ashcroft, who became attorney general after Bush won, you know, after the 5-4 Supreme Court decision saying dead people had voted, votes had been bought, voters intimidated, ballot boxes stuffed. You know, the Donald Trump fraud claims of 2016 and 2020 can go - be traced right back there to George W. Bush in the year 2000.

GROSS: What is Karl Rove doing today?

MILBANK: Well, he's - I - should I call him a colleague? He's writing a column for The Wall Street Journal editorial page. And he's running a dark money outfit that supports Republican candidates.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the Benghazi hearings, which went on - was it two years? Like, how long did that go on?

MILBANK: Gosh, it seems like a decade, Terry, but...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But in reality...

MILBANK: Yeah, I think it was more - I think what - if you look from the very beginning to the very end, it was about four years. It basically bled into...

GROSS: Oh.

MILBANK: It happened on the eve of the 2012 campaign, and it bled right into 2016. And it became - it morphed into Hillary Clinton's email scandal because it was the Benghazi investigation that uncovered the existence of this private server. So in a way, Benghazi carried right on into the 2016 election.

GROSS: Give us - to refresh our memories, give us the shortest version you possibly can of what the Benghazi investigation was about.

MILBANK: Well, the Benghazi case, like Vince Foster and all these other things, it was a tragic instance where the American compound in Benghazi was attacked, and our ambassador to Libya was killed. And there were various fair things you could say about it. Did the State Department, which was then run by Hillary Clinton, do enough to prepare for the possibility of attack? Did they do enough after the attack to try to rescue the people who were in jeopardy there? But instead, this became this multiyear investigation suggesting that it was an active disinformation campaign and that Hillary Clinton actually prevented the embassy from being fortified - or the compound from being fortified in the first place and that she gave a, quote-unquote, stand-down order. The military was going to intervene and rescue people, but for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton ordered them not to.

So needless to say, this was nonsense. She was in no position to order the military to do anything as secretary of state. And investigation after investigation found out the same thing. They said - they found her name. She signed a State Department cable denying security to the compound in Benghazi. Then they found out, whoops, the secretary of state's signature is on every one of the tens of thousands of cables that goes out from Foggy Bottom and that had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. So each time an investigation would basically come up empty, a new one would be started. And then, eventually, you had Trey Gowdy and the Benghazi Select Committee, which spent another - I think it was $10 million and a couple of years reinvestigating it and coming to, essentially, in the end, the same conclusions which only infuriated the conspiracy theorists once more. And they are still out there.

GROSS: So after the House select committee issued an 800-page report, which found no wrongdoing on Hillary Clinton's part, Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo, both Republican congressmen at the time, dissented. Jim Jordan is still in Congress. If the Republicans win the House, he would become the head of the House Judiciary Committee. Mike Pompeo went on to become Trump's CIA director and then secretary of state. Anything you want to say about that?

MILBANK: Look, I think it shows where the incentive system is, where the rewards are - those who are the most outspoken. I mean, this is the Gingrich lesson. Those who are the most harsh, the most strident, get the greatest rewards.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank. He's the author of the new book "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Dana Milbank, a political columnist for The Washington Post. And he's covered Washington politics for the past 25 years. His new book is called "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party."

It was a week ago that Arizona held its primaries. And several of the people who won the primaries are election deniers. I want you to talk about some of the people who won who you see as being the most extreme.

MILBANK: Sure. I mean, right now in Arizona, you look at their candidate for the United States Senate. You look at their candidate for governor, for attorney general and for secretary of state - are all adherents of the big lie. And the key there is that there really is no Republican establishment in Arizona pushing back. This - it has become the establishment. But let's just take, for example, the nominee to be secretary of state. Yes, he is an election denier, but he is actually a member of the Oath Keepers. This is the group that was involved in the Jan. 6th insurrection and is - the leaders of which are facing sedition trial right now. He's a member of that group. He spoke at a QAnon convention, is an unapologetic member of the - of QAnon and voicing its conspiracy theories. And he is the Republican nominee to be the top election official in Arizona. And among other things, he has said he wants to get rid of voting machines because he believes they are secretly manipulated, presumably by the deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, into switching votes.

Can you imagine a hugely popular state like Arizona suddenly getting rid of voting machines and the absolute chaos that that would bring? But this is whom Republicans have chosen to be their nominee. So - and it's happening in states across the country. There are election deniers have won, I think, half a dozen gubernatorial nominations, a similar number of attorney general nominations and secretary of state nominations.

GROSS: Do you think that Trump will run again?

MILBANK: I am certain that he wants to. And the only thing that I believe that would stop him is ill health. So, I mean, that is - it has always been the case that he wants to and he wants to vindicate himself. It's another matter whether Republicans want him to. I think we're always wondering whether he's in or he's out. I think the more important question is Trumpism is in and there is no threat to that within the Republican Party, so if it's not Donald Trump, it's Ron DeSantis or somebody else who has modeled himself after Trump. So in a sense, either way, Donald Trump wins.

GROSS: So one more question for you. In a few years, the U.S. will no longer be a white majority country. And that demographic change is likely to affect politics. What do you think the effect will be?

MILBANK: Well, I think that demographic change is already affecting our politics. It's a backlash against the rising multicultural America that is bringing out white evangelical Christians to vote in extraordinary numbers, non-college educated white voters. You know, that is very much the backlash that drove Donald Trump to power. In the long run, this will be resolved. We will be a multicultural country. You can only defy gravity for so long. So in the long run, I am optimistic that we will overcome the current strife that we are dealing with. The problem is it's a long time between now and then. And unfortunately Republicans, in order to hold on to power, are basically destroying the fundamentals of democracy of one man, one vote to sustain power over the near term.

GROSS: Are you concerned that by the time we're no longer a white majority country, that democracy will be sufficiently destroyed, that the multicultural nature of our country won't register at the polls?

MILBANK: Well, I'm very concerned about that. And that's why I've written this book. You know, in the very long run, it becomes undeniable that this will be a multicultural America. But if we are not - if we reach that point and we are no longer a democracy and we've turned ourselves into a North American version of Hungary, where there is no longer a free press, well, we have to just keep fighting so that we don't reach such an eventuality. And that's what I'm going to do.

GROSS: Dana Milbank, thank you so much for talking with us.

MILBANK: Thank you so much, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Washington Post. His new book is called "The Destructionists."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be veteran cold case investigator Paul Holes. He played a key role in tracking down the Golden State Killer. His new memoir is about pursuing killers and the emotional toll of obsessing over gruesome crime scenes and talking to victims of horrific crimes. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.