By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
There are many things Donald Trump’s presidency will be remembered for, but the one that may be the most haunting is turning political discourse into a war zone.
The culmination of this effort was the seditious riots in the nation’s Capitol Building by a Trump-inspired mob in an attempt to stop elected leaders from confirming Joe Biden’s election as president.
No other politician in recent memory demonized and demeaned those who disagreed with him like Trump. It was not enough to win the argument, he had to destroy the person and his or her reputation.
Politics is hardball, but it doesn’t have to be nuclear war and that is what it has become. The political mine fields are now filled with nuclear bombs.
This toxic political landscape began forming some time ago but came more in focus with the election of Bill Clinton as president.
His presidency created a cottage industry that attempted to “bring him down” with the continual lawsuits and investigations so common today.
Coupled with the scorched earth approach was a change in the GOP’s mindset after many years in the political wilderness when Republicans finally controlled one or both Houses of Congress.
Newt Gingrich is often credited with being the first U.S. House Speaker who was far more interested in power than governing. Washington’s politics and New Hampshire’s as well have been moving in that direction since those heady days when Gingrich was every bit as much a rock star as Trump was until last week and still is among his most ardent followers.
Gingrich’s Contract with America brought GOP control to the U.S. House for the first time in a generation and a road block to Clinton’s agenda with several exceptions like welfare reform and the 1994 crime bill.
A few years later, the Tea Party Movement changed the political environment from what once were civil conversations into confrontations to the point Democratic Congress members had Capitol police accompany them when they held events in their home states.
One event then-1st District U.S. Rep. Carol Shea Porter held in Manchester had to be moved to the federal building which had a metal detector because of threats.
Several people had to be removed from that meeting because of their disruptive behavior.
The line is long leading to this week when most Americans believe a line was crossed and our democracy threatened.
For four years, alternative facts have been the norm and truth has lost its meaning.
Along with Washington, the atmosphere in Concord has also grown less civil and much more confrontational.
In contrast, in the late 1980s and again in 2008, the state and the country faced daunting economic challenges, maybe not as significant as the problems the pandemic created, but close.
In the late ‘80s into the early ‘90s, New Hampshire’s five largest banks failed after a major economic boom evaporated quickly with banks holding billions of debt that would never be repaid.
At the same time, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission closed Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth and Newington, robbing the Seacoast economy of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Large sections of Elm Street in Manchester were owned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as were housing developments on the Seacoast, while commercial and industrial buildings were empty as the computer industry contracted and moved south, west and overseas.
During that time, Democrats did not blame Republicans for the economic fiasco and Republicans did not blame Democrats.
They joined together in New Hampshire and produced an economic development program, some of which remains in place today, like the Business Finance Authority.
Twenty years later when unregulated financial wheeling and dealing produced more bad debt, nearly taking down the world’s economy, things were not quite so smooth as some Democrats viewed the situation as Republican regulatory neglect, but members of both parties agreed to a major bailout and stimulus package to repair the economic damage and President Barack Obama left Trump a healthy and growing economy.
However, since that time, the deterioration of political discourse has accelerated.
Not only is there a president who wants to destroy his enemies, outside organizations and individuals with tremendous amounts of “dark money” are also changing the political playing field.
The money comes from organizations not required to report their contributors and it flows into the political arena on both sides and fuels discord’s fires.
The money poured into New Hampshire in the last election, with more than a million dollars spent on state House and Senate races, much of it negative mailers and ads.
Whatever money gubernatorial candidates raise for their races, the money flowing from the Republican Governors’ Association or Democratic Governors Association far outweighs the candidates’ resources.
Both groups are 527 organizations, which do file their contributions and expenditures reports with the Internal Revenue Service as well as who donates, but there is no limit on how much a person can contribute nor on who may contribute.
They do not have spending limits.
Consequently, every gubernatorial race since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has been more expensive than the previous one, all setting records.
Similar organizations exist for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
The outside money has no conscience because most of what is done is decided in war rooms in Washington or some other center with little, probably no concern for the consequences of those mailers or ads at the local level.
The result of this negativity and money is apparent today in New Hampshire from guns in the State House to right-to-work to mask ordinances.
It is not enough to disagree. The attitude is to win the argument through intimidation or “combat justice” as Rudy Giuliani said at the event Wednesday in Washington.
Another term for “combat justice” would be “might is right.”
The polarization is obvious as demonstrations began last Spring opposing the lock-down imposed by Gov. Chris Sununu to prevent the pandemic from exploding like it is now in New Hampshire.
People in combat gear and assault rifles attended those protests and passed out information about the Boogaloo Boys, an extremist group seeking a new civil war. They were not there to argue philosophical points, they were there to intimidate.
They made more appearances at the Black Lives Matter rallies around the state.
And after Sununu imposed a mask mandate, the last governor in New England to do so, protesters began picketing his home in Newfields, something that has always been taboo.
The situation escalated after the Newfields selectmen, including his brother Michael, approved an ordinance prohibiting picketing in residential neighborhoods.
Sununu said the threats became more and more aggressive toward him and his family after an armed protester was arrested outside his home.
A major demonstration was planned to disrupt Sununu’s inauguration ceremony in front of the State House on Thursday, and the governor cancelled the event and instead held a private swearing-in ceremony and gave his speech to a television camera that evening.
That is one aspect of the highly charged political atmosphere not only in Washington but also in New Hampshire.
There were other examples during the House session the day before in a parking lot in Durham.
It is easy to talk about the partisan divide, but it is not that simple. A country that prided itself for more than 200 years on the free discourse of ideas, that has been the most successful experiment in self-governance, is in danger of tipping to “might is right,” and that is truly frightening.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.