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The mainstreaming of the Republican fringe

Both parties have extremists, but only one party puts its radicals in charge.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2015 in Mobile, Ala. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2015 in Mobile, Ala. 
The Senate will have a Republican majority in the next Congress, but the GOP's edge will be smaller than it is now, shrinking from four seats to two. And in a 52-48 chamber, even small shifts -- a couple of members breaking ranks here and there -- can produce interesting results.When Donald Trump announced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would be his choice for attorney general, for example, there was some chatter about whether the right-wing Alabaman with an ugly racial history was a sure thing for confirmation. Those questions were effectively answered yesterday when Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ostensibly the last of the Senate GOP "moderates," threw her support behind Sessions' nomination. (West Virginia's Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, is also backing Sessions.)With the far-right nominee's confirmation effectively assured, I was reminded of this Washington Post piece from a few days ago.

President-elect Donald Trump announced Friday that he will nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to run the Justice Department. A few years ago, this would have a startling pick.Sessions has always been one of the most conservative senators in the GOP, a fringe figure perhaps best known for his hard-line views on immigration. Now, if confirmed as attorney general, he will become the nation's top law-enforcement officer.The mainstreaming of Sessions reflects just how much politics has changed of late.

It does, indeed. The Post piece added that Sessions, whose judicial nomination was rejected in 1986 because he was considered too racist, arrived in the Senate 20 years ago as one of the chamber's most extreme members, along with Republican colleagues like Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In recent years, however, Sessions has found himself "moving closer to the center of the GOP" -- not because of his own shifts, but because other Senate Republicans "are getting more extreme."What's striking about reports like this one is how easy it is to swap out Jeff Sessions' name with others' and make the identical observation.During his congressional career, Mike Pence, for example, earned a reputation as something of a fringe crackpot, with a voting record well to the right of House members such as Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, and even Louie Gohmert. And yet, now Pence has been mainstreamed -- and he'll be one heartbeat from the U.S. presidency early next year.Donald Trump was a fringe figure best known as the chief spokesperson for a racist conspiracy theory about President Obama. Stephen Bannon was a fringe figure best known as the publisher of an extremist website. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly touted a policy blueprint with wildly unpopular ideas far from the American mainstream.Each of these men will soon be helping run the country.Ordinarily, when I write about the radicalization of Republican politics, conservative readers reach out to remind me that Democrats have their own fringe. That's true, and there's no point in pretending otherwise. But I think the pushback misses the point: both parties have extremists, but only one party puts its radicals in charge.FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver published an analysis last year that explained, "The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now." Think about that: if you were following national politics in the early 1990s, you could've found plenty of members of Congress widely seen as very conservative -- but in 2016, those identical individuals would constitute the GOP's "moderate" wing.I'm reminded anew of the critically important 2012 thesis from Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who famously wrote that the contemporary GOP "has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.... When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."Thanks to this year's election results, these insurgent outliers are now positioned to run the federal government. When radicalism is rewarded, the result is increased radicalism.