Four months ago, as the general public was getting its first taste of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, we beheld a rare congruence where the most liberal and least liberal New York Times columnists offered essentially the same impression, during the same 24-hour news cycle:

“To be a serious presidential contender, after all, you have to be a fairly smart guy,” wrote the liberal economist Paul Krugman, “and nobody has accused either Mr. Romney or Mr. Giuliani of being stupid. To appeal to the GOP base, however, you have to say some very stupid things, like Mr. Romney’s declaration that we should ‘double Guantanamo … .’”

The next morning, at the bottom of the same op-ed page, after boasting that Romney graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School, the conservative David Brooks asked us, “Why do the Democratic candidates pretend to be smarter than they really are, while the Republicans pretend to be dumber?”

To answer Brooks as if he didn’t know is condescending, so we assume his question is rhetorical. But “the media” have become a bubble where the people inside don’t always grasp what is obvious to everyone outside. What Brooks probably knows, he will never writethat Democrats pretend to be as smart as they can because they think many of their target voters are intelligent and discriminating, while Republicans pretend to be as dumb as they can because they think most of their base is even dumber. (The smart ones, they think, understand that the candidates are just whoring themselves to snare the slack-jaws.) This humorously sorry state of the party, the wages of four decades of cynical success, was pulled into focus by a Times headline from the Republican primary camps in New Hampshire: “Candidates Spar Over Who Is a Real Republican.”

They can spar until Jesse Helms endorses Barack Obama, but the Real Republican will never emerge from this pack or any other. In its pursuit of power, the Republican Party has dismembered and reassembled itself so that a thousand livid sutures are showing. It’s not a party but a Frankenstein monster, patched together from dead and discontinued materials, organ transplants that may yet be rejected, rough pieces that look familiar but never match. Since the party’s symbol is the elephant, the parable of the blind men and the elephant is relevant: Touch the thing here and it’s a briefcase, over there a cross, down there a bomb, a gasoline pump, a pistol, a golf club, a fetusa noose? Republicans are no longer a party but a loose coalition of Americans who hate thingsdifferent thingspraying that fear and aversion can win them another four years of power and excess. Ed Rollins, the old Ronald Reagan operative now working for Mike Huckabee, recently acknowledged the party’s unnatural composition and the fact that hasty old stitch work is coming undone. “It’s gone,” said Rollins. “The breakup of what was the Reagan coalitionsocial conservatives, defense conservatives, anti-tax conservativesit doesn’t mean a whole lot to people anymore.”

What is this quilted, decomposing thing, lurching across the cornfields, scaring crows in Iowa and moose in New Hampshire, terrifying the lowly possum in the South Carolina pinewoods? It used to be my daddy’s party, his beloved GOP. Without a coherent identity, without appealing or plausible candidates who can even simulate sincerity, the patchwork party’s primary season has been a ghoulish cabaret, scary-funny, more Mel Brooks than Mary Shelley. Every morning’s newswire yielded comic treasure. Did Giuliani really say “I took a city that was known for pornography and licked it to a large extent”? Is it possible that his panicked opponents have tried to hamstring the surging fundamentalist Huckabee, who repudiates evolution, by calling him a liberal? And Huckabee, pressed to defend a son who killed a stray dog at a Boy Scout campgod love our working pressdid he say “It was mangyit looked like it was going to attack”?

John McCain, now the presumptive GOP nominee, earned his idiot stripes by declaring that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation”an embarrassment he could have avoided by reading our absolutely God-and-Christ-free Constitution on page 498 of the new World Almanac. Romney and Giuliani would reverse themselves up to 180 degrees on guns and abortions; Romney styled himself a secret hunter, a closet Nimrod, though there’s not as much as a shotgun pellet to prove it. The candidates were divided on the issue oftorture? In their clumsy passion to whore their way into the hearts of Republican conservatives, these mangy candidates have the look of dogs that won’t hunt anywhere. And they seemed to have no handlers, no writers or researchers, no scouts to steer them through the minefields created by their own lies and evasions. Primary season has never been kind to the truth; but in an age when any voter can check any lie online, pandering to the base as if it has no mind, no memory and no investment in reality has become a distinctly Republican perversion. In their desperation to connect, Republican candidates could scarcely be distinguished from cloacal right-wing propagandists like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who say absolutely anything that comes into their heads and expect their audience to believe it because they want to.

Logic dictates that presidential candidates of the patchwork party, staggering under the weight of the Iraq war and their own mendacity, will soon be as dead as the poor beast at the Scout camp, and that by the time their burlesque is concluded the survivor will be begging his Democratic opponent for a chance to die with dignity. But logic dictated that George W. Bush was too inconsequential to be elected governor of Texas. It dictates that a corrupt two-party system most Americans despise will soon be replaced by something more democratic and manageable, perhaps even less expensive. It dictates that a party made of four or five belligerent constituencies with nothing in common would lose every electionyet up till the eve of the 2006 midterms, the Republican Frankenstein was enjoying one of the longest winning streaks in its checkered history.

Logic never amounts to jack schmitt in electoral politics, a warning and also a source of hope for these relentless ego-prisoners whose ambitions so flagrantly outweigh their abilities. The most logical decision the Republican Party ever made was also its most immoral, and naturally its most rewardingthe infamous “Southern strategy.” The segregationist George Wallace split the Democratic vote and helped to elect Richard Nixon in 1968, that year of murder, confusion and heartbreak that set the American stage for all the misfortune to come. Long before Wallace began to sweep up primaries in 1972, Nixon’s people, the Karl Roves of their day, had drawn the obvious, odious conclusion. The Democrats, chained to African Americans, labor unions, Eastern liberals and the antiwar movement, would never hold their once-Solid South if the Republican Party came courting from the far rightand turned its back on civil rights.

This is ancient history to people my age; 1968 would have been my first chance to vote for a president, if there had been anyone my conscience allowed me to vote for. But many younger people seem unclear about the major ideological realignment that occurred when the Southern strategy was implemented. Republicans from up North come to the Carolinas with no idea that Helms wasn’t always a Republican or that he’s not exactly their kind of Republican, and no clue to what drove the old hyena to change his spots. A few years ago, a young reporter was interviewing the Hall of Fame baseball player Buck Leonard, the pride of Rocky Mount. The great Negro League first baseman, then in his late 80s, answered a question about his politics by affirming that he was, of course, a Republican. The reporter, perhaps raised out of state, asked Leonard how that could be possible.

“Ever hear of Abraham Lincoln?” Leonard replied. Jim Crow, administered by racist Democrats, ruled North Carolina until Leonard, born in 1907, was well past middle age. The GOP was the only respectable option for proud black people of his generation. The same apparent contradictionalong with undeserved taunts of “Uncle Tom” and “sellout”plagued Jackie Robinson, the most famous of all black baseball players and an outspoken activist for civil rights. Robinson, who was born in Alabama, found a saner, kinder world in California and with it a chronic weakness for his fellow Californian Nixon, who had charmed him with perfect recall of Robinson’s athletic exploits at UCLA. The relationship soured as the Southern strategy began to spread its evil nets, but a disillusioned Robinson, who died in 1972, lived to see Nixon nominate two Deep South segregationists for the U.S. Supreme Court. If it hadn’t been for Watergatean equally cynical but much less toxic Nixon stratagemJimmy Carter would not have been elected and Republicans would have held the presidency for all but eight of the past 40 years.

Each Republican candidate, whatever he may have felt personally, has been obliged to renew his party’s pact with the devil. The midget Republicans now running for president were recently described in the newspaper as “united in reverence for President Ronald Reagan.” But the great Republican restoration began with Reagan’s notorious “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1980, in the same savagely racist town where Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered by Klansmen in 1964.

When Reagan launched his presidential campaign by declaring “I believe in states’ rights” in Neshoba County, reaching out to embrace some of the South’s worst bigots in one of their most impregnable strongholds, the Republican Party symbolically and permanently turned its back on black Americans, the Civil Rights movement and the party’s liberal wing, which quickly withered and died. At this historic moment the GOP cashed in the last of its self-respect, and so did Reagan, though abstractions like self-respect were mostly lost on old Dutch. And it was no anomaly, no out-of-character performance for Reagan, now generally canonized by conservatives and offered as a role model to young Republicans. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he described as “humiliating to the South.”

When I covered the Angela Davis case as a novice newsmagazine writer, several of my first drafts were rejected because Ivery young, a hereditary Republican, from a place in the mountains where no black people livedkept noting that Gov. Reagan’s racial insensitivity was stupefying. (The California Board of Regents, supported by Reagan, attempted to fire her from her professorship because she was a self-declared Marxist.) As president, he opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (any word against it was your password into the racist fraternity) and vetoed bills to expand federal civil rights legislation and to impose sanctions on South Africa for apartheid, both of which were passed over his veto. Anti-black conservatives were the one piece of the Reagan coalition Ed Rollins doesn’t mention. If Reagan wasn’t exactly a Klansman, he was the white supremacist’s best friend in Washington, and the shame of his public record can’t be erased by the myth of “The Great Communicator” or by carving his smiling face on Mount Rushmore.

To put it simply, the Republican Party traded Lincoln’s legacy for Wallace’s constituency. It sold its soul to the devil for a chance to rule America. Or why not the worldthe party of Big Capital never thinks small. The conspirators who conceived and negotiated this deal (Harry Dent, Pat Buchanan, Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes) must have been well satisfied with the results. But the devil comes back to collect. Some of us who lost our party and our faith in the American system think we smell sulfur in the air, and see unmistakable signs that Old Scratch is collecting now. We dearly hope so.

That’s the scenario as I choose to see itthe piebald monster lurching and stumbling, leaving loose pieces of himself scattered behind, the devil with his bailiffs in hot pursuit. Presented by a Democrat, it would be just as plausible, but more likely to be disregarded. It’s primary season, after all. In fact I’ve never been a member of the Democratic Party, never voted in one of its primaries. If I could have stomached voting in 1968, I suppose I would have registered Republican, like every member of my family up to that time. By 1972 it was a different world and George McGovern was an irresistible option. But up until the reign of George W. Bush, this Rosemary’s Baby that sleeping with the devil has produced, I would have said that Republicans ruling unopposed was worse than only one thingDemocrats ruling unopposed, with their gutlessness, their sanctimoniousness, their hollow rhetoric and empty promises. I always registered under the capital “I, ” and the last Republican who won my vote was the late John Lindsay, who today would be exiled to the far left wing of the Democratic Party.

Since 2001, we’ve learned that there are worse things than unopposed Democrats. Ralph Nader, who said these parties were one and the same, was dead wrongand his timing was terrible. But there’s plenty of guilt to go around. As Southerners, we’re compelled to admit that the South has been the intractable problem, the worm in the American apple. We’re the poison pill the GOP had to swallow, like a steroid, to swell its bionic body to the intimidating size that changed its electoral fortunes.

I’ve always railed against self-righteous, ignorant Yankees who attack the South armed with nothing but outdated stereotypes. If we produced the most terrifying bigots who violated civil rights, we also produced more than our share of the heroes who risked everything to defend them. But race is the dark at the top of the national staircase, now and always. And the South is the place, cursed by its history, where racism became an enduring, politically formidable institution. There are no moral paragons, no pure hearts in politics. Deploring Reagan’s epic cynicism in Mississippi, we can’t fail to acknowledge that the Democrats were duplicitous enough, Machiavellian enough to hold the Solid South through FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s 20-minute Camelot and LBJ’s Great Society, all fondly remembered now as liberal moments. The Dixiecrats won decades of disappointing concessions from the Democrats, then demanded even more from the Republicans, and got them.

Are the diehard Rebels softening, even now? I asked my brother, who teaches in a part of the Deep South where liberals are hunted like squirrels and raccoons, if the ruinous war in Iraq and the administration’s amazing series of scandals and smoking gunsas well as its vandalism of conservative principlesmight change the way his neighbors voted. “Not really,” he said. “They’re down on Bush but they’ll jump on any excuse to forgive him. To them it’s just two teams, and Democrats are the other team. It’s like being born to root for Alabama or Auburn, Georgia or Georgia Tech.”

In 2004, I think I observed that 25 percent of the electorate would vote for Bush if he were convicted of killing JonBenet Ramsey, or photographed raping a goat. That untouchable base must include my brother’s neighbors. Southerners are a stubborn people, slow to trust, even slower to change established loyalties. For conservatives under 50, the GOP is the South’s home team and family tradition. They’re holding up their end of the devil’s bargain, and the latest candidates show no sign of welshing on theirs. Still genuflecting to the ghost of Strom Thurmond, Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Fred Thompson were all conspicuous no-showspleading “scheduling conflicts”at the PBS forum on minority issues held at Morgan State University in September. Even Newt Gingrich said he was disgusted.

The Republicans needed us and they got us. They used us and now they’ll go down choking on us. It was the marriage made in hell, a fatal alliance that may be the South’s final revenge on the Republican Party for Lincoln, Grant and the War Between the States. As cultural heterogeneity and relaxing racial attitudes continue to marginalize the old Dixie worldview, Republicans will feel that Bible Belt pinching tighter and tighter. By and by they’ll hang themselves with it. They’ll scramble and cheat: In black precincts they’ll try to inhibit voter turnout, in California they’re already trying to steal electoral votes with a shady referendum. But new friends will be hard to find, when they’ve defined their party by what they hate, discourage and oppress: minorities, unions, poor people, immigrants, homosexuals, atheists, scientists and scholars, small farmers and businessmen, journalists, pacifists, non-Christians, uppity women with their reproductive rights. You can run a modern political party on Wall Street’s money, but you can’t get by on its votes. Just as Wall Street cares nothing about abortion or gay marriage, Main Street cares nothing about tax cuts or inheritance taxesit never expected to inherit anything but the kingdom of heaven.

If you think I’m being optimistic, you’re mistaken. The devil gets his due and the Frankenstein thing, the knight of the living dead, falls apart at the seams in 2008. Trust me. But what does it leave in its wake? The GOP’s fragmented identity, along with his own lack of candor, commitment or visible achievement, allowed George W. Bush to ascend to the presidency (by fair means or foul, it doesn’t matter now) as a virtual mystery. Texas cowboy or Connecticut preppy, Southern fundamentalist or country-club moderate, Wall Street or Main Street, underdog or dauphin, who knew George? He turned out to be the most dishonest, incompetent, imperious and radically secretive chief executive we’ve ever suffered, with the most dangerously foreshortened view of history and the most frightening array of scoundrels to do his bidding. He’s twisted and crumpled the Constitution like a cocktail napkin. If the cringing Democrats in Congress had the courage and were sure they had the votes, his impeachment would be sealed in 20 minutes. The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistanwhich has real WMDsexposes the unbearable fact that we wasted irreplaceable resources on the wrong war. It also exposes the deadly risk, for even the richest and most powerful countries, when they place their critical resources in the hands of liars and fools.

I have no consoling confidence that a fairly impressive selection of Democratic candidatesBarack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, even the brilliant, unreliable two-headed creature its enemies call “Billary”includes that savior, that consummate surgeon who will be able to stop the arterial bleeding in the Middle East. One of them deserves a chance to try. But neither Iraq nor the gathering jihad Bush has blindly nurtured is necessarily the end of the American imperium. We still have money and weapons to spare, and ample manpower once we start drafting college boys to replace the poor soldiers we wasted in the wrong war, in the wrong country. The true firebell in the night rang quietly, compared with the screaming sirens in the Middle East. I heard it ringing in a Times story under the byline of Adam Cohen. It appeared a few weeks ago and didn’t create much of a stir. It scared me to death. According to Cohen, a wealthy trial lawyer named Paul Minor, a major supporter of John Edwards and a bellwether of the minority Democratic Party in Mississippi, is now serving an 11-year prison sentence for, in Cohen’s words, “a crime that does not look much like a crime at all.”

Minor, son of a famous liberal journalist, was convicted of violating the state’s vague campaign finance laws. Apparently lawyers in ethically easygoing Mississippi have always contributed openly to the campaign funds of judges who may later hear their cases. But only Democrats have been prosecuted for conflict of interest, and only under the politicized Bush Justice Department recently run by Alberto Gonzales. Minor was a painful thorn in the local Republicans’ side; Cohen claims that his real crime was his fight to keep a slate of pro-business Republicans from taking over the state Supreme Court in 2000. “Disturbingly vague,” Cohen calls the corruption charge on which Minor was convicted, and his draconian sentence effectively silenced all political activity by trial lawyers, the chief support of the Democratic Party in Mississippi.

You see where we’re going. Cohen is implying, and not cautiously, that Minor is a political prisonera case for Amnesty International. He suspects that former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, now serving a seven-year sentence, was a similar victim. Gonzales’ partisan manipulation of U.S. attorneys is the focus of hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, where one Alabama Republican testified that she’d heard Karl Rove himself directed the plot to “hang Don Siegelman.” Another indignant witness, who called the Justice Department’s prosecution of a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat “bizarre,” was Dick Thornburgh, Republican attorney general under Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Savor the headline, “Opposition Leaders Jailed.” Does it remind you of our wonderful allies in Pakistan, and all the vicious little countries where martial law is declared and words like “dictator,” “strongman,” “coup” and “junta” are routine? Never in the United States, not in our wildest dreams. And these are wealthy men, these prisoners, with the best lawyers and the best connections. If it can happen to them, it can happen overnight to you or me. Eleven years? You realize many murderers serve less. If Cohen has it right, this is the final insult, the final straw imposed by a party that abandoned every principle in its pursuit of power. Will you vote for these thugs? Would you die for them? Islamic extremists have proven, to our amazement, their readiness to die for their god and their prophet. The beauty of America was always that our citizens would sacrifice themselves not for god or king or glorious leader, but for a way of life and a set of laws they believed in. (For African-American soldiers, it was harder.) I don’t know about you. But I wouldn’t lift a finger to defend a country where such a creepy, fascist, banana republic trick could pass inspection.