Last week Tom wrote a wonderful, optimistic, and upbeat analysis of Joe Biden’s brilliant debut as President. Today, Steve is compelled to write a companion essay about the dark side that Joe Biden is up against: a Republican Party that is not simply the opposition party for Democrats, but now the opposition party to democracy itself.
If you were to ask Americans to summarize the essential narrative of the European theater in World War II, the response would probably go something like this: the United States and Britain joined forces to liberate France and conquer Nazi Germany. Oh, and yeah, Russia helped, too.
Most people tend to overlook a critical point: that in defeating Hitler’s Nazi war machine, the Allied forces also liberated the German people. For over a decade, the once democratic German republic had been overtaken and subjugated by a political party led by a brutal authoritarian dictator. When the Nazis initiated hostile aggressive military actions against sovereign nations, the Allied forces joined to defeat Germany, freeing conquered nations, but also freeing the German people from the authoritarian tyranny of their own government. And now, seventy years later, the German government is one of the most stable democracies in the world.
Which brings us to today’s question: who, exactly, is going to rescue the United States of America from the next Republican authoritarian to gain the White House? Spoiler alert: the answer is nobody. Our only choice is to prevent it from ever happening.
It's a simple but alarming point: what’s become clear in the months following Donald Trump’s election defeat is that the Republican Party is now a party committed to authoritarian rule. It is a party that remains loyal to Donald Trump, and it is a party that is in the main committed to Trump’s efforts to undermine our democracy. That work not only continues, but it dominates the theory and practice of the party, and has – if anything – grown in fervor.
If the Republicans regain the White House, we must accept the uncomfortable truth that they – either Trump himself, or (perhaps worse) a smarter follower -- intend to finish the work Donald Trump started. In gaining the White House, the goal will be to undermine the mechanisms of democracy that could force them out of power, as happened in 2020. For the ever shrinking Republican Party, the only clear way to seize and maintain power is to curtail voting rights, try to win the White House in 2024, and – if successful -- continue Trump’s effort to weaken or destroy the democratic institutions preserve our democracy.
We must begin to view Trump’s Republican Party as an existential threat to our democracy, and act accordingly.
Sure, Democrats look at Donald Trump as a failed President
whose lack-of-skill set included managerial incompetence, heightening societal polarization, racism, misogyny,
xenophobia, using public office for private gain, and plutonium-grade deceit.
But Donald Trump’s focus as President was never on policy or principle. He never thought for five minutes about the pandemic, healthcare, global relations, or even on building the border wall that was so central to his campaign.
The focus of his Presidency was a trial and error process of learning how to undermine the institutions of our democracy so that he could retain the power of the Presidency, all for the apparent purposes of lining his pockets, building his brand, and (last but by no means least) keeping himself and his family out of jail. But the playbook he authored to that purpose could well become the game plan that the next – and likely more competent – Trump wannabee uses to secure the Republican nomination, retake the White House, and succeed where Trump failed in destroying our democracy to seize permanent control.
Trump’s playbook for destroying our democracy was not all that complicated, resting on these principles:
1. Use the power of the right wing media and twitter to create a false version of reality that aggressively reinforces the fears, suspicions, resentments of a broad segment of the population, thereby winning their ferocious loyalty.
2. Leverage this grip on this voting segment to terrify his party’s office holders into a rare case of institutional Patty Hearst Syndrome, in which a once independent-thinking class of grown men and women acquiesce in humiliating supplication before their dear leader.
3. Place extreme loyalists in critical positions, often by relying on the Presidential power to make “interim” appointments that do not require Congressional approval, and empower those persons to use the machinery of government for flagrantly personal and political purposes. By trial and error, Trump achieved ever-increasing control of the Department of Justice. Imagine if he had four more years and could replicate that process with the United States military.
4. Demonize the institutions that provide checks and balances on Presidential power. The nation’s intelligence apparatus was branded the “deep state,” and the independent media were branded as “fake news,” all with the intent of impugning motives and thereby diminishing the credibility of organizations that would challenge the White House.
5. Ignore any and all forms of Congressional oversight. Trump realized that Congress has no ability to enforce subpoenas or elicit testimony, so he just ignored all of it.
6. Undermine our elections, and the perception that our elections are free and fair, thereby empowering people to believe that the results of our elections are not legitimate and, therefore, can be ignored.
Hey, you can say that Trump botched the pandemic big time, but he couldn’t care less about that. He was completely and totally focused on figuring out how to rip control of the government from the people it serves… and he damn near succeeded.
For a brief period, many centrist and left leaning people breathed a huge sigh of relief that Donald Trump had been beaten, only to discover that his dominance of the Republican Party remains unquestioned. A scant six weeks after inciting a murderous mob to attack the U.S. Capitol, Trump won the straw poll as the person CPAC attendees would most like to see as the Republican candidate in 2024.
There is a slightly different way to look at that CPAC poll, which is arguably more worrisome. In fact, only 68% of the CPAC attendees said that they wanted Trump to run again. And in the candidate preference poll, Trump was the preferred candidate of only 55% of the attendees. However, a full 95% of CPAC attendees wanted to the Republican Party to “advance Trump’s policies and agenda.”
Now, I must admit that I struggle mightily to understand exactly what “policies and agenda” the folks at CPAC were gushing about. For starters, the biggest hint that the Trump Administration was short on "policies and agenda" was the fact that the Republicans did not even bother to write a party platform for their 2020 convention. This was probably wise, as the only language that would have made sense for that platform would have been “we stand for whatever Donald Trump said last week and hasn’t yet changed his mind about.”
As best as I can recall, Trump’s vision of leadership was largely a bunch of applause lines at MAGA rallies. There was something about a wall that never got built that was going to be paid for by a country that never wrote a check. I vividly remember the part about torturing children on our southern border. There was a huge effort to pretend the pandemic was not real, but a real effort to undermine the efforts of people who were fighting a very real pandemic. There was a stunning unwillingness to confront countries that undermined our elections, hacked our computer systems, and paid bounties to terrorists who killed our soldiers. There was a no holds barred effort to undermine our free elections. There were coddling winks at white supremacists and vulgar damnation of oppressed minorities. Oh, yes, and there were huge tax cuts for the rich… but the overall state of the economy after four years of Donald Trump? Far worse than what he inherited.
Taken in their full measure, Donald Trump’s “policies and agenda” appeared to be a random porridge of rants that were snidely anti-Federal government, weirdly pro-pandemic, fiercely anti-minority, hostile to fact and science, naively isolationist, and all underpinned by an epic power-grab in the executive branch of government and a steady determination to devalue the validity of our elections. It was an “agenda” that placed the preservation of the privileges of white (and largely male) entitlement above all. Small wonder that Trump’s presidency ended with the spectacle of white-supremacist militias storming the U.S. Capitol in a final frenzied attempt to kill the people who would ensure the transfer of power to a newly elected President.
So there you have it. Help me, CPAC, to understand what it is that makes Trump’s “policies and agenda” even more enthralling than Trump himself.
One reasonable interpretation of all of this is that CPAC is simply hungry for a more competent and more marketable Trump. It is as if CPAC already views Trump himself as “Plan B,” a fallback in the event that Republicans cannot find a person wholly devoted to Trump’s causes, eager to embrace his strong-arm tactics, and absent the baggage of having failed to win the election, keep the House, hold the Senate, or mount a successful insurrection. The next four years are going to be open auditions for the Trump who can actually pull off what Trump only imagined.
Perhaps you think that we are making too much of CPAC, which, after all, is merely a long-simmering reduction of the most crazed arch-conservatives. We hasten to remind you that a Quinnipiac poll showed that 77% of Republicans believe that there was “widespread voter fraud in the presidential election,” and that a Newsweek poll taken immediately after 1/6 found that 45% of Republicans supported storming the U.S. Capitol building.
No, it is not just CPAC. This is a major political party that is heavily inclined toward armed rebellion, fully accepting Trump propaganda as gospel, and – far from chastened by the shame of Trump’s insurrection – is ostracizing party leaders who condemned him.
If anything, the competition to out-Trump Trump is growing more ferocious.
Consider the punctually stupid governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who announced that he was re-opening Texas for all commerce while simultaneously eliminating the state’s mask mandate in a week when the state’s COVID cases were up 20%. Let’s just accept for sake of argument that the Governor passionately believes that the economic suffering of his citizens can only be alleviated by removing every last COVID-19-based restriction that limits commerce. Would it not seem that the single best way to mitigate the COVID risk in a fully opened commercial economy would be to double-down on the need for masks? I could almost understand that posture: we can open fully for business if we strenuously adhere to mask mandates. But no, the Governor of the state that cannot reliably transmit electricity or provide potable water is now optimizing conditions for the transmission of a deadly virus.
Good for Joe Biden, who labeled Abbott’s thinking “Neanderthal,” although there will no doubt be blowback from the Neanderthal community that has enough branding problems without having their intellectual capacity equated to Greg Abbott’s.
However, the far, far greater manifestation of metastasizing Trump-ism is the wildfire of Republican legislation intent on voter suppression. Yes, the Big Lie is back, bigger than ever, a fully-weaponized Cruz missile aimed at the heart of our democracy.
Somewhere from the depths of the ninth circle, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany, is gazing in awe at what the Republican Party is currently doing to promote voter suppression legislation in dozens of state capitols around the country. You see, the Republicans are now arguing that there is an urgent need to tighten qualifications for voting, because so many Americans no longer trust the validity of our elections. Of course, the mistrust that now exists among Republicans is the result of Donald Trump’s relentless claims that widespread voter fraud was the reason that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
To be clear: everyone from Trump’s own Attorney General to the head of the FBI to the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia has insisted that there was no evidence of any sort of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
And yet Trump succeeded in creating doubt, and now that very doubt is being used as the excuse to enact laws that will suppress voting specifically among the minority populations that skew heavily Democratic.
Is there a suitable analogy? This may be a little crazy, but imagine, if you will, that a governor of a huge state where COVID cases are increasing 20% for the week were to announce that the coronavirus pandemic is now completely “under control,” and then said that a large number of people in his state think the pandemic is “under control,” and so the governor uses the utterly incorrect opinion of a segment of the population as the rationale for re-opening a state for commerce and declaring that there is no longer a need to wear masks. I mean, just how stupid would that be?
But voter suppression fever is the focus of all Republican legislators who are not reading Dr. Seuss books in what they apparently consider to be a clever attack on “cancel culture.” Someone needs to get the word out that photos of the House Minority leader reading “Green Eggs and Ham” is merely reinforcing long-held speculation about his reading level.
In a February report by the Brennan Center notes that “as of February 19, 2021, state lawmakers have carried over, pre-filed, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states.” To be clear: there are actually more bills that are actually intended to expand voter access. Count me among those who believe that making it easier for citizens to vote is a good thing.
The Brennan Center notes that level of legislation designed to suppress voting is three to four times higher than the number of bills introduced for that purpose just one year ago.
My favorite voter suppression quote of the week was from one Mike Dugan, the state senator from Georgia who sponsored the grotesque legislation now wending its way through Georgia’s legislative process. Mike overtly acknowledged that Georgia did not have a problem with voter fraud when he said “You don’t wait until you have wholesale issues until you try to meet the need. You do it beforehand.” By this logic, we suspect that Mike’s next bills will focus on reducing the number of kangaroos in Savannah and developing a ready-plan for defending against Martian landings in Valdosta. Hey, you gotta do the planning beforehand.
Aha!! Perhaps we have finally found the “policy and agenda” of the Trump administration that CPAC so thoroughly endorses! Yes, that’s it – try to win elections not by offering innovative and beneficial policies and programs… but by limiting the right to vote to those people on the right!
Perhaps it is as simple as this: the Republican Party knows
that it had already been shrinking due to changing American demographics, and
now its mandatory pledge of loyalty to the Donald is alienating centrists. As
the party gets smaller, its only hope for long-term power is to radically truncate
access to the vote among traditional Democratic voting groups, win in 2024, and
then use the machinery of government to crush the institutions of democracy.
Yes, the fundamental problem in our country right now is that the Democratic Party believes that their opposition is the Republican Party, but the Republican Party believes that its opponent is democracy itself.
Indeed, the Republican Party is not so much a political party – a grouping of people who share philosophies of governance, economic policy, global diplomacy, and social programs – it is an affiliation of angry white people threatened by the diversity that America has become, fearful of the inevitable globalism of a digital world, and desperately clinging to promises that they can bring back a world that once revolved around them.
I agree with my brother that Joe Biden has done a magnificent job in this first weeks in the White House. Indeed, a year ago I wondered whether he was good enough for the job, and now my only question is whether we are good enough for him.
But I quibble with Joe Biden on one point.
He centered his campaign on the idea that we were in a fight for the “soul of America.”
Mr. President, it is more than that.
We are in a fight for our democracy. We are in a fight for the idea that we decide the direction of our country based on what the majority of our people want.
It’s not the soul of our nation…it is a fight for the single most central idea that we, the people, decide on our future at the ballot box.
One party embraces that idea.
The other party? Right now, it seems like its only objective is to limit the number of people who get to make the decision.
I hate to say it, folks, but it only took a marginal intellect like Donald Trump four years to figure out how to become Putin-by-the-Potomac, and if he – or Cruz, Hawley, Pompeo, of Don Jr. -- manages to secure the White House for another four years, they now know how to finish the job.
In 2020, we beat Trump.
Now for the bigger fight: we must soundly and thoroughly defeat Trumpism. We cannot let another Republican near the White House until the cancer of Trumpism has been eradicated.
Because if that happens, there is no United States of America out there to save us.
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