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The Elect

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IRA Volunteer, Belfast 1973

Fintan O’Toole has a very interesting essay in the Dec. 3rd issue of the NYRB, on what exactly is entailed when one of the two major political parties in a democracy concludes that democracy presents an existential threat to that party:

A tactic of maneuvering to hold power against the wishes of the majority of voters is contingent, opportunistic, reactive. It is innately time-limited. It will advance when it can and retreat when it must. But when the tactic becomes the strategy, there can be no retreat. A program of consolidating the means by which a minority can gain and retain power must try to institutionalize itself, to become so embedded that it can withstand the majority’s anger. To do that, it must not merely evade the consequences of losing the popular vote in this or that election. It must, insofar as it can, make those elections irrelevant.

This is the most important thing to understand about the postmortem Republican Party. The logic is not that a permanently minority party may move toward authoritarianism but that it must. Holding power against the wishes of most citizens is an innately despotic act. From 2016 onward, the GOP has become not so much the RINO Party, Republican in name only. It is the RIP party, repressive in perpetuity. When Trump said on Fox & Friends at the end of March that Democrats want “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he was openly redefining the meaning of the vote. Voting, in this formulation, is something to be “agreed to”—or not—by Trump himself. Democracy is no longer rooted in the consent of the governed, but in the contingent permission of the indispensable leader.

In all the noise of the 2020 election, it was easy to miss the signal that was not being sent. The incumbent president made no effort even to go through the motions of presenting a future open to deliberation by citizens. He had no policy agenda for a second term—the GOP merely readopted its platform from 2016, without even bothering to delete its multiple attacks on “the current president.” Why? Because arguments about policy are the vestiges of a notion that Trump has killed off: the idea that an election is a contest for the support, or at least the consent, of a majority of voters. Such arguments implicitly concede the possibility that there is another, equally legitimate choice. That is precisely what the posthumous Republican Party cannot and does not accept.

This refusal is shaped by a functioning redefinition of “we, the people.” When Trump spoke on election night about “a fraud on the American public,” he meant that the “public” consists only of his voters. In 1953, after a failed uprising in Berlin, Bertolt Brecht noted in his sardonic poem “The Solution” that the authorities had declared that “the people/Had forfeited the confidence of the government”:

…Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This is the election behind the election—the GOP’s decision to imaginatively dissolve the American majority and elect another. This has been done in two ways, coarsely and a little more subtly. The coarse method is to simply deny that the majority exists. This is what Trump did on election night and the probability is that his supporters believe it to be true. After the 2016 election, he obliterated the majority by claiming that “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” A plurality of his voters actually believed that there was no “if” about it. A Politico/Morning Consult poll of Trump voters in July 2017 found that 49 percent believed that he really did win the popular vote. Now, in 2020, it is not just that the majority does not count, it is that it is actively criminal, engaged as it is in a vast conspiracy to steal his victory.

This could be written off as the usual despotic delusion were it not buttressed by the slightly subtler method of choosing another “people.” The method is to shift between two implicitly contradictory meanings of the same word: elect. Without a capital E, it indicates what is supposed to happen in a democracy—all citizens can vote and whoever wins the most votes is the president. Capitalize the initial letter and it signifies the righteous, those chosen by God for salvation. The real Trumpian transition is from the first to the second. He himself generally does this in a secular form: the typical populist slippage from “the people” to “the real people.” Before he ran for president, when Trump tweeted about “Patriots,” it was almost always in relation to the football team. After 2015, it was almost always about the “Great American Patriots” who attend his rallies. The anti-Trump majority is neither great, nor patriotic, nor in fact American.

This exclusion overlaps with a religious version promulgated most notably by the attorney general, William Barr, according to whom religious belief is the entire foundation of the American political community, so those who are not religious (in a very narrow sense) cannot properly belong in the polity. In effect, of course, the secular and religious versions overlap and support each other. The majority, deficient in both patriotism and sanctity, is unworthy. If it seems to have won, that can only be because, being outside the polity, it has subverted the real polity by fraud. To deny its validity is both patriotic and righteous. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the use of the Supreme Court to hand electoral victories to the Republicans are no longer dirty tricks. They are patriotic imperatives. They are not last resorts but first principles.

The claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump is invariably presented in some sort of proceduralist guise, either in the form of legally preposterous claims such as that absentee ballots are per se invalid, or empirically insane assertions about millions of fraudulent votes and the like. (Note that Trump’s own lawyers have pretty much stuck to the former in court, while making the latter assertions in less formal settings, and allowing deranged proxies like Sidney Powell and Lin Wood to file the crazy conspiracy stuff).

But both the legally frivolous and factually unhinged sets of claims don’t actually assert what Donald Trump and the Republican party (a distinction now without a difference) actually believe, which is that the election was stolen because too many of the wrong people voted. Trump and the Republicans are forced to maintain minority rule only because a coalition of lower-caste Americans and race traitors steal elections from real Americans, by outvoting them (The Republican presidential candidate has won a plurality of the popular vote once since the 1980s).

This is not hyperbole: this is what Trumpism — which again is now the same thing as the Republican party — is all about at its core.

O’Toole’s assertion that “the logic is not that a permanently minority party may move toward authoritarianism but that it must. Holding power against the wishes of most citizens is an innately despotic act,” is, I believe, unassailable.

Despotism in the face of democracy — or if you prefer “managed democracy,” “herrenvolk democracy” etc., in the face of real democracy — is the path that the Republican party has chosen, and nothing has made that clearer than what has happened in the 30 days since that party lost the presidential election by more than seven million votes. Either that party or American democracy must be destroyed.

I ranted to the knave and fool,
But outgrew that school,
Would transform the part,
Fit audience found, but cannot rule
My fanatic heart.

I sought my betters:  though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport,
Nothing said or done can reach
My fanatic heart.

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

Yeats, “Remorse For Intemperate Speech”

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