Reaganism with a feral face
[I see that Cheryl has already flagged this but I wanted to add a couple of things]
Robert Kagan has a long piece full of some very sharp analysis and one huge blind spot. It’s definitely worth reading in full. Kagan’s conclusion captures both the cogency of his argument and the one big mistake at the center of it. He notes, as far too few people have, the force with which Murc’s law is working in regard to the critical issue of guarding what electoral integrity we have and nurturing further reform:
Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion. The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.
The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.
But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.
Those who criticize Biden and the Democrats for not doing enough to prevent this disaster are not being fair. There is not much they can do without Republican cooperation, especially if they lose control of either chamber in 2022. It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day. This preemptive capitulation has certainly served well those Republicans who might otherwise be held to account for their cowardice. How nice for them that everyone has decided to focus fire on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Yet it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.
Seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection and attempting to overturn a free and fair election: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Patrick J. Toomey. It was a brave vote, a display of republican virtue, especially for the five who are not retiring in 2022. All have faced angry backlashes — Romney was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention; Burr and Cassidy were unanimously censured by their state parties. Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.
Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. Why?
It can’t be because they think they have a future in a Trump-dominated party. Even if they manage to get reelected, what kind of government would they be serving in? They can’t be under any illusion about what a second Trump term would mean. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law is clear. His exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials — the only official, legal response to his actions — practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm Trump loyalists. In such a world, with Trump and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing Trump would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. A Trump victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.
We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.
It is not impossible for politicians to make such a leap. The Republican Party itself was formed in the 1850s by politicians who abandoned their previous party — former Whigs, former Democrats and former members of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. While Whig and Democratic party stalwarts such as Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas juggled and compromised, doing their best to ensure that the issue of slavery did not destroy their great parties, others decided that the parties had become an obstacle to justice and a threat to the nation’s continued viability.
Romney & Co. don’t have to abandon their party. They can fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. Their cooperation with Democrats could be strictly limited to matters relating to the Constitution and elections. Or they might strive for a temporary governing consensus on a host of critical issues: government spending, defense, immigration and even the persistent covid-19 pandemic, effectively setting aside the usual battles to focus on the more vital and immediate need to preserve the United States.
It takes two, of course, to form a national unity coalition, and Democrats can make it harder or easier for anti-Trump Republicans to join. Some profess to see no distinction between the threat posed by Trump and the threat posed by the GOP. They prefer to use Trump as a weapon in the ongoing political battle, and not only as a way of discrediting and defeating today’s Republican Party but to paint all GOP policies for the past 30 years as nothing more than precursors to Trumpism. Although today’s Trump-controlled Republican Party does need to be fought and defeated, this kind of opportunistic partisanship and conspiracy-mongering, in addition to being bad history, is no cure for what ails the nation.
Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure. Heading into the next election, it is vital to protect election workers, same-day registration and early voting. It will also still be necessary to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which directly addresses the state legislatures’ electoral power grab. Other battles — such as making Election Day a federal holiday and banning partisan gerrymandering — might better be postponed. Efforts to prevent a debacle in 2024 cannot. Democrats need to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing.
One wonders whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves, whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system. If that means political suicide for this handful of Republicans, wouldn’t it be better to go out fighting for democracy than to slink off quietly into the night?
Kagan’s key insight is that Donald Trump owns the Republican party, full stop, and that the various optimistic predictions that he would just fade away after losing the 2020 election were radically wrong. The idea that just because he doesn’t have direct access to Twitter and Facebook he can’t completely dominate the Republican party is obviously false: Yesterday Trump sent a letter to Greg Abbott demanding that the state of Texas perform yet another farcical “audit” of the 2020 vote, and within hours Abbott had bent the knee.
Kagan is also correct that the fixation on Manchin’s and Sinema’s refusal to get rid of the filibuster even for the limited purpose of protecting electoral integrity is based on a reflexive assumption that not a single Republican senator can be expected to do literally anything to protect liberal democracy.
Kagan’s blind spot is that he insists that Trump represents a break with Reaganism, rather than the much more openly demagogic fulfillment of it.
More than six years ago, I wrote this:
One of the most compelling points Rick Perlstein makes in his excellent The Invisible Bridge is that Ronald Reagan was consistently and radically underestimated as a potential political force by the national media, public intellectuals, DC insiders, etc., until practically up to the moment he was on the edge of winning the GOP nomination in 1976.
[Trump’s big lead in the polls] makes me at least begin to wonder if something similar might not be happening with Donald Trump. Now obviously there are enormous differences between the backgrounds, the careers, and the personalities of the two men, but there are also some striking similarities:
(1) Both mastered the art of manipulating their contemporary media environments.
(2) Both manifested a fine understanding of how to make outrageous statements in a way that ingratiated them with their political bases, precisely because the national media reaction to those statements allowed them to pose as victims of supposed media and/or elite bias.
(3) Both spent a good part of their lives as at least putatively wishy-washy Democrats, before discovering that selling racial demagoguery to the contemporary Republican party base was about as hard as selling beer at a baseball game on a 90-degree day.
(4) Both spent most of their careers being dismissed as clownish lightweights.
In a GOP presidential field that isn’t exactly stacked with political talent, the notion that Trump can’t win the nomination is at least premature. As is the idea that he can’t be elected president.
Everything that has happened since only confirms that the modern Republican party’s identity as a movement based on radically reactionary white supremacist resentment, and the plutocracy that uses it to advance its goals, has merely reached its inevitable fulfillment in the figure of Donald Trump.
Ultimately, to use a distinction at the core of historical debates about the Holocaust, we need a structuralist rather than an intentionalist account of how Donald Trump came to be president of the United States, and may very well become president again.
America created Trump and Trumpism, because Trump and Trumpism is very much a reflection of a great deal of what this nation has always been about.