11.07.16 The GOP’s existential threat to democracy
For the past 50 years, the Republican Party has pretended to have a number of missions. It has seemed to be the party of patriotism, a militarily aggressive foreign policy, the Bible, and the Wall Street elite. In 2008, I described the party as an awkwardly constructed “3-1/2 legged stool” (see Parts I and II): a coalition that didn’t really fit together, but was joined for convenience. That analogy was true, but—in retrospect—rather superficial.
Last week, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait took a deeper look in an aptly titled piece, “The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has Only Just Begun.” The author (who, in my estimation is the best analyst of the US body politic today) unpacks the apparent paradox between libertarianism and authoritarianism (which I had referred to eight years ago). He demonstrates that the core driving force of the GOP is service to the wealthy. This is the GOP of Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, under which it is immoral to suggest any impingement on the right of the rich to keep every penny they control.
While “libertarianism” can mean different things to different people (including protection of civil liberties and civil rights), the US version has been deeply aligned with the GOP. The justification here is that full liberty is meant only for those who can afford to purchase it and enforce it. And this is where authoritarianism comes in.
In the aughts, as W’s “with-us-or-against-us” politics was in full swing, I remarked sardonically that the only reason why the GOP hadn’t called tanks into the streets and canceled elections was because of their confidence that elections posed no threat to their and their donors’ power.
Sure—ever since the mid 1950s (with the exception of Pat Buchanan)— the GOP had favored aggressive US imperialism around the world (the military leg of the stool). But who were these policies ultimately in service of? The giant corporations who manufactured our might and the open markets that enriched the rest of US industry. (The 170-year history of US intervention in Latin America— supported by both parties—has often constituted outright theft of others’ resources.)
No doubt the GOP has championed theocracy (another stool), from assaults on reproductive freedom and gay rights, to prayer in the schools. At bottom though, this was purposeful manipulation of cultural and religious symbolism to exploit the lower classes into supporting an economic agenda counter to their own interests. Many claim that Trump 2016 embodies the realization by the down-and-out that the GOP has never had their interests at heart. Of course, this is not really the case, as shown by the $72,000 annual income of the average Trump supporter, well above the national average.
Even regarding economic policy, the GOP uses its stated mission (jobs, jobs, jobs) to obfuscate its real one. The Party doesn’t give a hoot about job losses caused by automation or trade, nor wealth losses caused by declining wages. There is no purpose behind their wealth transfers to the rich other than to make the rich richer (trickle-down is a convenient lie and its effectiveness been empirically disproven).
The Republican Party has opposed democracy and the US Constitution whenever it has served their core mission. From Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy,” to the voter-fraud fraud, to harassment at the polls, to W’s far-right rule as if he’d been popularly elected, contempt for the public has been a purposeful right-wing strategy. The current culmination is the Party’s announced intention not to allow a president Hillary Clinton to get a single Supreme Court appointment, if they keep the Senate. (Supposed uber-patriot, John McCain was the first senator to announce this intention last month. It has now been echoed by many or most GOP senators.)
The GOP and its donor class now feel threatened, not so much by a risk that their agenda will be turned back, as by the possibility of having their oh-so-close complete victory snatched away from them. They still don’t need to call out the tanks, but the Trump campaign is even better, as it avoids the inconvenience of civilian casualties (beyond the occasional immigrant beaten).
While it is uncomfortable for the likes of Ryan and Mitch McConnell to be tied to Trump and his Deplorables’ explicit racism and misogyny, their continued support for the man is not a display of weakness or hypocrisy. Most of their discomfort is feigned. As Chait points out, they believe a Trump presidency will lead to the final dismantling of the New Deal welfare state, elimination of most federal regulations, and the end of progressive taxation. These are their true goals and the ends justify all means necessary. So much the better if appeals to bigotry motivate a sufficient number of voters to allow a semblance of democracy to proceed.
(There is one aspect of discomfort that is real for Ryan, McConnell, and McCain: they consider Trump an amateur whose lack of self-restraint has seemed to put victory at risk.)
So, here we end up with authoritarianism in service to a libertarianism for the few. There’s no problem with a Supreme Court that hands victory to one presidential candidate over another or an FBI that delivers an October-November surprise in service to the forces of reaction. Who cares if minority voters are intimidated face-to-face, kicked off voter rolls, or impossibly inconvenienced by closing polling places only in their neighborhoods? What’s the problem with a know-nothing, wanna-be-dictator for president, as long as Ryan and McConnell are naming his advisers and cabinet appointments (not to mention his Supreme Court picks)?
The Trump campaign is only truly embarrassing to the small minority of so-called “intellectual” Republicans (like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Michael Gerson). These are a mostly honorable bunch, with whom I’ll disagree much more often than I agree, but whose motives seem noble, if misguided. It is interesting to note that there are almost no actual GOP officeholders that are members of this group. This is because all of them are exclusively interested in cash from the biggest donors, power, and the continued suppression of the popular will.
Two-thousand-sixteen is a GOP wet dream. The chance to get a president they can boss around, both houses of Congress, their own Supreme Court, and control of most US states, makes a little thing like democracy a trifling matter.
Chait predicts this is only the beginning. If he is right, progressives’ hope that the GOP will degenerate into civil war and destroy itself is fantasy. Instead, the corporate elite will learn from the lesson of having allowed an infantile candidate to lead them. Next time, they will be back with someone much more polished, who can control his own impulses, stay on-message, and go back to dog-whistles instead of blasts of racism and misogyny.
The GOP is not the only threat to US democracy, of course. A grossly irresponsible broadcast media is perhaps just as dangerous, as purveyors of sensationalism (CNN) and lies (Fox and the alt-right). Even the newspapers of record have been scared to speak out for truth, engaging in “false equivalence” (“Democrats declare earth round; experts disagree”).
I sympathize in principle with those who say we need a responsible center-right party to make our democracy work. (Maryland, an example of nearly complete one-party Democratic rule, is not pretty, giving rise to machine politics are that are also profoundly anti-democratic.) But there is no hope in sight that the GOP can resurrect its earlier moderation. Until big money is removed from politics, redistricting is made non-partisan (are you listening, Maryland?), and voting rights are aggressively enforced, moderation is impossible. And the problem is that the only way to accomplish any of these objectives is to get control of legislatures and courts.
It took Barack Obama five years to understand that he was dealing with an intractable enemy in the opposing party. One piece of good news is that Hillary Clinton will have no illusions in this regard. For the rest of us, there will be no point in trying to play nice with a radical, authoritarian GOP. All we can do is to beat them anywhere and everywhere they show their ugly faces. James Comey will have robbed us of the chance to bloody them badly this year. He needs to be removed from office and we have to try again in two years and four.
©2016 Keith Berner