(If some terms seem alien, a much more detailed account of the midterms can be found here. The analysis reflects the state of play in February, but some explanations may be of use).
When Lloyd Grove, staff writer for The Washington Post, trekked to suburban Arizona in 1994 to visit the 85 year old Barry Goldwater, he was told by the former senator and presidential nominee “I haven’t changed my outlook at all.” The Post’s article addressed some of Goldwater’s recent apostasies, particularly his support for gay rights – as a man for whom libertarianism was a commitment and not a fig leaf, discrimination against homosexuals struck him as wrong.
Goldwater was a conservative, a conservative for whom individual rights and liberties were the starting point – in the article, he came out swinging (inaccurately) against Bill Clinton’s doomed healthcare plan. Yet by the 1990s, Goldwater had also become alienated from a Republican party which seemed less concerned with freedom than with prurient, ‘church-ordained’ forms of social control. Addressing the transparently dominant right of the GOP, he said, “You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican party much more than Democrats.”
Barry Goldwater was obliterated in the 1964 presidential election by LBJ, who with absolute justification had painted him as an extremist (Goldwater had suggested the use of nukes in Vietnam), and was also widely seen as the forerunner to Reagan, conservatism’s supposed apotheosis. The gruff Arizonan who had been enthusiastically supported by both Joan Didion and Hillary Clinton, the hawk who deserved to be beaten in 1964, had in his twilight years nonetheless become conscious of a dark strain in American conservatism.
I wonder what he would say now.
I do not have the time, ability, or even the knowledge to properly recount how the snake came to be in the garden, all I know is that it is there. There is a malevolent force in American life, and it serves nobody to be anything other than perfectly transparent about this reality. In 2022, the Republican Party is driven by deep and dangerous impulses; it poses a profound threat to democracy, to personal freedom, and to the very safety of society’s vulnerable. The most appropriate tone for writing about the so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ is one of indictment.
We start with democracy.
Roughly 70% of Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and not for no reason. Of course, their reason has nothing to do with truth – the claim has always been nonsense – and everything to do with the fact that Republican politicians and media figures have fed them lies. From Trump downwards, this lost cause mythos has percolated to all levels of the party – indeed, it has been deliberately and maliciously spread.
A bumper 538 investigation recently surveyed all 552 Republican nominees for the most important offices up this cycle (Senate, House, governor, secretary of state, attorney general) and found that 200 totally rejected the results of the 2020 election. A further 62 “raised questions” (innocently and in the spirit of curiosity I am sure) and 122 either dodged or rendered no comment.
When 2024 rolls around, many of those who have actively endorsed Trump’s coup attempt will hold power. Extremist Republicans will control governorships, perhaps even in crucial swing states (whilst Doug Mastriano looks likely to lose in Pennsylvania, the same cannot be said of Kari Lake in Arizona), they will oversee elections as secretaries of state, and they will enforce state laws as attorneys general.
Part of the reason why Trump failed to force a truly sundering moment two years ago was that his election denialism lacked adherents in the key posts of key states. Whatever happens in these midterms, that will be much less of a problem for him next time.
And it looks as though there will be a next time. I think Trump will run, and if/when he does, he will almost certainly be the Republican nominee; frankly he will be quasi-coronated. According to polling averages, Trump leads a prospective Republican field by 25 points and shows no signs of drastically slipping. In the subsequent general election, it is almost impossible to imagine Trump getting below 45% of the vote and very easy to imagine him actually winning.
This is a man who has proudly proclaimed his willingness to burn the whole damn system down out of spite and wounded pride. On January 6th 2021 he, in the words of noted liberal stalwart Liz Cheney, “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame”, a mob that sought to overthrow the transition of power and hang Mike Pence. We actually learned this year that Trump suggested his supporters had a point vis-à-vis the execution of his own vice president.
The former president instigated an attack against the nation which at that point he still led, and his party let him get away with it. Every House Democrat voted to impeach Trump, as did 10 brave House Republicans (8 of whom will not be in Congress come January thanks to Trump’s programmatic policy of vengeance). Republican senators, Leader McConnell most of all, knew that if 17 of them voted to convict Trump on the articles passed by the House, then the Senate would be able to bar him from holding public office ever again, and they did not do it. Only seven Republicans voted to impeach, 10 short of what was required.
Certainly their motivations were complex: surely some were cowards, some deluded, some cynics, some authoritarians, some displayed Philip Roth’s “shameless vanity of utter fools”, but all saw the knife at the throat of American democracy and left it there.
Now, the Republican party draws its energy, its foremost reason for existence, from its efforts to install and uphold various forms of minority rule. Even excepting Trump for a moment, the GOP seeks to insulate its exercise of power from the will of the voters.
In the upcoming Supreme Court term a case called Moore v. Harper is set to be litigated. State legislators in North Carolina are asking the justices to endorse the “independent state legislature theory”, the idea that the Constitution gives sweeping powers to state governments to oversee federal (i.e. presidential) elections in their own states.
Presidents are not chosen directly by voters, but rather by the electoral college, a body of 538 electors who represent the people of the 50 states. Larger states have more electors and smaller states have fewer – California for instance boasts 55 compared to Wyoming’s three. A presidential candidate achieves victory when they cross the 270 vote threshold. All states’ electoral votes are tied to the popular vote of that state meaning that the electoral college typically selects the candidate with more votes nationally – though of course this did not occur in 2016.
However, the endpoint of the ISL theory is that legislatures could choose to dismiss their state’s presidential popular vote and send their own set of electors to the electoral college (as Trump and his allies suggested swing states do in 2020). In practical terms this would permit a Republican legislature in a state ‘won’ by Joe Biden to dismiss this result and cast the state’s votes for Trump.
To most rational people, this looks like naked authoritarianism, and it is. But supporters of the ISL theory might argue that since state legislatures are elected, and since they chose senators until 1913, it is not fantastical to argue they might also be able to choose electors. Nonsense of course, but even more pernicious when one considers what state legislatures in swing states are actually like.
During the very red 2010 midterms, Republicans flipped Wisconsin’s Assembly and immediately gerrymandered it to a frankly ludicrous degree. In the 2018 elections, Democrats swept Wisconsin’s statewide offices; they reelected Senator Tammy Baldwin by 11 points and unseated the incumbent Republican governor, Scott Walker. They also won the popular vote for the Assembly by 8.2%. This convincing margin (the national popular vote in the 2008 presidential election, for instance, was Obama+7.2%) not only failed to produce a Democrat-controlled chamber, it barely dented the Republican supermajority. When all the votes had been counted, Republicans in the Assembly had lost one seat and retained control — 63 seats to 36.
In what can only be described as a *fuck you* to voters, Republicans in the lame duck session then passed laws reducing the power of the incoming, popularly elected, Democratic governor, Tony Evers. So, to recap, Republicans in the Assembly built an election-proof wall that could only be surmounted by a D+20% wave (or pigs flying over it) and then used that power to weaken the importance of voting in determining the direction of state government. It is also worth noting that despite Joe Biden narrowly carrying Wisconsin in 2020, the ISL Theory would permit the aforementioned Assembly to instead select 10 pro-Trump electors.
The Wisconsin case is a perfect example of how minoritarian structures can be used to reinforce one another. Another is the Supreme Court.
There is an unpleasant symbiosis between the Court and the Republican party. I have explored the inflection point that was Barack Obama’s failed nomination of Merrick Garland elsewhere, most recently here, but it is worth recapping quickly.
The death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016 meant a Court vacancy and another appointment for Obama. Scalia was the fifth conservative, and so the installation of a liberal justice would have flipped the body’s balance in favour of liberals. Prospective justices must be confirmed by the Senate which, since the 2014 elections, had been controlled by Republicans under Mitch McConnell. McConnell, unprecedentedly, refused to grant a hearing for Garland and held the seat open until 2017 when the new president, Donald Trump, could nominate a conservative.
It is widely believed that the vacancy left by Scalia was a key motivating force for evangelicals and movement conservatives (the socially conservative grassroots dominant since the 1980s) soft in their support for Trump against Clinton. Their ‘homecoming’ likely helped him to eke out his electoral college win (whilst losing the popular vote).
Over the course of his presidency, Trump nominated and saw confirmed three new justices. Or, to put it another way, a man who attained his office through a minoritarian pathway (the electoral college) used a body which systematically overweights Republicans (the Senate) to lock in conservative control of the Supreme Court for a generation.
With its right ascendant, the Court has frequently implemented Republican policy on the party’s behalf; most recently through the Dobbs decision which overturned the right to an abortion, held by women for half a century. Of course, none of this validates my “symbiosis” theory. In order to do that, one must illustrate that the Court has consistently ruled in ways which maximise the electoral power and advantage of Republicans.
Well, it has.
In the 2010 case, Citizens United v. FEC, the 5-4 Court wielded the First Amendment to invalidate extant restrictions on campaign spending by independent organisations (like corporations). The expectations at the time that this influx of “dark money” would aid Republicans proved prescient and were borne out in academic research. Similarly, 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which axed swathes of the Voting Rights Act, permitted Republicans at the state level to impose onerous restrictions on the franchise.
The cumulative effect of all this self-dealing is thus: a conservative Supreme Court dismantles the guardrails of American democracy so as to advantage Republicans who would otherwise struggle to win national power. The Republicans then use this anti-democratic edge to shore up their control of the Supreme Court which in turn goes even further in its support for Republican political ends – for instance by…oh I don’t know….upholding segments of the independent state legislature theory?
And so on, and so forth, cracking and eroding.
If democracy is a tree then American conservatives have spent years poisoning the soil. Now it might well be weak enough to cut down.
And what is it all for? What does the Republican party actually want? Well, part of it is simply grievance, the GOP serving as a receptacle for American bitterness and resentment. One of the sharpest ever bits done by the satirical news organisation, The Onion, was this report immediately following the defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012 titled After Obama Victory, Shrieking White-Hot Sphere of Pure Rage Early GOP Front-Runner For 2016.
Another part of it is slavish devotion to Trump. That the Rs can’t seem to quit the big orange hunk seems self-evident at this point.
Then there are Republican policies. Unfortunately, there is not one recent comprehensive statement of what the party would like to do in office; in 2020, the Convention neglected to develop a policy platform, in effect pointing at Trump and saying “whatever he wants.”
Thus we are forced to look at the following: (1) what Trump did in office, (2) what high profile national Republicans say they want to do after the midterms, and (3) what state-level Republicans have done since Biden was inaugurated.
In the case of (1), we are forced to conclude: not much. The only flagship piece of partisan legislation to pass during Trump’s administration was a regressive tax cut which failed to drive economic growth but did balloon the deficit.
There is, however, a bit more meat on the bones of (2). Whilst Mitch McConnell has been coy about Republican plans for 2023 and beyond, the ghoulish head of the NRSC (National Republican Senatorial Committee), Rick Scott, has laid out plans to (among other things) sunset Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid after five years.
Even more concerningly, the most likely Speaker next Congress, Kevin McCarthy, has been transparent about his intent to use the looming debt ceiling negotiations in order to force spending concessions. What this means in practise is that House Republicans intend to put a gun to the head of the economy and threaten a default on the debt of the *United fricking States* unless Biden cuts entitlement programmes. The party’s newfound apocalyptic ideation might even make them pull the trigger. At any rate, it should be of some concern that Republicans, not yet back in office, are already toying with an economic crisis.
Finally, we must turn to (3). GOP state legislatures have been rather busy; unfortunately their chosen policies seem to reflect the controlling judgement which so repelled Goldwater. Republicans have been rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, particularly those of the trans community.
In 2021, Arkansas became the first state in the nation to ban gender-affirming care for minors (a law currently under temporary block by federal courts). It has been noted (most recently and prominently by Jon Stewart in an interview with Leslie Rutledge, the state’s AG) that Arkansas typically follows the American Medical Association’s advice, i.e. in treating paediatric cancers, but has overruled the avowed consensus of the medical community as it pertains to trans children. The obvious reality is that the hypocrisies labelled “protecting the children” are being used as a cudgel to punish vulnerable minors and their families, simply for existing.
The state(s) arrogantly wading into private, particularly medical, affairs based on the prejudices of Republican authorities appears the defining feature of the party’s recent legislating. Republican lawmakers have been banning books which address topics of race and sexuality, they have been prohibiting in classrooms recognition of the very existence and validity of LGBTQ people, and they have been implementing comprehensive bans on abortion with predictably tragic consequences.
This jaunt through the house of horrors that is Republican policy reveals the following: the party’s economics are still broadly plutocratic, altered from (say) 2005 predominantly by their practical wedding to the party’s new tear-it-all-down philosophy. Republican social policies are hammers applied to things which look nothing like nails, theocratically coded morality plays which marginalise, victimise, and harm. Looking at them, it is hard to dismiss the now-famous Adam Serwer judgement, “the cruelty is the point.”
The Second Coming, the Yeats poem from which the broader title of this column is taken, contains the line “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. In the context of American politics, that passive voice is misplaced. In the context of American politics, Republicans have unleashed anarchy,
It is poorly understood quite how dangerous and extreme the party is. Perhaps American democracy survives a second Trump run, even a second Trump term – to be honest with you, it probably does (despite the inevitable weakening and hollowing that would occur). But, for the first time in a very long time, it might not. This possibility that the world’s totemic democracy might be irrecoverably damaged must concern anyone who still believes that liberal democracy is the best method we have for organising society.
What is the Republican party? An entity which does not merit a shred of political power.
Image: CC:2.0//Andy Felliciotti via Unsplash.