I know, I know... I've been getting hung up on this whole fascism thing and political violence and the U.S. as a failing state. I hope I'm wrong about it but I'm noticing that I'm not the only person worrying about it. A few days ago Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman approached the subject-- without ever mentioning fascism or naziism-- in a piece called The Roots Of The Republican War On Democracy. He began by noting that "A decade and a half ago, Republicans took a particular rhetorical style, one characterized by apocalyptic predictions and wild exaggerations of the supposed villainy of their opponents, and moved it from the fringe into the center of their party. Then, something surprising happened: They came to believe it. And now they’re acting on it."
Let’s begin in Wisconsin, a vivid example of Republicans’ ability to all but eliminate electoral competition. After winning control of state government in the 2010 elections, the party gerrymandered district maps so brutally that their majorities were guaranteed even when Democrats got many more votes. In 2018, for instance, Democrats won 53 percent of votes for the state assembly, but held only 36 percent of the seats.
But you can’t gerrymander a statewide election, so what do you do? As the New York Times reports, Republicans livid that the state’s voters chose Joe Biden in 2020 “are engaged in an all-out assault on the state’s election system.”
They are aiming their fire at the bipartisan election commission they themselves created five years ago; prominent Republicans are proposing that the commission’s members be arrested and charged with felonies, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has proposed that the Republican state legislature simply take control of elections in the state.
The result could be a system in which elections in Wisconsin are about as fair as those in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. People will still cast ballots, but the result will be predetermined.
Why would they drop even the pretense of believing in fair elections administered by nonpartisan officials? For a clue, let’s visit the recent National Conservatism Conference. As David Brooks describes it for the Atlantic, every unhinged speech from a small-time activist was echoed by ambitious Republican politicians such as Sens. Josh Hawley (MO), Ted Cruz (TX), and Marco Rubio (FL):
The politicians’ speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics: “The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” said Hawley. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.” “The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America,” said Cruz. “It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.” “We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life,” said Rubio.
Former Orlando Congressman Alan Grayson is the progressive, anti-fascist Democrat contesting Rubio's seat-- if he can get by the garden variety status quo careerist Democrat Chuck Schumer picked to be this year's Kyrsten Sinema, Val Demings. This morning he told me that "The so-called 'border crisis,' 'Antifa' attacks, the Rittenhouse defense and every other form of feigned indignation on the right all are means to try to usher in fascism. In fact, the doctrine of 'self-defense' as an excuse for fascist violence has a long and nasty history. Goering said this: 'voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.'"
It certainly appears to be working in ours right now. Waldman continued warning that "Hawley, Cruz and Rubio aren’t saying the left is trying to build a future for America that conservatives will find alienating, or that will embody values they dislike. They’re saying that liberals want to literally destroy the country. If you give it even a moment’s thought, it’s utterly deranged-- is Nancy Pelosi planning to rule over gangs of violent thugs rampaging over a post-apocalyptic landscape like Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome after the destruction of America is complete The senators aren’t that stupid. But by all available evidence, much of the right actually believes it."
If that’s what you sincerely believe, then creating autocratic one-party states seems like a perfectly sensible response-- much like staging a violent insurrection seems reasonable if you think the presidential election was actually stolen. If Democrats winning an election is the prelude to the literal destruction of America, then no tactic is out of bounds in response.
You could blame this moral corruption on Donald Trump, but he was only an accelerant of trends that had already taken hold in his party. The real turning point was the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
No Democratic president in modern times was loathed by the right with quite the enthusiasm that Obama was (though Bill Clinton came close). The extreme argument believed only by the right’s loons-- that he was a terrorist plant sent here by some enemy of America-- took over the entire party, at least in modified form.
While a mainstream GOP senator might grudgingly admit Obama was a citizen, they would still insist he had a secret plan to destroy the country. They continued to say this even after Obama had been president for eight years, pursuing standard center-left Democratic policies, and America was not destroyed.
Once Obama left office, the allegation of a secret plan to destroy the country was easily transferred onto the entire Democratic Party and liberal movement: Now, every Democrat, as far as Republicans are concerned, is part of the plot to bring about America’s ruin.
And the barrier between the fringe and the rest of the GOP is barely perceptible. One poll in 2020 found that fully half of Trump supporters believed that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.” Are we supposed to allow that kind of demonic villain to take power simply because they got more votes?
Hold on, you might say: Aren’t Democrats guilty of these kinds of apocalyptic beliefs, too? Didn’t they talk about a Trump victory in 2016 as though it would be the end of civilization as we know it? At times, they did. But there are two things that distinguish them from Republicans on this score.
First, Trump amply demonstrated that he was, and continues to be, a genuine threat to the democratic character of the United States. He attempted to overthrow a fair election so he could stay in office; we were saved from the collapse of the U.S. electoral system only by the incompetence of his attempted coup. You cannot say those who warned of the threat he posed to democracy were exaggerating.
Second, what did Democrats do in response to their fears about Trump? They did not abandon democratic procedures, or stage an insurrection, or try to steal an election. They opposed him with normal political activity: marches, organizing, running for office, voting against him and his party.
But now that another Democrat is in the White House, Republicans are acting as though democracy is itself a tool of America’s destruction. And if they have to dismantle it to get what they want, so be it.
One very worried Member of Congress, who asked to not be identified, told me that she thinks that "our unusually long streak of reasonably good government in the United States is about to come to an end. We are reverting to the mean, which is ignorant chauvinism as a cover for plutocracy."