GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy jetted to Florida this week to kiss the ring of the man who tried to get him and his congressional colleagues killed at the Capitol on Jan. 6. McCarthy, who is now groveling at Donald Trump’s feet after admitting he “bears responsibility” for the violent siege, was there to enlist Trump’s help in retaking the House majority in the midterms. “United and ready to win in ’22,” McCarthy tweeted following his unconditional surrender to Trump, as the Trump campaign circulated a garish photo of the two making nice.
And after letting reports flourish earlier this month that he believed Trump had committed impeachable offenses, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined 44 of his GOP colleagues in casting a vote to discredit Trump’s impeachment trial before it even starts. McConnell, who ensured Trump’s trial wouldn’t begin until he had already left office, provided his caucus the escape hatch of claiming the trial is unconstitutional precisely because Trump has left office. Right on cue, McConnell’s lieutenants have piped up to tell us why they don’t have to lift a finger to hold Trump accountable. “I think he’s been held accountable in the court of public opinion already,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told CNN.
But more importantly, McConnell, who was straddling the fence between truth telling and sedition abetting, has come down squarely on the side of the seditionists.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the only GOP congressional leader who has unequivocally told the truth about Trump’s “betrayal” of the nation without going squishy, has now found herself the subject of a targeted revenge campaign by Trump and his henchmen. The lion’s share of Cheney’s time over the next two years will be consumed with an existential battle to retain her leadership post, survive a Republican primary for her seat, and, well, just plain survive.
In the meantime, federal agents at FBI headquarters are likely drawing links between at least a handful of Republican lawmakers and right-wing extremist groups in spoke-and-wheel analysis charts—a proposition former FBI Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi marveled over on MSNBC. “To think that the images of U.S. members of Congress are now on those connected-dots charts inside some office at FBI headquarters is unbelievable to me,” he said on Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rather bluntly referred to a group of radical GOP lawmakers this week as the enemy “within,” as her Democratic members lobby for increased personal protection from their Republican counterparts.
But as damning as the extremest links of GOP representatives like Arizona’s Paul Gosar and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene are, it’s the election fraud lies Republican leaders continue to stoke that present the gravest long-term threat to our democracy. Left to fester unchecked among the masses, those lies will lead to violence, mass destruction, and even systemic abuse of innocent Americans by the U.S. government if an autocrat-in-waiting rises to power. And plenty of those autocrat wannabes are waiting in the wings to capitalize on the unrest alongside Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Just this week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has led particularly lethal nonresponse to the pandemic, refused to answer whether Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was the result of a free and fair election. In November, Noem claimed the election was “rigged,” and she clearly wants that characterization to remain her most decisive declaration about Trump’s loss.
And Fox News host Tucker Carlson is weaponizing the federal government’s new effort to crack down on fringe white supremacist and domestic terror groups. After playing a clip this week of Rep. Adam Schiff of California saying federal law enforcement officials should retool in order to combat domestic extremism “just as we did after 9/11 to the threat from international terrorism,” Carlson twisted the sentiment into an ad hominem attack on all GOP voters.
“Got that? Vote the wrong way, and you are a jihadi,” Carlson said. “You thought you were an American citizen with rights and just a different view, but no, you’re a jihadi, and we’re going to treat you the way we treated those radicals after 9/11, the way we treated bin Laden. Get in line, pal. This is a war on terror.”
No, it’s not a war on Republican voters, it’s a battle against right-wing groups and individuals who resort to violence as a means of achieving political ends. But what we must now accept as Americans is that one of the parties in our two-party system is helping to radicalize domestic terrorists in the homeland. In other words, it is functionally working as a domestic terrorist organization. By failing to tell Republican voters the truth about Trump’s bogus election fraud lie or, worse yet, selling the dangerous notion that GOP voters are being targeted simply for their views, Republican leaders are fueling a sense of helplessness that leads people to believe their only option is to upend the system.
“When those individuals embrace the former president’s rhetoric … when they embrace the extremist rhetoric that the democratic process is broken and the election was stolen, they put people in this mindset that their only recourse is violence and no longer through the political process,” explained Miles Taylor, the person who once penned the dubious “Anonymous” op-ed in The New York Times, but who nonetheless has a window into domestic terrorism and the Trump administration’s efforts to cover up the threat. Speaking with MSNBC on Thursday, Taylor called the GOP’s posture “extraordinarily dangerous,” adding that “we’ve never seen anything like it” in modern American times.
To be clear, our current political picture is one of democracy in retreat, and the Republican Party is actively fueling that destabilization. Violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6 is only the tip of the iceberg, and the vast majority of GOP officials are either afraid of the monster now devouring their party (e.g. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman retiring) or hideously trying to figure out how to capitalize on the outrage to their own political benefit.
But as The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observed, “Democracy can’t function at the point of a gun.”
No, it cannot. Any normal column would end about now, but the question clearly is: What do we about all this to save our democracy? And while I don’t have all the answers, I’ll offer a few brief insights, most of which were inspired by the Throughline podcast on The Anatomy of Tyranny with historian Timothy Snyder (I highly recommend a listen and the follow-up episode with Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen has also dropped).
In brief, we need a dual short-term and long-term approach. In the short term, Democrats need to keep winning elections. Period. But on top of that, we must actually deliver on making people’s lives better and more stable through providing decent jobs, dependable health care, and particularly right now, immediate economic relief. As Snyder noted, chaos and instability only feed the beast by making people feel more helpless and resentful. In order for people to have the bandwidth to listen to each other in a democracy, they must have some measure of stability and the prospect of opportunity in their lives.
Longer term, we absolutely must hold Trump accountable in order to knock him down from his demigod status among Trumpers and also keep him from creating a shadow presidency (for which he is clearly already in the process of consolidating power). The FBI must rigorously be monitoring extremists and prosecuting them, which sounds obvious. But the people who attacked the Capitol must be clearly marked as having participated in a crime against the state. And more federal resources must be devoted to the effort to root out domestic terrorism.
But the bigger goal here is to do everything we possibly can to keep Trump’s “Big Lie” about election fraud and, more broadly, disenfranchisement, from living on unchallenged in such a way that it gains steam over a period of years. Snyder, the author of On Tyranny, told Throughline it’s the type of lie that many Germans believed about Jews, which Hitler helped fuel and then capitalized upon to seize and consolidate power. Here’s Snyder in a separate NPR piece:
A big lie has singular potency, says Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, whose books include studies of Hitler, Josef Stalin, the Holocaust and tyranny.
“There are lies that, if you believe in them, rearrange everything,” he says.
“Hannah Arendt, the political thinker, talked about the fabric of reality,” Snyder says. “And a big lie is a lie which is big enough that it tears the fabric of reality.”
In his cover story for The New York Times Magazine this week, Snyder calls Trump “the high priest of the big lie.”
As for where big lies lead, Snyder writes: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president.”
“When I say pre-fascism, I mean when you take away facts, you’re opening the way for something else,” Snyder tells NPR. “You’re opening the way for someone who says ‘I am the truth. I am your voice,’ to quote Mr. Trump — which is something that fascists said, as a matter of fact. The three-word chants, the idea that the press are the enemy of the people: These are all fascist concepts.”
“It doesn’t mean that Trump is quite a fascist himself,” Snyder adds. “Imagine what comes after that, right? Imagine if the big lie continues. Imagine if there’s someone who’s more skillful in using it than he is. Then we’re starting to move into clearly fascist territory.”
All of this is much too big to address in one piece, but we need more real facts to reach people who are instead turning to sources like YouTube and Facebook to selectively reinforce their worldview. Part of that is because local newsrooms across the country have been decimated. Part of it is also due to lack of education and critical thinking skills. We must make education affordable and find ways to build fact-based news back into American life, so that it isn’t only accessible to the elite.
And finally, as much as I’m not a fan of almost any Republican, we desperately need the ones who have at least been willing to tell the truth about Trump’s Big Lie. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach and the five Senate Republicans who at least voted to proceed with the trial can be part of the solution, even if some of them have also done considerable damage as part of the problem. We should absolutely be trying to defeat every Republican at the ballot box, but I’m at least willing to give these 15 Republicans a small piece of credit. To greater and lesser extents, some of them actually put their lives on the line because that’s how rabid the fringes of the GOP base have become.
Anyway, much of the short- and long-term solutions involve developing a more robust welfare state. Republicans will spend the next four years crowing that we simply cannot afford it, because deficit (which they didn’t give a damn about for the last four years). What’s clear given where we are now is that we can’t afford not make these investments because cost of not doing so could be democracy itself.