Assault on democracy
Trump’s cult of the personality is taking on Bonapartist traits. Rather than a fellow member, he plainly sees himself as a monarch, lording over the GOP while in temporary exile. Daniel Lazare reports
Republicans have expelled Liz Cheney - daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney and an ultra-hawk in her own right - from her party leadership position in the House of Representatives. Since Cheney was one of the few Republican members of Congress with the guts to oppose Donald Trump’s attempted power grab on January 6, her purge last week is evidence that the party is continuing to double down on its claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate usurper. As a result, the party’s anti-democratic crusade can only intensify.
Indeed, the crusade already has a slogan - ‘A republic, not a democracy’ - and a theoretician in the form of Mike Lee, an arch-conservative senator from Utah. Lee wrote last October that “democracy is not the goal”, and continued:
The goal is freedom, prosperity and human flourishing. Democratic principles have proven essential to those goals, but only as part of a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, as well as between the federal government and the states.1
There is no doubt that Lee is correct in a strictly formal sense, which is one reason why conditions are proving so favourable for the Republicans’ anti-democratic campaign. Americans vote every four years in presidential elections - but only for special electors, who then choose a president in a roundabout process designed to benefit states that are white, rural and intensely conservative. They vote directly for senators, but as members of a legislative body that is one of the most lopsided on earth by virtue of giving the same weight to a multi-racial urban giant like California that it does to a vast and under-populated state like Montana or Wyoming. Once the voting stops, moreover, Americans then find themselves prisoners of a Supreme Court whose members are appointed for life by the White House and then confirmed by the same woefully racist and unrepresentative body.
So Lee is right. America is every bit as ‘counter-democratic’ as he says it is. But now it is growing even more so, as the anti-voter drive intensifies.
Indeed, by late March, Republicans had introduced 361 bills in 47 out of America’s 50 states aimed at rolling back voter rights. Some aim to rein in absentee voting, some prohibit passing out water to people waiting for hours in the hot sun to cast ballots, while others encourage election officials to purge the rolls of non-voters - a bureaucratic manoeuvre designed to cause problems when supposedly inactive voters show up at the polls. In a novel legal twist, they are seeking criminal penalties for election officials who violate rules and regulations that Republicans are seeking to render ever more complicated. In Texas, this could mean prosecuting election workers who do anything that “would make observation not reasonably effective” for hostile Republican observers notorious for crying foul and shutting down the vote count on the slightest pretext. In Florida, it could mean going after officials guilty of such technical infractions as failing to insure that drop boxes in which voters placed sealed ballots are under continuous supervision. In both Texas and Iowa, it could mean tough penalties for election workers who send out absentee ballots to voters who have not specifically requested them.2
The aim is not only to make it more difficult to vote, but more difficult to hold elections at all - especially those that will survive a legal challenge. Where one pro-Trump court challenge after another flopped in 2020, the idea is to give Republicans more to work with in 2024. The longer they can use such infractions to tie the election process up, the greater the chance that Congress will miss its constitutional deadline for certifying the results the following January. If so, it is anyone’s guess as to what happens next.
The goal is the sort of induced chaos that will allow Trump to stride through the rubble and lay claim to the White House once again. The more Republicans get away with it, the more the constitutional structure’s democratic components will fade, while authoritarian elements advance to the fore.
It is worth pausing to consider how extraordinary all this is. Elsewhere in the so-called advanced democratic world, ultra-right parties continue to make progress, however fitful. In Italy, the two big guns on the far right - Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, the latest incarnation of Italian neo-fascism - together command a stunning 40% of the vote, according to the latest polls, which is more than Mussolini did prior to his 1922 March on Rome.3 In France, Marine Le Pen is polling at 26%, one point ahead of Emmanuel Macron, while Portugal’s Chega (‘Enough!’) Party is surging in the wake of recent presidential elections. The same is true in Belgium, where the ultranationalist Vlaams Belang party is currently polling at 26.3% - six points ahead of its nearest rival.
As disturbing as all this is, none are mounting a direct assault on electoral democracy the way that America’s ‘Grand Old Party’ is. Yet not only are Republicans suffering no harm at the polls as a consequence: they have actually seen a four-point jump in political support to 44%, which puts them well within striking range of the Democrats’ 47%.4 A growing portion of the public seems to agree with Mike Lee that democracy is only one aspect of the American political process - and one that is destined to grow even smaller, as stresses and strains mount.
What does it all mean? Liberals had hoped that Republicans would see the error of their ways after the January 6 insurrection. But it soon became clear that the party had no choice but to rally round Trump, once the shock wore off. Various aspects of American political mechanics are at work in this respect, although one stands out in particular: ie, the requirement in article 1 of the US constitution that members of Congress must live in their home districts, so they can cater to their constituents’ needs first and foremost.
This is a requirement that England had abandoned nearly a century earlier. Hence, Edmund Burke was able to inform the electors of Bristol in 1774 that “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests”. Rather, it was a single body, whose primary loyalty was to the kingdom as a whole. But a congress of ambassadors is precisely how US congressmen see themselves, which is to say as representatives from the boondocks engaging in lonely combat against all and sundry on behalf of the people back home. It is a form of institutionalised parochialism that all but invites them to behave as narrowly as they wish. But, while it may win them re-election, there is a downside - which is that name recognition beyond one’s home turf is bound to be nil.
This is why senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren did so poorly in last year’s Democratic primaries: few people outside their home states of Minnesota and Massachusetts respectively had the slightest idea who they were. By the same token, it is why Trump continues riding high. If there is one thing he enjoys, it is name recognition - which is why pundits pull out their laptops whenever he issues a statement out of Mar-a-Lago and why CNN and MSNBC can be counted on to assemble the usual talking heads to explain why he is wrong. The larger he looms over the Republican political landscape, the more the Lilliputians on Capitol Hill fade into insignificance.
He is therefore unchallengeable, which is why Republicans have no choice but to follow him into battle against the electoral system.
While America has not yet crossed over into fascist territory, properly defined, there is no doubt that it is heading there and that the Trumpian cult of the personality is taking on fascist traits. Rather than a fellow member, he plainly sees himself as a monarch lording over the GOP, while in temporary exile. He treats his fellow Republicans with disdain, allowing them to kiss his ring when they venture down to Florida, but otherwise dismissing them with a wave of the hand. He recently blasted former vice-president Mike Pence as cowardly for not standing up for him on January 6, while denouncing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell as “weak and pathetic”. If McConnell had not wavered, his statement said, “we would right now have a Republican president who would be vetoing the horrific socialistic bills that are rapidly going through Congress, including open borders, high taxes, massive regulations, and so much else!”
Pence’s and McConnell’s response was to maintain a discreet silence rather than incur any more of the royal wrath.
Does this sound like a lion at bay or a rightwing strongman preparing another bid for power? The latter is what keeps Democrats up at night, especially now that the Biden honeymoon is fading and the administration is beginning to encounter turbulence.
The trouble started on Friday May 7, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the economy created only 266,000 new jobs the previous month, 75% less than what pro-administration economists had predicted. Conditions worsened a day later, when a car bomb went off in Kabul, killing 85 people and injuring 147 others - most of them schoolgirls who belong to the oppressed Shi’ite Hazara minority. It was a sign that extricating the US from Afghanistan will not be easy and painless, as the Biden administration had wished.
Monday May 10 then saw a ransomware attack that led to the shutdown of a major interstate gasoline pipeline, resulting in price hikes, panic buying, and political consternation in general throughout the south-east. (As far as most Americans are concerned, ultra-low fuel prices are as much a constitutional right as free speech and guns.) The same day, 124 retired generals and admirals issued a Seven days in May-style open letter, warning that the nation is “in deep peril” due to the administration’s “full-blown assault on our constitutional rights”. On May 12, Republican congressional leaders made it clear at a White House meeting that the outlook is grim for Biden’s much-touted $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, while the labor department announced that inflation had kicked up to a disturbing 4.2%. Finally, Thursday May 13 saw a series of impassioned speeches by members of the Democratic Party’s left wing, accusing the administration of “taking the side of the occupation” with regard to the lopsided war between Israel and Palestine. “Do Palestinians have a right to survive?” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked on the House floor. “Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that as well.”
AOC may be a leftwing outlier as far as most Democrats are concerned, but her words made it clear that Biden cannot ignore the Palestinian-Israeli conflict forever. All told, it was a week from hell that made it eminently clear that trouble is brewing on the economic front, that tensions in the Middle East are as explosive as ever, and that, despite a brief lull, trench warfare is once again resuming on Capitol Hill.
Biden can only weaken, as such problems grow. The more he does, the more Republicans will take heart and intensify their anti-democratic war drive. Americans might have thought that the constitutional wars were over once Trump left office. But they have only just begun.