November 20, 2023
Yesterday, David Roberts of the energy and politics newsletter Volts noted that a Washington Post article illustrated how right-wing extremism is accomplishing its goal of destroying faith in democracy. Examining how “in a swing Wisconsin county, everyone is tired of politics,” the article revealed how right-wing extremism has sucked up so much media oxygen that people have tuned out, making them unaware that Biden and the Democrats are doing their best to deliver precisely what those in the article claim to want: compromise, access to abortion, affordable health care, and gun safety.
One person interviewed said, “I can’t really speak to anything [Biden] has done because I’ve tuned it out, like a lot of people have. We’re so tired of the us-against-them politics.” Roberts points out that “both sides” are not extremists, but many Americans have no idea that the Democrats are actually trying to govern, including by reaching across the aisle. Roberts notes that the media focus on the right wing enables the right wing to define our politics. That, in turn, serves the radical right by destroying Americans’ faith in our democratic government.
Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele echoed that observation this morning when he wrote, “We need to stop the false equivalency BS between Biden and Trump. Only one acts with the intention to do real harm.”
Indeed, as David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo puts it, “the gathering storm of Trump 2.0 is upon us,” and Trump and his people are telling us exactly what a second Trump term would look like. Yesterday, Trump echoed his “vermin” post of the other day, saying: “2024 is our final battle. With you at my side, we will demolish the Deep State, we will expel the warmongers from our government, we will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the Communists, Marxists, and Fascists, we will throw off the sick political class that hates our Country, we will rout the Fake News Media, we will evict Joe Biden from the White House, and we will FINISH THE JOB ONCE AND FOR ALL!”
Trump’s open swing toward authoritarianism should be disqualifying even for Republicans—can you imagine Ronald Reagan talking this way?—but MAGA Republicans are lining up behind him. Last week the Texas legislature passed a bill to seize immigration authority from the federal government in what is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution, and yesterday, Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that he was “proud to endorse” Trump for president because of his proposed border policies (which include the deportation of 10 million people).
House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has also endorsed Trump, and on Friday he announced he was ordering the release of more than 40,000 hours of tapes from the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, answering the demands of far-right congress members who insist the tapes will prove there was no such attack despite the conclusion of the House committee investigating the attack that Trump criminally conspired to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election and refused to stop his supporters from attacking the Capitol.
Trump loyalist Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) promptly spread a debunked conspiracy theory that one of the attackers shown in the tapes, Kevin Lyons, was actually a law enforcement officer hiding a badge. Lyons—who was not, in fact, a police officer—was carrying a vape and a photo he stole from then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and is now serving a 51-month prison sentence. (Former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) tweeted: “Hey [Mike Lee]—heads up. A nutball conspiracy theorist appears to be posting from your account.”)
Both E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted yesterday that MAGA Republicans have no policies for addressing inflation or relations with China or gun safety; instead, they have coalesced only around the belief that officials in “the administrative state” thwarted Trump in his first term and that a second term will be about revenge on his enemies and smashing American liberalism.
MIke Davis, one of the men under consideration for attorney general, told a podcast host in September that he would “unleash hell on Washington, D.C.,” getting rid of career politicians, indicting President Joe Biden “and every other scumball, sleazeball Biden,” and helping pardon those found guilty of crimes associated with the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. “We’re gonna deport a lot of people, 10 million people and growing—anchor babies, their parents, their grandparents,” Davis said. “We’re gonna put kids in cages. It’s gonna be glorious. We’re gonna detain a lot of people in the D.C. gulag and Gitmo.”
In the Washington Post, Josh Dawsey talked to former Trump officials who do not believe Trump should be anywhere near the presidency, and yet they either fear for their safety if they oppose him or despair that nothing they say seems to matter. John F. Kelly, Trump’s longest-serving chief of staff, told Dawsey that it is beyond his comprehension that Trump has the support he does.
“I came out and told people the awful things he said about wounded soldiers, and it didn’t have half a day’s bounce. You had his attorney general Bill Barr come out, and not a half a day’s bounce. If anything, his numbers go up. It might even move the needle in the wrong direction. I think we’re in a dangerous zone in our country,” Kelly said.
Part of the attraction of right-wing figures is they offer easy solutions to the complicated issues of the modern world. Argentina has inflation over 140%, and 40% of its people live in poverty. Yesterday, voters elected as president far-right libertarian Javier Milei, who is known as “El Loco” (The Madman). Milei wants to legalize the sale of organs, denies climate change, and wielded a chainsaw on the campaign trail to show he would cut down the state and “exterminate” inflation. Both Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, two far-right former presidents who launched attacks against their own governments, congratulated him.
In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took on the question of authoritarianism. Robert J. Biggs, a terminally ill World War II veteran, wrote to Eisenhower, asking him to cut through the confusion of the postwar years. “We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth,” Biggs wrote. Eisenhower responded at length. While unity was imperative in the military, he said, “in a democracy debate is the breath of life. This is to me what Lincoln meant by government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”
Dictators, Eisenhower wrote, “make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems—freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”
Once again, liberal democracy is under attack, but it is notable—to me, anyway, as I watch to see how the public conversation is changing—that more and more people are stepping up to defend it. In the New York Times today, legal scholar Cass Sunstein warned that “[o]n the left, some people insist that liberalism is exhausted and dying, and unable to handle the problems posed by entrenched inequalities, corporate power and environmental degradation. On the right, some people think that liberalism is responsible for the collapse of traditional values, rampant criminality, disrespect for authority and widespread immorality.”
Sunstein went on to defend liberalism in a 34-point description, but his first point was the most important: “Liberals believe in six things,” he wrote: “freedom, human rights, pluralism, security, the rule of law and democracy,” including fact-based debate and accountability of elected officials to the people.
Finally, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who was a staunch advocate for the health and empowerment of marginalized people—and who embodied the principles Sunstein listed, though that’s not why I’m mentioning her—died yesterday at 96. “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement.
More to the point, perhaps, considering the Carters’ profound humanity, is that when journalist Katie Couric once asked President Carter whether winning a Nobel Peace Prize or being elected president of the United States was the most exciting thing that ever happened to him, Carter answered: “When Rosalynn said she’d marry me—I think that’s the most exciting thing.”