There’s a word to describe political movements that emphasize ethnic, racial and religious solidarity over citizenship and pluralistic values, but it has unpleasant historical associations. Using it only causes political conversations to end in bitterness and name-calling.
So let us simply observe that what’s going on in today’s Republican Party represents the seeming fulfillment of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for the Trump presidency. Undermining confidence in elections has long been Job One in the Kremlin: discrediting democracy to promote strongman rule. But Putin’s too cynical to understand America.
It matters not to him that the strongman in question is an incompetent blowhard, a clownish figure in elevator shoes. One of America’s two dominant political parties is in the process of losing its collective mind. Indeed, the very preposterousness of Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about being cheated out of an election he lost by 7 million votes — claims rejected for lack of evidence in more than 60 courts of law — only enhances its allure for conspiratorial thinkers.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” Voltaire wrote. The harder Trump’s lies are to believe, the more fervently True Believers strive to affirm them. Longtime Republican strategist Sarah Longwell describes the MAGA faithful as “QAnon curious,” professing faith in “deep-state” mythology. “A lot of these base voters are living in a post-truth nihilism,” she told The New York Times, “where you believe in nothing and think that everything might be untrue.”
To give you some idea, a GOP-sponsored election recount in Phoenix has been searching for traces of bamboo on 2 million ballots — based upon a rumor that votes were flown in from South Korea.
No, I couldn’t make that up.
Attending rallies of like-minded believers in MAGA hats is important, yes. But so is the ritual purging of heretics like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who has sinned against the faith by pointing out that Trump lost the election badly. For this, she has been removed from her leadership role in the House, to be replaced by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a onetime New York “moderate” who has taken to parroting Trump’s pronouncements word for word.
Claiming she wants to reassure Americans about “election security,” Stefanik and allies like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are unwittingly following the Kremlin playbook. Back in January, McCarthy professed anger at Trump for raising the mob that attacked Congress. Now he contends that anybody like Cheney blaming Trump for the Capitol riot is “not being productive” and needs to be removed from House leadership.
That said, Democrats, and Cheney herself, are mistaken to speak of Republican “cowardice.” It’s not fear of Trump that drives them so much as naked ambition. And not ambition for the party or the country, it’s important to understand, but for themselves.
One thing Republicans in safe districts know is that the MAGA faithful hold the balance of power. A recent CNN poll showed upward of 70% of Republicans have bought the Trumpian “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. So if Republican in Congress want to remain in office, it’s best to keep skepticism about the claim to themselves, at least until the 2022 primaries are over.
And then what? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Seventy percent of Republicans amounts to less than one-third of the electorate — and shrinking, as GOP party membership has gradually declined in recent years. Trump’s latest favorable rating was 32%. Try as they may, Republican state legislatures won’t be able to prevent Democrats and independents from voting in 2022. Indeed, GOP efforts to make voting harder could very likely end up discouraging their own voters.
Anyway, here’s how things look to one informed Republican, Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix) Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers: “In Maricopa County, only a third of the voters are Republican,” he told The New York Times. “A third are Democrats and a third are independents. If you don’t even have a third of the voting public altogether, how on earth can you expect to win over enough independents and others?”
Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has spoken of the Cheney purge as “a circular firing squad.”
My own favorite Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, put it more colorfully on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Right now, he said, the Republican Party is “basically the Titanic. We’re like in the middle of this slow sink. We have a band playing on the deck, telling everybody it’s fine, and meanwhile, as I’ve said, Donald Trump is running around trying to find women’s clothing to get on the first lifeboat.”
“You don’t have to be a genius to succeed in politics,” the late Robert F. Kennedy once told a friend of mine. “But you do have to be able to count.”
To MAGA believers, counting is heresy. But not to the rest of us.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.
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