Fifth Column of Fools

I have spent a lot of time in these pages warning about Insurrection 2.0: the slow-burning but highly aggressive Republican effort to undermine American democracy and secure permanent power for themselves, in defiance of the will of the electorate. 

I am far from alone in raising that alarm. It is ringing throughout the chattering classes, from the pages of The Atlantic to the latte-soaked cafes of Brooklyn Heights to the meeting rooms of the Center for American Progress, for all the good it seems to be doing. 

I’m one of many who regularly note that this slow motion coup is all the more worrying because it’s not merely Mitch McConnell and his cabal of mustache-twirling GOP supervillains at work (though they’re leading the charge), but a large chunk of the public—about one in three of our countrymen—who are all onboard with right wing autocracy and happy to help advance it. In the words of Kate McKinnon, we know dis.

But the election results in Virginia and New Jersey last Tuesday make it clear that there is a third group that is also abetting this insurgency: those casual, low information American voters who are treating the GOP like a garden variety political party operating within the accepted norms of our representative democracy…..which is precisely what the GOP would like the American people to think. 

Except it ain’t remotely so.

Are Americans’ memories really that short? As short as a goldfish’s, and not in the good, Ted Lasso way?

It was just 11 months ago that the Republican Party tried to overturn a presidential election, resulting in the first time in US history that we did not have a peaceful transfer of power.

I say the “the Republican Party” and not just “Donald Trump” because while Trump certainly fomented and led the Insurrection, the GOP did not man up and disavow it, and still has not. Very much the contrary. After a brief blip when it looked like Republicans might finally break with Trump, they quickly remembered that having a demagogue in command of tens of millions of rabid cult followers was far too useful.

Indeed, in the months since January 6, 2021, obeisance to the Big Lie and affirmation of the idea that Biden is an illegitimate head of state and Trump is the true president has become the sole loyalty test and defining principle of the GOP. No aspiring Republican politician can buck it; the most they can do is equivocate—which is in itself appalling—winking at the right wing base while trying to maintain “viability” with mainstream voters. That is in some ways even more reprehensible, of course. At least QAnon nutjobs, Oathkeeper seditionists, and Louie Gohmert own their despicability. 

And that dishonesty seems to be paying off, as Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind win in the Virginia gubernatorial race shows. This past Tuesday, millions of voters acted as if we are in a pre-2016 world —or perhaps a pre-1992, pre-Newt Gingrich one—where conservative talking points about taxes, spending, deficits, and other quotidian rot are the most pertinent issues on the national agenda. They did not act as if we are in a world where the United States is facing an existential crisis from within, with one of our two major political parties transformed into a full-blown neo-fascist insurgency out to destroy the very fundamentals of our republic. 

Alarmism, you say? OK: go over and sit with Ross Douthat, please. 

Let’s be clear. The Republican Party remains dedicated to what happened on January 6th and is continuing that insurrection by other means. A vote for a Republican candidate isn’t just a vote for old-fashioned “conservative” values, like lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, and such. (Was it ever, really?) It is a vote to aid and abet the GOP’S effort to seize unchallengeable power and put an end to 240 years of the American experiment. 

In the service of that goal, it should come as no surprise that some Republican politicians have figured out how to navigate a path that capitalizes on the energy of the cretinous Trump base while tricking middle-of-the-road voters into believing that they are not part of that fundamentally un-American, kleptocratic, white nationalist movement.

What is surprising, depressing, and deeply worrying is that so many Americans are falling for it.

GENERALISSIMO FRANCISCO FRANCO IS STILL DEAD

No one nailed this phenomenon better than the WaPo’s Perry Bacon, in a piece titled “An Abnormal Republican Party Was Treated Normally by Voters in New Jersey and Virginia.

Tuesday’s election results in New Jersey and Virginia—a big swing away from the party that controls the White House—were fairly normal. And that’s the scary thing. (The results) suggest a reversion to normal—that the 2022 election will feature a GOP base that is more motivated than the Democratic one, along with a small bloc of voters swinging to the GOP….

But in our current abnormal circumstance, with US democracy on the precipice because of the extremism of the current GOP, everyone needs to understand that normal could well be catastrophic.

Always the go-to source to cut through the bullshit, Noam Chomsky reiterates Bacon’s point. While sticking to his longtime belief that the Democratic and Republican parties are just wings of the same “business party,” Noam pointedly rejects the tired and now highly dangerous trope that “both sides are equally bad.”

In earlier years, it was often not too important which faction of the business party took power. In recent years, it has been. Proto-fascism is on the march. Worse still, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, we’re are advancing to a precipice from which there will be no return. Four more years of Trumpism might well tip the balance.

Even so, is it smart (of me) refer to people we’re trying to win over as “fools”? Clearly not. But there are several reasons that militate for doing so anyway. 

First, I’m not sure they can be won over. If nothing else, the last five years have taught us that reason is a pathetically weak weapon in American political discourse, where “feeling” and emotion are king.

Second, sometimes you gotta call a shovel a shovel.

Third, I was seduced by the alliteration of my title.

WARNING: Mansplaining section ahead.

According to Wikipedia, font of all knowledge, a fifth column is “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.” (The term originated in a cable from Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, whose spirit is alive and well in the GOP.) And I’m here to tell you that we have a kind of fifth column at work in the US right now. We saw it flex its power last Tuesday. 

Make no mistake: The Republican Party’s mandarins are leading the insurgent campaign to seize permanent power in the US. Their rabid MAGA foot soldiers are enthusiastically supporting that campaign, happy to terrorize, physically attack, and even kill their fellow Americans in order to do so. 

But it is the squishy middle of “centrist” voters who might go back and forth between Trump (when they’re sick of politics as usual!) and Biden (when they realize Trump is a madman!) and Trump again (Biden looks sleepy!) that is serving as an unwitting ally in aiding that cause. 

We were told that these swing voters were mythical, that it wasn’t worth our time trying to woo them in these hyperpolarized times. But last week’s elections made it clear that, yes Virginia, there is a persuadable middle, even if it is too easily persuaded by wanton BS. 

For it’s not just gerrymandering, and the installation of reliable Republican toadies in crucial state-level positions like secretary of state, and other perversions of democratic norms that risk delivering the next election or two to the GOP. Virginia and New Jersey were not two of the 19 states that have over the past year enacted egregious voter suppression laws and other measures to skew and manipulate the vote. The people of Virginia and New Jersey freely voted for Republicans in numbers that matched—and in Virginia, beat—the Democrats. (In Jersey, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy won a second term as governor, but in a race that was much tighter than it should have been)

We can talk all we want about Democratic infighting, the stalled infrastructure bills, GOP obstructionism, voter suppression, Afghanistan, Manchin, Sinema, and Jayapal, McAuliffe’s poor campaign, Youngkin’s deceptive affability and repugnant tactics, etc etc. But at the end of the day (also, the beginning, the middle, and all points in between), we have to face the reality that vast numbers of our fellow Americans are genuinely onboard with a party that fundamentally opposes representative democracy, and is totally fine with a brutal, right wing autocracy in its place. 

That group runs the gamut from ambitious young Senators from Missouri to beady-eyed guys in Kevlar vests and Ayn Rand tattoos to suburban soccer moms in Lululemon workout pants who don’t necessarily think Trump is a great frontman for America, but hey, there’s just too much hip hop on the radio these days, don’t you think? And that last member of that unholy trinity poses damn near as much of a threat as the first two.

GLENN YOUNGKIN: AMIABLE, MALLEABLE, AND UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED 

The 2020 election showed that full-blown Trumpism is a bridge too far for most Americans, even center-right ones. But the same policies packaged in a more palatable wrapper stand a far better chance of getting through. 

Now, you may say that that wrapper makes a big difference, a point that Never Trump conservative Jonathan V. Last recently tackled in The Bulwark. 

For the sake of argument, Last suggests that, even if one doesn’t agree with all his policies (or any of them), Glenn Youngkin represents a big improvement from Trump. Youngkin doesn’t seem to have despotic aspirations, and has shown little predisposition to incite political violence over an electoral loss. He “exists in the real world,” as Last notes, and “has at least a normal level of cognitive function,” with politics that are “on a recognizable plane of reality.” (Talk about a low bar.) 

But at a time when we’re still traumatized by having a deranged game show host as our overlord for the past four years, asking what’s so bad about Glenn Youngkin is very much a trick question, and Last quickly dismantles it:

The health of the Republican party is the most important political issue of our time. Democracy doesn’t work with only one healthy political party. You need two of them, otherwise every election becomes a crisis point.

He goes on to define “healthy” as faith in a party’s bedrock commitment to the democratic process; that it “exists within a perception of reality that is more or less shared by the general public;” and that it “is not principally driven by grievance.”

(But) the Republican party as it exists today—both in the composition of a large number of its elected officials and the views of a large percentage of its voting members—does not meet that benchmark.

What marked Youngkin as still being part of the sickness that has infected the Republican party was his refusal to admit to basic, irrefutable facts concerning the 2020 election. These were not matters of opinion or preference, but raw facts of life. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. By quite a lot. The election was free and fair. Period. The end.

Glenn Youngkin danced around this fact for a very long time. Then he tried to finesse it. Then he backed away from it again. This reveals a dangerous lack of commitment to those bedrock commitments on democracy and the rule of law. Not because Youngkin himself would want to throw them over—but because if his voters demanded such a thing of him, he might roll over and give them what they want.

In other words, when the Youngkins of the world refuse to definitively reject the Big Lie—in particular, the idea that any election won by a Democrat is by definition invalid—and instead use it, even obliquely, to advance their own careers, whatever improvement they offer over Trump vanishes in terms of the practical danger to our republic. 

Put it this way: Pretend it’s 2024 and Joe Biden has won Virginia by 500 votes over Donald Trump. Now pretend that Youngkin’s voters demand he do something about it: refuse to certify, “find” 501 votes, work with the legislature to appoint an alternate slate of electors, etc. What is your confidence level that Youngkin would refuse? The problem with Youngkin is that while he, personally, may be pro-democracy, a substantial portion of his voters are not. And he has demonstrated that he is their hostage.

REPUBLICANISM WITHOUT REPUBLICANS

Much ink has been spilled over spineless GOP pols who, for their own selfish purposes, have gotten onboard the garbage scow that is the SS Trump. Paul Krugman recently hammered them—apropos of anti-vax sentiment—in a piece titled, “Cowards, Not Crazies, Are Destroying America.”

Youngkin is one such craven opportunist, and he successfully exploited both the extremism of the mouthbreathing red hat community, and the shoulder-shrugging apathy of “mainstream” Virginians. 

Appalling but true: If the Republican Party can keep Trump’s diehard troglodytes AND win back some of the mainstream conservatives Donald alienated, and without either group being so revolted by the very idea of alliance and compromise that it bolts, the GOP will be formidable. Youngkin is currently hailed as the avatar of that challenging needle-threading; whether it can be replicated in other states remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t rule it out. 

It must be noted that Youngkin’s campaign included a helluva lot of racist dogwhistling—the tried and true Republican M.O. before Trump came along and began to do it with a bullhorn instead. Running for a governorship that sits in the former capital of the Confederacy, he seized on “critical race theory” as a winning approach for white voters seized with racial panic, despite the fact that most of them couldn’t define CRT even if you spotted them the C and the T. That fact suggests the true motivation for a fair number of the casual converts. The Trumpian bullhorn works brilliantly with a shocking number of Americans who are comfortable with their own unabashed racism; the softer approach works well for those who may feel the same way, but don’t like to admit it, even to themselves. 

If Youngkin’s racial fearmongering was the thing that energized these “moderates” to vote for him, then they’re really just more discreet members of that hideous fraternity.

Let’s not forget: Youngkin supporters staged a rally—at which Bannon spoke and Trump phoned in—where they pledged allegiance to a flag carried by the January 6th insurrectionists. In response, Glenn—who was shocked, shocked—offered only a tepid disavowal, before going back to railing about how Old Dominion’s schoolkids really don’t need to learn about slavery.

In another low point, a runner-up to that Pledge of Allegiance thing, Youngkin despicably quoted MLK on judging a man not by the color of his skin but by content of his character, pervertedly using it as a reason not to teach the history of racism in public schools. Neat trick, Glenn! Dr. King, you may recall, was a man your ideological forefathers viciously attacked as a commie stooge, tried to silence, and ultimately murdered. It’s typical Republican shamelessness to pretend to champion him in order to advance an educational policy where American students would never be allowed to learn anything substantive about him? 

Needless to say, this nauseating reactionary jiu-jitsu turns civil rights on its head—much like the concept of “religious liberty” that allows a Christian wedding cake baker to refuse service to a gay couple, but forces women in Texas to live under the sharia law of radical right wing Catholicism. In fact, it’s the kind of Orwellian sleight-of-hand that would impress even Trump. 

Hmmm.

Perry Bacon notes that the results in Virginia and New Jersey “suggest that many voters aren’t too bothered by a Trump-like Republican Party as long as Trump isn’t in the White House.” But if Republican officeholders continue to pursue Trumpist policies, just with better, slicker packaging, as Youngkin is doing, is that better or worse? It might be less openly criminal, and less grotesque to watch, but it might well be more dangerous by virtue of that very veneer of “normalcy.” And as Last points out­, the spinelessness of these Trump Lite candidates does not in any way obviate the possibility of a GOP evisceration of democratic norms, and even political violence, at the behest of the great unwashed MAGA horde that has had a taste of unfettered power and craves more, and a Republican establishment that would love nothing better. 

The GOP remains the Trump Party, no if’s, and’s or but’s—that debate is long settled. Glenn Youngkin’s “fascism with a human face” may be a template for other ambitious members of Omega House, but don’t fool yourself into thinking Donald has been marginalized. 

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank writes:

Youngkin’s victory confirms a depressing reality: Trumpism succeeds as a tactic even in the absence of Trump. Though Youngkin nominally distanced himself from Trump (he didn’t mention Trump often or attend events where Trump spoke on his behalf), he ran a classic MAGA campaign, raising racial fear and animus among White voters by scaring them about crime and the phantom menace of critical race theory. He littered the airwaves with falsehoods and falsely implicated McAuliffe in a dark conspiracy theory involving the FBI. Youngkin emphasized the Trumpian trope of “election integrity” and called for an “audit”of Virginia’s voting machines, while Trump and other Youngkin surrogates told Virginians to expect fraud.

Numerous other pundits, including The Atlantic’s David Graham, have written about this idea of “Trumpism without Trump,” and what Graham calls Youngkin’s “Trump two-step.”

On the one hand, (Youngkin) has relied on his background as a typical milquetoast, pro-business Republican to reassure moderates and independents, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, that he’s not an extremist. On the other, he has managed to use culture-war issues to keep pro-Trump Republicans elsewhere energized and in his corner.

All true, but it misses the larger point. These analyses all proceed from the premise that the Republican Party was the victim of a hostile takeover, and fundamentally transformed by an arriviste parvenu from Queens by way of “The Apprentice.” 

But that gives the GOP far too much credit. 

The Republican Party has long been a party of anti-New Deal plutocracy, and since the time of the Southern Strategy, of weaponized racism as well. Trump didn’t happen to the GOP by accident: he was the logical result of the dark path down which Republicans had long been treading, with McCarthy, Nixon, Thurmond, Reagan, Helms, Atwater, Gingrich, Cheney, and the Tea Party all ghastly milemarkers along the way. 

Youngkin is no more a new form of Republicanism than Trump was. They are both mere variations on the same old tune. And that tune is “Dixie.”

ESPN FOR POLITICAL JUNKIES

In keeping with voters who acted like this was just another old-fashioned election, there was plenty of old-fashioned Monday morning quarterbacking about what it all meant, reflecting a blinkered, pre-Trump mentality. 

“Centrist” Democrats and their media surrogates wailed that this is proof that the party has moved too far left. Progressives like Julian Castro argued that nominating a tired, whitebread candidate and inveterate Clintonista like Terry McAuliffe was exactly the sort of thing that turns young, left-leaning voters off just when we need their energy and enthusiasm and engagement the most. 

Paradoxically, both arguments are partially correct. 

I wrote some time ago that the best way to beat Trumpism would be for the Democrats to show what they can do, to make governance work, and to deliver concrete accomplishments for the American people. (Call me naïve.) My friend and fellow blogger Tom Hall has been skeptical of that—the GOP is waging civil war, and our answer is better highways?—but it’s become a moot point. Biden’s genuine accomplishments are wantonly ignored or bluntly denied by many conservative-leaning Americans. Republican obstructionism has stymied other parts of the his agenda, and I will include Manchin and Sinema as part of that obstructionism rather than buying into the lazy “Democratic infighting” narrative, because they might as well be Republicans, both in their policies and their actions, to say nothing of their personal greed

I have no patience for blaming the delayed passage of the New New Deal on the progressive caucus, let alone laying last Tuesday’s electoral bloodbath at their Birkenstocks. It’s not Pramila Jayapal’s job to get Terry McAuliffe elected when he ran a shitty campaign; it’s her job to get crucial legislation passed for the American people, which she and her colleagues did, by playing hardball with deceitful reactionaries like Manchin and Sinema who refused to negotiate in good faith and wanted progressives to buy a pig in a poke. If that was inconvenient for Terry, he ought to take it up with Joe and Kyrsten.  

(I was cheered to see the MSM seem to recognize that and assign blame to Manchin and Sinema at least as often, if not more, than to the progressive caucus. Even if both infrastructure bills had passed before November 3rd, there was no guarantee that it would have put McAuliffe over the top.)

But we are rapidly approaching a point where this kind of political debate is tragically antiquated, and no longer a factor in bringing about substantive change. Chomsky offers a prescription for what we can do, and might have to do, in the face of this assault on our democracy:

Is there a way to fend off these grave political consequences? Not within the confines of the deeply corrupt and undemocratic political system. The only way that has ever worked, and can work now, is mass popular pressure—what the powerful call “the peasants coming with their pitchforks.”

One last point on the election results: Mona Charen, also writing in The Bulwark, notes that the same Republicans who for more than a year have been screaming themselves baby blue in the face about rampant “voter fraud” and the need for electoral integrity” seemed perfectly happy to accept that a race their guy won by a slim margin was perfectly legit and fair. Charen:

Isn’t it interesting that Democrats appear to have forgotten how to manipulate voting machines, stuff ballot boxes, engage in the wee-hour ballot dumps, collect ballots from dead people, and coordinate with Chinese/Venezuelan governments to change the outcome of elections? Two-thirds of Republicans believe that’s what happened in 2020. And yet, only one year later, Democrats have lost the knack?

It’s almost enough to make one think that these Republicans are dishonest. 

HANNAH ARENDT, WHITE COURTESY PHONE

As I asked in a blog post last spring, why on God’s green earth does any American think the GOP deserves its vote, or even to be taken seriously in the national conversation? I refer you again to the law firm of Venal, Racist, & Dim, LLP.

Jonathan V. Last again:

(W)e no longer live in a country where the peaceful transfer of power is assured and the commitment to democracy and the rule of law is assumed. And until we return to such a place, then electing even Good Republicans is a risk if they are unwilling to stand up to their more authoritarian supporters.

(We can leave the debate over the formulation “Good Republicans” for another time.)

As I say, it would be one thing if the GOP leadership had repudiated the events of January 6th. But it has not, instead simultaneously claiming that a) it wasn’t so bad—more like a church picnic, but also, b) it was terrible!….but antifa and BLM were behind it, in a false flag operation…..oh, but also, c) it was terrible!….but also great, because us patriots need to take our country back, even if it means murdering cops! 

With characteristic savvy, James Carville has said Democrats ought to hammer the GOP with insurrection insurrection insurrection 24/7 and never let the American people forget it. Should be easy to do, no? So how is it that the left has the best writers, musicians, filmmakers, comedians, actors, and artists of all kinds, and yet the right has managed to control the narrative? (This too is a Tom Hall bugbear.)

If last Tuesday proves a harbinger, Jonathan Last offers some chilling predictions of what 2022 and beyond will look like:

Joe Biden may well be impeached by the Republican House.

(I would eliminate “may well” and replace it with “will.”)

Should a SCOTUS seat be vacated, a Republican Senate will not vote on a replacement until 2025, holding the seat open for as long as necessary.

Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.

Mercifully, he leaves out what will happen in that 2024 general election. It’s mind-boggling to think that the American people might well return to the White House a twice impeached human colostomy bag who, through an unholy combination of malevolence and incompetence (or was it incompetence and malevolence?) presided over the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and then sent a lynch mob to overturn an election and murder his own vice president. But they might.

If that happens, it will be because the Democratic Party was inexplicably unable to make the argument that we shouldn’t restore to power the same group of people who just tried to overthrow the government, and have doubled down on that position since.

We often talk about being in a “battle for the soul of the nation.” Since January 6th it’s less a metaphor than a concrete description of the current state of play. But at a certain point, when we see the numbers of our fellow Americans who are on the side of Trumpism, autocracy, and (at least tacit) white nationalism, one begins to wonder if that soul has been irreparably poisoned and can be saved at all. We ought to always remember that those folks remain a minority, albeit a fanatical one, which is part of what makes their success so maddening. But it doesn’t help when the fanatics are abetted by the somnolent. 

We learned in the wake of the Second World War, or should have, just how dangerous banality can be.

Speaking of banality, we all know that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (variously attributed to Mill, Burke, and Obi-Wan Kenobi), and that America is now learning that “a third of the country would kill another third, while the remaining third watches” (a sentiment that originated with a cheeky Werner Herzog impersonator). So if the Republicans do succeed in putting a chokehold on American governance and establishing a one-party Potemkin democracy on the Putin or Duterte or Orban model (they LOOOOOOOVE Orban), it won’t be just because of conniving right wing politicians and the Proud Boys. 

It will also be because tens of millions of our countrymen are basically cool with it. 

**********

Photo: On the campaign trail, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin of Virginia demonstrates his promise that, if he is elected, white players will again dominate the NBA.

Credit: Reuters

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