Resolute Square

The Dangerous Delusion that Democracy Is Saved

Just as courage is contagious, so is cowardice, and the cancer of cowardice is running unchecked in the Republican party. There is no cure because the patient is not seeking one. That means democracy is still in danger.
Credit: Commons
Published:December 20, 2022

I was always the optimist. No matter how far we were down in the polls, I was the guy insisting there was a path to victory. Ten points down with five days to go? That’s no hill for a stepper. All it took was the right ad, the right speech, the right moment, and victory was ours. And you know what? It’s funny how often it did turn around. So much of politics is a battle of wills.
I miss those days. I miss waking up with the intensity only the conviction of hope can bring, the driving energy that the fortunes of war will break our way. Because I’m not that guy anymore. Call it a lapse of faith. My role was always to reassure the doubters, to convert the unbelievers, to soothe the ragged edges of negativity. Now when I look ahead, I am filled not with the uplifting certainty that tomorrow will be better but with the gnawing dread of what is to come.
When I finished “It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” I gave the manuscript to a close friend with the warning, “It’s depressing but short.” His response stuck with me: “So are suicide notes.”
Today many are eager to celebrate the Public Death of Donald Trump. Every poll showing Trump losing vote share among Republicans is seized with the intensity of a cancer patient desperate for post-chemo positive results. “We’ve turned the corner; the madness has broken.”
Oh, my children, if only it were so. This is all just beginning. The odds are far greater that the coup attempt of January 6, 2021, will be remembered nostalgically as a day the system held rather than the turning point in a victorious struggle. I understand the need to believe that the ship of democracy has been righted, the yearning to look at the last two elections as proof the sane pro-democracy voices of American normalcy are returning to dominance. I’d like to believe that in the most desperate sort of way. But I can’t.
My problem is that I know these people, and as bad as you think they are, they are worse. It’s not that they are evil - though some are. But mostly, they are just weak. Evil would be preferable. Evil can be confronted and defeated. Weakness is the slow leak of decency that can never be plugged.
Most of the Republican politicians who are betraying the legacy of democracy would be good neighbors. Most would not hesitate to help change a tire on a dark road at night. But when the moment came to protect America, they chose power over country, self-preservation over principle. The American Experiment has endured because, at the moment of critical testing, each generation of Americans has done what it took to protect the legacy they inherited. It was never perfect, often flawed, but at the Little Round Tops of America’s destiny, our country has been blessed with the combination of leadership and courage needed to carry the day.
That is the test that this generation of Republicans has failed. Diagnosing their failure isn’t complicated, nor is the reason novel; when faced with the decision to do what was easy or what is right, they chose easy. And just as courage is contagious, so is cowardice, and the cancer of cowardice is running unchecked in the Republican party with no cure in sight. There is no cure because the patient is not seeking one. The majority of Americans look at the Republican party and ask some form of “what is wrong with these people?” But the Republican party doesn’t view itself as sick or in trouble. No one hijacked the Republican party. It is what it wants to be, and the transition from a center-right governing party to an autocratic movement is only accelerating, with no reason to believe it will change course.
My question to those eager to believe the storm has moved on is simple: why do you think Republicans will change? What center of power in the party will steer it back toward believing in America more than believing in ambition? Oscar Wilde called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience but given our experience with the Republican party, what reason is there to hope?    
No party or political movement with anti-democratic tendencies ever became more democratic once in power. What’s playing out now with the Republican Party is just a variation of all the wishful thinkers about Trump in 2016 who excused their support for a lunatic with, “The office will change him.”
The power center in the House of Representatives now rests solidly with Marjorie Taylor-Greene, the gatekeeper to Kevin McCarthy’s groveling attempts to become Speaker. A sane, governing party would expel a dangerous nut like Greene, but this Republican party elevates her to a power broker. What can you say about a party that embraces a pro-Putin stooge who has bragged that if she and Steve Bannon had planned the January 6 coup, it would have succeeded? And there’s no reason to doubt that is exactly what will happen next time.
What can you say about a party that turns to an election denier like Ron DeSantis as the “good Republican” alternative to Donald Trump? Not long ago, any elected official who would not assert that the president of the United States was legally elected would have been thrown into the waste basket of cranks and loonies, but now that’s a pre-requisite to be a Republican presidential contender. Like the last male virgin at the bar at closing time, there is nothing DeSantis won’t say or do in a desperate appeal for attention.
The Florida governor, now hailed as the next Ronald Reagan by what passes for the Republican establishment, is the man who thought it would help him politically to prey on vulnerable families who had come to America legally to seek political asylum. And tragically, in today’s Republican party, it did help him. How far the party has fallen. Ronald Reagan announced in front of the Statue of Liberty and chose to celebrate immigrants in his last public speech in office. Ronald Reagan signed legislation giving legal status to every immigrant who was in the country before 1986. Ron DeSantis used taxpayer funds to take advantage of asylum seekers whose only mistake was believing in the America Ronald Reagan celebrated.
President George W. Bush gave the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Anthony Fauci for “his determined and aggressive efforts to help others live longer and healthier lives,” hailing his immigrant roots as proof of American greatness. Ron DeSantis mocks Dr. Fauci as “that little elf who should be thrown across the Potomac.” When his political consultants tell him he can better his chances to be the Republican nominee in 2024 by riding the anti-vax wave, he holds a press conference threatening vaccine manufacturers. Florida passes a bill granting former felons the right to vote. DeSantis announces the creation of a new law enforcement agency to arrest those felons who voted without paying fines that no agency could tell them they owed and who had been approved to vote by the DeSantis administration. This is a little man with big ambitions, and it will be a strange pleasure watching Donald Trump humiliate and break him as he did that other Florida Republican, Marco Rubio.
A Republican party that is going to be “saved” from Donald Trump by Ron DeSantis is not a governing party. It is an autocratic movement dedicated to no core principles but the acquisition and maintenance of power. Trump’s coalition was 85% percent white in a country that is under 60% percent white and headed to a majority-minority status, and all the Steven Millers in the world can’t slow a changing America.
When democracies slide into autocracy, there are always five key factors needed for success: the support of a major political party, a propaganda wing, wealthy financiers, shock troops, and a legal movement to legitimize the transition. All of these elements are in place today. Each is growing in power. When Georgia passes a law enabling the state legislature to overturn the popular vote in a presidential, when it happens, it will be perfectly legal. What so many fail to grasp is that the GOP isn’t focused on perfecting the next coup attempt. It’s focused on making a coup unnecessary.
I’d like to say the autocrats have no chance, but that seems somewhere between foolish and naïve. My former self would be convinced of democracy’s inevitability. Now I’m only confident that if we don’t fight, the autocrats are inevitable. I can’t call that optimistic. But I know it’s true, and the truth will have to do until something better arrives.