If you want to feel an even greater sense of urgency about saving our democracy than you already do, listen to this Pod Save America episode with Obama foreign policy alum Ben Rhodes, who’s out with a new book about the decline of democracy around the world, called After The Fall: Being American In The World We’ve Made.
In the podcast, Rhodes talks about the conversations he’s had with activists in Hungary, Hong Kong, Russia, and other places where democracy is either on life support or worse. But what’s so disturbing about those conversations—with people who live in countries that most of us consider far worse off than we are—is just how similar their descriptions are to what we are experiencing here in the United States.
Rhodes recounted one of those conversations in an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro:
The starting point for this book is I talked to one of these Hungarian oppositionists, an anti-corruption activist, and I said, how did your country become, you know, a dictatorship in basically a decade after being a democracy? And he said, well, it’s simple. Viktor Orban got elected on right-wing populism as a backlash to the financial crisis. He packed the courts with right-wing judges. He changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote and harder for others. He kind of enriched some cronies who then bought up the media, financed Orban’s politics and created kind of a right-wing propaganda machine. And he wrapped it up in a nationalist message, a blood-and-soil nationalist message. We are the true Hungarians. It’s us versus them. The them can be immigrants. They can be Muslims. They’re George Soros.
So even though I felt encouraged this week by the Democratic dominance of a special election in New Mexico, I also can’t help but look at the current political landscape and see warning signs everywhere. The truth is, Democrats can overwhelmingly win the political arguments we need to win heading into next year, and we will still be underdogs based on Republicans’ structural advantages.
As I noted last week, now that Republicans have embraced the concept of minority rule, they are moving with fascist precision to structurally lock in minority power in every way they can.
At the same time, they have successfully weaponized chaos and disinformation, which can now be wielded to help them rig elections to win elections, or alternatively blow up the system if they don’t get their way. With roughly two-thirds of GOP voters believing the totally baseless lie that the 2020 presidential election was somehow illegitimate and/or stolen, Republican lawmakers can justify passing almost any voting law to their base. So while Democrats inoculate the country, put checks in people’s bank accounts, and hone their messaging for the midterms, Republicans have capitalized on the Big Lie to tilt the electoral system even further in their direction.
As a backstop to notching electoral wins, Donald Trump will spend the summer using a series of rallies to groom his cultists to take up arms in the event that he fails to regain control of the Oval Office. The toxic combination of Trump’s grievance politics, mixed with delusional thinking and crushing disappointment, were the exact elements that led to Jan. 6 in the first place. So when retired general and Trump henchman Michael Flynn starts floating the idea that there’s no reason a coup couldn’t happen here in America, his incendiary rhetoric is less sensationalist and more reality based than any of us would like to believe. Remember, even though turnout at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 was actually a fairly paltry 25,000 or so (the Women’s March, for instance, drew roughly half a million protesters to Washington), it only took 800 rioters to storm the Capitol and wreak havoc.
I am reminded of a David Brooks column in The New York Times a couple months ago, which described the violent mindset of both Trumpers and many Republicans more generally.
This level of catastrophism, nearly despair, has fed into an amped-up warrior mentality.
“The decent know that they must become ruthless. They must become the stuff of nightmares,” Jack Kerwick writes in the Trumpian magazine American Greatness. “The good man must spare not a moment to train, in both body and mind, to become the monster that he may need to become in order to slay the monsters that prey upon the vulnerable.”
That brings me to a tweet this week from former FBI special agent and CNN analyst Asha Rangappa, taking Trump’s Big Lie beyond the realm of deluded disinformation and reframing it as a domestic terror threat. In light of Trump’s deranged fantasies of being “reinstalled,” she wrote, “we need to really start understanding the Big Lie as a terrorist ideology.” Rangappa also linked to a CNN clip from last week, in which she teased out why the Big Lie should viewed as a terror threat.
Similar to a terrorist ideology, she explained, “It is offering a cause, a justification, to fight for—one that is actually clothed in some kind of noble, civic virtue. And it’s promising a return, if they are successful, to the ascension of the rightful ruler—in this case, Trump.”
Of course, Republicans are also pushing that threat at the highest levels of government. “We have basically a domestic terror movement which is represented in Congress and is continuing to be promoted,” Rangappa added.
So, what to do about all this? As I outlined last week, investing early in turnout operations and candidates now is one way to compound all the work we will do next year. One addition I would make to some of the races and candidates I listed, based on our conversation with Run For Something’s Amanda Litman on The Brief this week, is that state parties are also a good capacity-building investment since they are there both before and after all the campaign dollars come and go.
We also need—and appear to be getting—a maximal pressure campaign on the two Democratic senators who are clearly more committed to protecting the minority rights of GOP senators than they are to protecting the rights of American voters at the ballot box: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Hopefully, President Joe Biden’s thinly-veiled reference this week to them siding with Republicans during a major speech about racial injustice in Tulsa will be the beginning of a coordinated Democratic campaign to make life as miserable and hellish as humanly possible for them for the duration of their commitment to torpedoing our democracy. They should be spared nothing.
It’s also clear that a giant part of what is making the GOP’s systematic assault on democracy possible is the fact that roughly two-thirds of their voters are swimming in a sea of delusion right alongside Trump and his rotted brain. And while both Twitter and Facebook have banned Trump from their platforms for the foreseeable future, the platforms themselves are still radicalizing conservatives by mainlining disinformation to them. It’s time for the White House and Democrats to start pushing regulation of those tech companies to the forefront, and it’s an issue on which they might be able to find some bipartisan buy-in, since Republican voters are convinced they are being cancelled by Big Tech. As one of the Pod Save America guys noted (likely either Rhodes or Dan Pfeiffer), our democracy simply cannot wait for companies like Facebook to figure out how to police themselves and promote free speech without destroying democracy in the process.
In the coming weeks and months, I will undoubtedly think of more things we need to be doing to give our democracy a fighting chance over the next decade, but the bits above are what caught my attention this week. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of focusing on one task at a time right now. Rather, we have to play like scrappy underdogs looking for every angle possible to improve our chances of beating a team of lesser talents that has paid off the refs and threatened a violent post-game revolt if they lose.
We can win this and save one of the world’s longest-standing democracies, but only if we are clear about the game our enemy is playing and the hurdles we must surmount to defeat them.