February 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

A Democrat says the quiet part out loud. The Republicans are democracy’s ‘domestic enemies’

The time for hardball is now.

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Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman, isn’t a good public speaker. Even so, he speaks for me and you. 

Last week, during an interview with The Hill, the House majority whip put Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s fascist turn in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s infant republic.

It’s high time for Americans to take a hard look at our country, where we are and how we fit into the rest of the world. 

When you see Russia, you see an arch-opponent of capitalism, an opponent of democracy, someone [Vladimir Putin] who’s installed himself as president now for over 20 years, see us buying into his rhetoric. The people who are doing it are not doing a good service to this country.

He continued:

There is a reason that the founders put into our oath to protect against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There are some domestic enemies of democracy, of capitalism, who would love to see an autocracy put in place. 

That’s why you’re hearing these endearing phrases coming from people like the 45th president of the United States and a lot of talking heads. That is dangerous stuff. 

If the American people want to pass on to their children and grandchildren a free country full of opportunity for everybody, we had better come on board and stop this thrust toward autocracy.

[That thrust] is taking place with the aid and comfort of a lot of elected officials, who are enemies of fair, unfettered elections.

Needless to say, those “enemies of fair, unfettered elections” are not his fellow Democrats. Clyburn was talking obliquely but clearly about the Republicans in mostly southern states striving to legally steal the social standing and political power of Black people and people of color.

Importantly, Clyburn leveled the charge while an authoritarian state is trying to overthrow a republic for the purpose of preventing the Russian people from seeing an alternative to crime-boss government.

Why is that important? Because Americans are bad at seeing their own problems. Specifically, white Americans. Efforts to disenfranchise racial minorities do not affect them. It’s therefore easy for them to see voter suppression as a “Black problem,” not a problem for democracy.

In the context of an international conflict, with potential to draw America into another European war, things look a lot different. 


“I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a kind of inflection point, highlighting the operational linkages and ideological similarity of white far-right, authoritarian movements around the world.” 


Suddenly, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election looks pernicious. Donald Trump’s chumminess with Putin seems suspect. His “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president gives credence to charges of blackmail. His first impeachment looks more noble than partisan. 

And similarities seem more coordinated. That the Republicans have been saying what Putin has been saying – about “family values,” about US foreign policy, about trans rights, about Black people – used to look like coincidence. In the context of war, though, they look sinister.

Among those hoping the rest of the Democrats will follow Clyburn’s lead is David Faris. He’s an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University. He wrote It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. The invasion, David said, is a chance to squeeze the GOP between far left and far right.


Fighting dirty before Russia invaded Ukraine was one thing. Fighting dirty afterward is now another. Can you explain the difference?

I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a kind of inflection point, highlighting the operational linkages and ideological similarity of white far-right, authoritarian movements around the world. 

The former president supports and cheers on the authoritarians and so do his media propagandists. So to me, the need to play hardball has never been clearer, because this is what we are facing.

The idea that one side needs to stick to a set of long-dead procedural norms under these circumstances, arrayed against such malevolent ruthlessness, is increasingly preposterous.


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This is a fight not just for the character of electoral democracy but for its existence, and an attempt not just to crush US democracy but to make the US part of this authoritarian arc, which is quite terrifying

If we want to avoid the fate of Russian democracy, and if we want the United States on the side of small-d democrats, we must reinforce American democracy as a matter of great urgency.

Nancy Pelosi said recently something to the effect of “these are not the Republicans I know. They are better than this.” Why is that bad?

This kind of rhetoric makes me want to put my head through a window. Pelosi does it, Chuck Schumer does it, the president does it. 

They are trying to appeal to a history, mostly imagined, of cooperation between parties. They remember the days of Ronald Reagan having breakfast with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and ideological and party fluidity in Congress that made certain kinds of deal-making possible. 

But I don’t know what else has to happen for them to let go of this fantasy. That Republican Party, inasmuch as it ever existed, is gone. In its place is a cult of personality built around Donald Trump. 

Saying Republicans are basically good but corrupted by Trump absolves the rest of the actually existing party for what it’s doing. It sends cues to voters that down-ballot Republicans are fine and good. 

It fails to convey the urgency of the situation. How can there be a democratic emergency if our party leaders are talking about Trump as an aberration and openly yearning for good Republicans to succeed?

We don’t want them to succeed. We want them to lose up and down the ballot. That’s never going to happen so long as moderate Republicans, suburban swing-state voters and some Democrats think that most Republicans are OK, that it’s just the leadership or Trump. 

Folks, they are part of the same organization. 

And that organization is rotten to the core.


“The former president supports and cheers on the authoritarians and so do his media propagandists. So to me, the need to play hardball has never been clearer, because this is what we are facing.”


What is the story the Democrats should tell?

I think the story is about the GOP becoming an anti-democratic force. The sympathy for Russia is one part of it. But fundamentally this is an organization that’s no longer interested in free and fair elections deciding the executive and legislative leadership of the country. 

That’s why they applaud democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary. That’s why so many Republicans are more sympathetic to power-grabbing Russia than to democracy-struggling Ukraine. 

Democrats should make sure every Republican faces these charges. Hostility to democracy can’t be our only message, but it should be one consistently applied across all races at all levels of government. 

Party leaders need to make clear the old GOP guard isn’t coming back. Stop calling it the Party of Lincoln, for God’s sake. The Democrats are the Party of Lincoln now. We need to take ownership of that.

Talk about the role of patriotism. The Republicans say they are the “real Americans,” but treason always seems to be an option.

I like to think what I’m recommending is not necessarily “dirty,” but using all of the constitutional and rhetorical tools at our disposal.

Part of that is reclaiming the idea of patriotism from the far right.

It’s not patriotism if it’s hostile to democracy. There’s nothing dirty about pointing that out. Democrats need to engage in the same procedural and rhetorical strategies employed by Republicans. 

What is the equivalent to Republicans nattering on about the “radical left,” the “woke mafia,” the “radical socialist agenda” and so on?


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We literally do none of this. It’s just incredible to behold. 

It’s like evacuating the field of battle before a shot is fired. 

What is it that Schumer and Pelosi think Republicans want? How could it be described, simply and with maximum sound bite impact? Are Republicans not also radical? Isn’t turning America into a white ethnostate and dismantling democracy an act of radicalism? 

Why aren’t we trolling through their activist class and picking up the craziest ideas and tarring the whole Republican Party with it? 

There’s enough material in a single issue of American Greatness to start a “crt”-style moral panic about what the right really wants.

Is it generational? Younger Democrats don’t seem as hesitant.

There’s a handful of young, vocal Democrats who are using more incendiary language, but even there, it doesn’t feel coordinated. 

If it’s just your left-flank using this rhetoric, it’s not going to stick. A lot of center-left, center-right types just tune out the Squad. 

Either younger Democrats need to capture the leadership or the leadership needs to be made to see that engaging in these kinds of attacks isn’t just a necessary evil. It’s necessary, because it’s true. 

Shying away from that, because it feels distasteful to call your adversaries authoritarians, is not acceptable. The stakes are too high.

In my dreams, Biden wonders if Rupert Murdoch is in Russian pay.

Exactly. 

Go after Murdoch. Go after Fox. Stop treating Steve Doocy like any other reporter in the White House press briefings. “Oh, a question from Russia Today‘s Steve Doocy, folks, go right ahead.”


“If we want to avoid the fate of Russian democracy, and if we want the United States on the side of small-d democrats, we must reinforce American democracy as a matter of great urgency.”


I don’t want to oversell the Russia stuff, because I’m not sure how much it resonates, but certainly highlighting those linkages can be part of a campaign to convince voters that the GOP no longer supports procedural democracy. They are afraid of facing the electorate.

We need to talk about the anti-American left, which is not the same as the American left. Last week, Max Blumenthal smeared Ukraine – it’s a “US neo-colony” – to justify accusing the US of imperialism.

Look, I’ve got a lot of problems with American foreign policy, but the idea that the US is an imperialist country, a force for evil in the world, just securing the interests of capital … not a winning message. 

To the extent that anyone in our coalition is making that case, it is profoundly counterproductive. You could definitely score easy points by throwing Glenn Greenwald under the bus and talking about the shared hostility to liberal democracy on the far-right and far-left.

I hear a lot of people on the left say, well, we interfered in elections in Eastern Europe in the late 1990s, so Russia is just doing the same.

No.

You are forgetting the content and purpose of the intervention. Supporting small-d democrats is not the same as supporting tyrants.

It seems to me the Democrats could squeeze the Republicans between authoritarian Russia and the anti-American left in this country in the way that the Republicans squeezed liberals between communist Russia and anti-American communists in the 1950s.

Definitely. But we have to back up a step. 

What is Russia and what does it want? What is it about Russia that Americans should fear? I don’t mean geostrategically. I mean what is it about Russia’s system of government that is so terrifying. Why are there extremist factions on the right and left wanting to import it? 

Give me some scary black-and-white ads about what goes on in Russia and talk about how Republicans like it. They like tyranny. They want to squash dissent. They like strongmen. Come up with a slick phrase, say, “Reactionary Russian Sympathizers,” something like that. Make elected Republicans come off the fence exactly as you write in your question.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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