August 11, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
In the face of authoritarianism, don’t lose hope. Normal partisan politics can save democracy
The Dems are pushing a fault line within the GOP to its breaking point.
I want to pick up on a point I made Friday. I said Republicans legislators at the state level are codifying into law a draft letter written by a former US Department of Justice official in the remaining weeks of Donald Trump’s one and only term. That draft letter, according to the Post’s Philip Bump, was “a road map to overthrowing the will of voters.” It explained in granular detail how state Republican officials could have pulled off a coup.
This quiet coup attempt failed mere days before the loud coup attempt failed. The sacking and looting of the United States Capitol on January 6 was a last-ditch effort by an outgoing president desperate to hold on to power but exhausted of choices. Nullification of the democratic will would have been preferable, because it would not have drawn so much attention. When that failed, the former president had to risk exposing his true intentions with his last remaining option, a violent revolt.
Even authoritarians understand the importance of appearances.
The difference between loud and quiet is the proper context for recent remarks by Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney. She said her father, Dick Cheney, was “deeply troubled” about “where our party is, deeply troubled about where the country is.” She said this after having voted to impeach the former president and after losing her job as chair of the House GOP conference. With due respect, though, I doubt she and the former vice president are worried about what they should be worried about. They should be worried about state-level attempts to nullify democracy. I don’t think they are. I think, instead, they’re worried about potential right-wing violence, like what we saw on January 6. It might draw attention to what state Republican officials are doing.
Dick Cheney’s concern about appearances (assuming I’m correct) might sound quaint given the Republicans are less conservative than they are authoritarian. After all, plenty of Republicans and plenty of their media allies are more than happy to shit-can commitments to democracy and democratic values. Tucker Carlson, the Fox talking head, has been talking up Hungary as a model for the future, one that’s transparently hostile to pluralism, political equity and democracy. Why not just come out and say the January 6 insurrection was deserved?
That respectable Republicans like Dick and Liz Cheney have not said so suggests they understand the importance of political legitimacy. I think the rest of us should understand its importance, too, especially with respect to fears of an authoritarian future in the United States. Even if you’re an all-out fascist, you must maintain the appearance among the people who count to you that fascism is totally legitimate. Right-wing political violence, at least for the time being, is almost never legitimate. Right-wing political violence exposes true intentions.
This is why many of the Republicans lie about the insurrection. The insurgents were “victims,” for instance. The demands of legitimacy mean they must convince themselves they’re the good guys. That makes them susceptible to the fact that they’re not. This is why propagandists like Steve Bannon constantly repeat the myth that the former president’s supporters represent the “true majority.” To be sure, the “true majority” elected Joe Biden. But whether it’s true or not isn’t the point. The point is even authoritarians understand the importance of appearances. For now, right-wing violence makes them vulnerable, because right-wing violence exposes their true intentions.
This seems to me the true fault line within the Republican Party. On one hand are the radicals who don’t mind everyone knowing the GOP really does have an informal network of paramilitaries waiting to spring into action. On the other are the leaders and the old guard, who really don’t want everyone knowing the GOP has an informal network of paramilitaries waiting to spring into action. They don’t mind state election laws that nullify democracy, if that’s what it takes to control the government, but they also don’t want the radicals mucking up complicated efforts to make authoritarianism nice and legal. To be sure, the GOP has maintained this balance for decades. With Donald Trump, however, came a genie who won’t be put back in the lamp.
Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be moving to force that Republican fault line to its breaking point. While the party’s leaders and old guard are saying “nothing to see here!” leading Democrats are saying “lookee here!” The difference is the Democrats have all the evidence of the January 6 insurrection on their side. The Republicans can only say they’re “deeply troubled.” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn was asked recently by Roll Call for his thoughts on new state “rules about who gets to overrule election results, legislators and other elected officials.” With all of democracy and democratic values beside him, the South Carolina Congressman said: “I want you to call it what it is. Use the word: nullification. It is voter nullification. … Georgia just passed a law, it’s got nullification in it, saying that these, this committee, will have the authority to overturn elections if–they don’t say it this way, but this is what they’re saying–if we don’t like the results” (italics mine).
It remains to be seen whether or not Clyburn’s statement has any effect on the current debate in the Senate over election reform. My point for now is about normal partisan politics. While I have no doubt that the Republicans, seeing they came very close to overthrowing the republic once, will try again when the opportunity presents itself. But that’s no cause for hopelessness. Authoritarianism is like any other political ideology in that it’s vulnerable to normal partisan politics. Indeed, as I’ve argued, it saved us once. It can and may save us again.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.