The Pendulum Is Broken, Not Swinging
Historical precedents fall apart when we're in a truly unprecedented time.
A major theme of my infrequent posts here at Outside The Beltway is the danger of wishful thinking. We should not be afraid to label things for what they are — fascism, terrorism, white supremacy, or authoritarianism. While there are other dangers from mislabeling (for example, not every act of violence is terrorism), that’s not our current problem. Instead, there is an enormous level of wishful thinking about the current state of affairs that is completely unwarranted, and extremely dangerous. If we keep steering towards the rosiest interpretation of our current political situation, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, we will act too late, or not at all.
The Washington Post published an opinion piece this weekend that epitomizes wishful thinking. Matthew Dallek’s piece, “Forcing out the fringe,” is an effort to reassure people that the normal body politic has dealt with racist, anti-democratic forces before, and it will again. The fallacy behind Dallek’s argument is painfully conspicuous: the body politic of 2021 isn’t the same as the one that existed in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the period that Dallek cites as a precedent. The body politic today is much sicker, and one of its chief organs in its two-party system, the Republican Party, is terminally ill.
Dallek’s argument is summarized in the following paragraph:
By stigmatizing, punishing and outvoting the forces that wanted to burn it all down in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans ostracized them; the United States put a lid on the toxic stew of bigotry, conspiratorial thinking and White Christian identity politics, and defended democratic values like truth, equality and racial justice. It was a whole-of-society strategy, more effective than anything unfolding today. Clearly, it didn’t keep those forces at bay forever. But in the right circumstances, it could work again.
Dallek cites several important moments when, during the first few decades after WWII, US politicians and political institutions rejected the same types of anti-democratic forces that are rampaging today. Political leaders called out rival politicians and groups who spread conspiracy theories and framed political debate in apocalyptic, Manichean terms. The Pentagon dealt with military leaders who propounded ugly ideas. Police forces cracked down on right-wing militants. Private corporations were unwilling to support fringe groups.
While it’s worth noting these moments in recent history, especially the less well known ones, as historical precedents, they’re almost irrelevant. Dallek himself recognizes that we’ve gone a long way from a world of information gatekeepers (three network news outlets, some prestige newspapers, and a robust number of good local newspapers) into its polar opposite (right-wing partisan networks and social media “echo-systems,” plus the collapse of healthy, independent local news outlets). He also admits how imperfect the suppression of the earlier militant, conspiracy-mongering right was, and how it started to return during the Reagan era. Nonetheless, he ends his op-end on a wistful note:
The postwar decades show how Trumpism emerged and how democratic society might turn it into a minority within the Republican Party. Only by imposing political consequences on Trump’s wackiest followers can Americans hope to loosen their grip on the GOP, a strategy that some Never Trump organizations (Republican Voters Against Trump, the Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project) have grasped, even if they have found limited success so far.
It is never too late to intensify that effort. Anything that works to define anti-government extremists as toxic threats to our country is helpful. This work held off the far right for a time. And any period, short or long, that this fringe spends in the wilderness is a boon to American democracy.
This is hand-waving hooey. Who is going to take the action to put reactionary forces on the fringes? What was once on the fringe is now the mainstream, and has been for a while. In the last few months, it has only metastasized into its final form.
The fulcrum of the problem is the Republican Party, or perhaps the lack of a party in the sense people normally think of such organizations. The Republican Party can raise money for candidates. It cannot stop people from being candidates. Some Republican politicians live in fear of a “base” that supports anti-democratic, absolutist points of view. Others actively support those points of view. For four years, we saw Republicans refuse to stand up to the proto-mob; now, we have opportunists and true believers joining it.
Unlike the immediate post-war era, there is a true “ism” that unites and mobilizes the disparate strains of anti-government, anti-pluralistic forces: belief in Donald Trump. The January 6 attack on the Capitol demonstrated that groups with different agendas can nonetheless collaborate operationally with each other. There is also increasing elite support for these groups. One of the less noticed articles from the weekend documented Marjorie Taylor Greene’s path to becoming a US Representative, which included active support from former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and his wife Deborah, the leader of a Georgia PAC, as well as other Republican notables.
Because we live in a very different era than the one Dallek cites, we are seeing a much different story play out. The entirely predictable script is what the truly conservative thinker Edmund Burke said is the likely consequence from removing all the constraints of norms, traditions, and laws: the worst rise to the top. Today’s Jacobins only care whether they maintain control over the levers of power, which they will do through voter suppression, gerrymandering, the filibuster, and anything else that will work for them. As long as they have power, there is no Republican big tent, only true believers and heretics. This etiology is nothing new, having seen it play out when impatiently radical factions have gleefully evicted their more moderate rivals in everywhere from Nicaragua to Russia, from Iran to Al Qaeda. It’s happening, not just in the national GOP, but in the state organizations as well, in Arizona and Oregon most notably.
Today’s right-wing militants do not resemble the latter day Birchers and their ilk. As already mentioned, ideologically different groups see a common purpose. They use more sophisticated mechanisms for recruitment, communication, and operations. Some of them are active-duty military personnel and police. They are also extremely shameless, and therefore harder to deter. How do you expect a person wearing a Right Wing Death Squad T-shirt to behave?
This is the world in which we live now. The Republican Party has been hostage to a mob, and the shrinking to a more militant, anti-democratic core has accelerated. Lunatic ideas are now in the political mainstream. There is no Walter Cronkite-like source of reliable news for a majority of Americans. The right-wing militants are more numerous, better organized, more operationally sophisticated, and encouraged by their successful attacks on the US Capitol Building and its state counterparts. Putting a happy spin on this reality is dangerous because it leads easily to the belief that things will work out well, possibly by some unspecified, built-in implosion mechanism, or by the acts of some equally unspecified leader who will save the day (moderate Republicans waiting in the wings are frequent candidates). Nothing about the current situation implies either of those outcomes.
We might take some comfort in the strategies we pursue, particularly if we learn some lessons from past efforts to recover from similar catastrophes in other countries. We won’t take those directions if we don’t acknowledge our starting point.