Donald Trump had a bad week. Everything bad that could possibly happen to him was happening all at once – all of it quite dramatic. Newsrooms were overwhelmed. Was this the end of his presidency? What were the parallels? Which mess was the one critical big mess? What happens next? No one knew. Everyone guessed. Time passed. Nothing was clear.
Nothing would get clearer soon, but some things had become clear. There was other news. Republicans, having lost control of a few state governments, decided that in their few last weeks of legislative control they’d pass legislation stripping the powers of those who had won, making them figureheads with no power to do anything at all. These particular Republicans may have lost, but the other side would have won nothing at all. There’d be nothing there.
In fact, Wisconsin would disappear. The New York Times’ Mitch Smith and Monica Davey cover the situation there:
Gov. Scott Walker made a national name for himself in the Republican Party by cutting the power of public sector unions eight years ago, only weeks after he swept into office in Wisconsin. On Friday, he signed legislation to cut the power of the Democrat who defeated him, a final act of a tumultuous tenure that moved Wisconsin firmly to the right.
The response from Democrats was swift and furious.
Tony Evers, the Democrat who beat Mr. Walker in a hard-fought election last month, said the departing governor “chose to ignore and override the will of the people.” Liberal groups, including one led by Eric H. Holder Jr., a former United States attorney general, pledged to sue. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin sent her Democratic supporters an email calling the move “a craven partisan attack on democracy” and soliciting donations to her “Vote ‘Em Out Fund.”
The will of the people hardly matters here or in other states:
The tactic by Mr. Walker and his allies came as part of an increasingly fractious struggle over power in the states, following a model set in North Carolina, where Republicans in 2016 tried to restrict the power of the governor after a Democrat was elected.
Similar scenarios were playing out elsewhere. In New Jersey, Democrats were seeking to make Republicans a permanent minority by, in essence, writing gerrymandering into the State Constitution. In Michigan, Republicans this week were contemplating limits on incoming Democrats, and the outgoing governor, Rick Snyder, on Friday signed bills scaling back a minimum-wage increase and a paid-sick-leave measure that had been slated for statewide votes until Republicans intervened.
People voted for those things, but people should understand that’s not how things work. Voting is quaint. Other things matter more:
Mr. Walker’s move in Wisconsin will solidify some of the policies that made him a hero to many conservatives nationally and, for a brief time, a leading presidential candidate in 2016. But participating in what many Democrats consider a legally dubious power grab also cemented another widely held view: that Mr. Walker has been a bruising partisan willing to break precedent and ignore protests for political gain.
“The last eight years have been very much characterized by the view of, ‘We’ve got the power, we’re going to do what we want, and anybody else – that’s too bad,'” said James E. Doyle, Mr. Walker’s Democratic predecessor as governor, who called the last-minute bills “unseemly.”
The answer to that might be to say that all power is unseemly to those that who like to whine. Stop whining. The bold and smart and ruthless get what they want. Do you? And this is quite simple:
The new laws will curb the authority of Mr. Evers in the rule-making process and give lawmakers, not the new governor, most appointments on an economic development board until next summer. The measures also will limit early voting, allow legislators to intervene in some lawsuits and limit the power of Josh Kaul, the incoming attorney general.
In addition, the new laws prevent Mr. Kaul and Mr. Evers from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, and further codify policies passed by the Republicans, including a work requirement for people on Medicaid and a voter ID law.
They lock in the Republican stuff and lock out the new governor and the new attorney general, but that might be a problem:
The Republicans’ push to extend their hold before Democrats take office in Wisconsin comes as part of a broader power struggle as divided government returns to Midwestern states where Republicans had complete control for years. But it also risked energizing Democrats ahead of a 2020 presidential election in which both parties will battle for the Midwest, as well as shaping how people remember Mr. Walker, 51, who leaves the governor’s job on Jan. 7 having spent most of his adult life in elected office.
So, the battle-lines are being drawn:
To Mr. Walker’s supporters, the bills Mr. Walker signed on Friday were pragmatic ways to shore up Republican policies and establish reasonable checks on the incoming Democrats. By signing the bills, he had secured his legacy, they said, not sullied it.
“‘My constituents will say, ‘Thank God you’ve protected the reforms, thank God that our state will be able to continue on the path we are on,'” said State Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican from suburban Milwaukee.
But to opponents, the bills represent something sinister.
State Senator La Tonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said the legislation “will definitely go down in history as being the biggest power grab ever.”
Even some conservatives have spoken out. Sheldon Lubar, a Republican businessman who once supported Mr. Walker, said Mr. Walker’s record would be destroyed by this.
This is a bit unpleasant but that is how these things work. The bold take what they want, rightly. Both sides know this, except, as Kevin Drum notes, there’s no symmetry here:
As near as I can tell, not a single elected Republican has criticized this move. Not one. Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrats have proposed a ballot measure that would put in place an appalling permanent gerrymander in their favor. The opposition from fellow Democrats was immediate, overwhelming, loud, and sustained, including from New Jersey’s Democratic governor.
But you know… both sides…
It feels to me like we’re finally witnessing the last gasp of Reagan-era movement conservatism. By all odds it should have died a couple of years ago, and it would have if not for a couple of freak accidents that handed the election to Donald Trump and allowed the Republican Party to go on one final, epic bender of bigotry and bitterness. But it finally came to an end in November when they suffered a historic loss in the midterm elections – and they know it. You can almost feel the panic in the air. Trump wants to shut down the government over his border wall. Red states are enacting fuck-you laws stripping power from incoming Democratic governors. A right-wing judge in Texas has declared Obamacare unconstitutional. And every Republican in Congress is hiding in their office with their fingers in their ears pretending not to hear the hammer blows of a special prosecutor who has their president in his crosshairs.
These are the final temper tantrums of a political movement that lasted 38 years – which isn’t bad, really. The New Deal consensus only lasted a little longer than that. But it finally imploded because, in the immortal words of Sen. Lindsay Graham six years ago, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
He was right, and the long term has finally come.
But that will only make things worse:
Even with Democrats in control of the House, Republicans are hardly giving up without a fight. Trump is a cornered rat and will cause any chaos he can if he thinks it will save his skin. Mitch McConnell is going to keep confirming conservative judges until the day he’s hauled out of his office with a backhoe. Fox News will grow successively more panicked until the pixels start to melt on TV screens around the country. Wilbur Ross will work feverishly to skew the 2020 census, providing Republicans with one last gift from the grave.
This means that the next two years are going to be even more vicious than the last two. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass told us once, and that’s just as true now as it was before the Civil War. Conservatives are going to concede nothing that progressives don’t force from their cold, grasping hands.
George Packer puts that another way:
Why has the Republican Party become so thoroughly corrupt? The reason is historical – it goes back many decades – and, in a way, philosophical. The party is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.
And he’s not talking about this:
I don’t mean the kind of corruption that regularly sends lowlifes like Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic former governor of Illinois, to prison. Those abuses are nonpartisan and always with us. So is vote theft of the kind we’ve just seen in North Carolina – after all, the alleged fraudster employed by the Republican candidate for Congress hired himself out to Democrats in 2010.
And I don’t just mean that the Republican Party is led by the boss of a kleptocratic family business who presides over a scandal-ridden administration, that many of his closest advisers are facing prison time, that Donald Trump himself might have to stay in office just to avoid prosecution, that he could be exposed by the special counsel and the incoming House majority as the most corrupt president in American history. Richard Nixon’s administration was also riddled with criminality – but in 1973, the Republican Party of Hugh Scott, the Senate minority leader, and John Rhodes, the House minority leader, was still a normal organization. It played by the rules.
George Packer is talking about this:
The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power – power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means.
And that’s what just happened:
Republican majorities are rushing to pass laws that strip away the legitimate powers of newly elected Democratic governors while defeated or outgoing Republican incumbents are still around to sign the bills. Even if the courts overturn some of these power grabs, as they have in North Carolina, Republicans will remain securely entrenched in the legislative majority through their own hyper-gerrymandering – in Wisconsin last month, 54 percent of the total votes cast for major-party candidates gave Democrats just 36 of 99 assembly seats – so they will go on passing laws to thwart election results. Nothing can stop these abuses short of an electoral landslide. In Wisconsin, a purple state, that means close to 60 percent of the total vote.
And that’s not good:
The fact that no plausible election outcome can check the abuse of power is what makes political corruption so dangerous. It strikes at the heart of democracy. It destroys the compact between the people and the government. In rendering voters voiceless, it pushes everyone closer to the use of undemocratic means.
But that’s where we are, and that’s cultural:
Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters. Demography can take a long time to change -longer than in progressives’ dreams – but it isn’t on the Republicans’ side. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected.
Taking away democratic rights – extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters – is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
So there is no symmetry here:
Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order.
That’s Packer’s history lesson:
The first insurgency was the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He campaigned as a rebel against the postwar American consensus and the soft middle of his own party’s leadership. Goldwater didn’t use the standard, reassuring lexicon of the big tent and the mainstream. At the San Francisco convention, he embraced extremism and denounced the Republican establishment, whose “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign lit a fire of excitement that spread to millions of readers through the pages of two self-published prophesies of the apocalypse, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. According to these mega-sellers, the political opposition wasn’t just wrong – it was a sinister conspiracy with totalitarian goals.
And then Barry Goldwater got wiped out in that massive landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson, but the seeds were sown:
During this first insurgency, the abiding contours of the movement took shape. One feature – detailed in Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s account of the origins of the New Right – was liberals’ inability to see, let alone take seriously enough to understand, what was happening around the country. For their part, conservatives nursed a victim’s sense of grievance – the system was stacked against them, cabals of the powerful were determined to lock them out – and they showed more energetic interest than their opponents in the means of gaining power: mass media, new techniques of organizing, rhetoric, ideas. Finally, the movement was founded in the politics of racism. Goldwater’s strongest support came from white southerners reacting against civil rights. Even William F. Buckley once defended Jim Crow with the claim that black Americans were too “backward” for self-government. Eventually he changed his views, but modern conservatism would never stop flirting with hostility toward whole groups of Americans. And from the start this stance opened the movement to extreme, sometimes violent fellow travelers.
It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge.
And that was that:
Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.
But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed – in government, business, law, media – the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?
Now add this:
The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama – it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory, an insurgency within the party itself – because revolutions tend to be self-devouring.
But the whole project was now complete:
In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes.
Once again, liberals failed to see it coming and couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.
And that is the issue now. Trump may be impeached. Trump may serve two full terms. He’s not the issue anymore. The issue is democracy, as a good thing in and of itself – a sensible way to run a country – or democracy as just the means to another end – permanent total power. There’s a lot more packed into George Packer’s long and detailed analysis but it does come down to that. Means don’t matter. Democrats can sometimes be jerks too. But one thing is clear. Liberals and conservatives seem to have completely different ends in mind. And there may be no way to work out anything now.