The Democratic Party vs. the Anti-Democratic Party

By David K. Shipler

If Donald Trump were solely responsible for the whirlwind that the United States now reaps, his departure on January 20 would bring calm. But the wind was sown long before Trump and will blow a long time after. It gnaws away at beliefs essential to a free people, even as Americans take pride in their democracy’s survival through the latest Day of Infamy, Jan. 6, 2021.

Notwithstanding the democratic-sounding platitudes by Republicans since the riots, their party has not favored true, open democracy, but rather a kind of semi-democracy at best. The Republican Party has conducted nationwide operations to prevent minorities and other likely Democratic voters from casting ballots, efforts now ramping up in some state legislatures poised to restrict the early and mail-in voting that broadened turnout last November. It has eagerly worn the mantle of racism inherited from Southern Democrats. Its assertions of fraud in the presidential election have mostly cited heavily Black cities. And it has become the gateway through which right-wing authoritarian movements are entering the political landscape.

Trump is the facilitator and the current figurehead, the “accelerant,” as former President Obama has called him. But he could never have done it as a Democrat. It was among Republicans that he found resonance for his multiple hatreds and autocratic impulses.

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder likens the Republican Party to authoritarian parties of Eastern Europe: Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. Fascist methods, he notes, depend on a Big Lie, as in the claim of election fraud, and on faking election results, as Trump sought to do. “The people who stormed the Capitol building were fascists,” Snyder says.

The Republican Party is far from homogeneous, and some pundits and politicians are thinking wishfully about a split. Yet the core of the party apparatus remains Trumpist, as do most of its constituents. Even after he incited rioters to storm the Capitol and shut down Congress, sixty-five percent of the Republican House members voted to reject electoral votes from Pennsylvania, and the next day National Republican Committee members applauded when he phoned into their meeting.

QAnon, which labels Democrats as Satan-worshipping pedophiles, has considerable following among Republicans, 56 percent of whom said in a September poll that they believed part or all of its conspiracy theories. The FBI has identified QAnon as a potential terrorist movement, but a number of Republicans who endorse its radical fantasies and calls to violence won primaries for Congress, including for the US Senate from Oregon.

Primary victories by such extremists made them losers to Democrats in most cases, as in Oregon. Yet the winners of House seats included two Republicans who have embraced QAnon: Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. Boebert, who owned the Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colorado, where wait staff pack sidearms, announced that she would take a handgun into the Capitol.

The party’s dwindling moderates seem as helpless against this tide as the outnumbered Capitol Police did against the horde that crashed through barricades and occupied the seat of democracy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a sharp rise in hate groups since Trump entered office and “energized white nationalists who saw in him an avatar of their grievances and their anxiety over the country’s demographic changes,” the center’s latest report declares. Hundreds of movements are “targeting immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, Blacks, and other people of color.” The FBI has documented a growth in hate crimes, committed mostly against Blacks, Jews, and gay men, to the highest levels since 2008.

None of this has triggered much Republican comment or concern. Trump has mostly gotten away with his winks, nods, and outright praise for the fascist-like activists, who now complement the party’s traditional anti-democratic election practices.

Placing obstacles to voting has long been a cause of a Republican Party that acts as if it can’t win elections with high turnout among people of color. As seen in Georgia, where two Senate seats were just flipped to Democrats, that might be the case. In 2018, the ACLU reports, 70 percent of voters purged from Georgia’s registration rolls were Black. Nationally, minority neighborhoods have fewer polling places, forcing voters to travel farther and wait in longer lines than whites. Nearly 8 percent of Blacks are blocked from voting because of restrictive laws, including ID requirements, which disenfranchise an estimated 21 million Americans who lack such identification.

These and other methods have been facilitated by Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices, who in 2013 threw out the list of states and localities required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to get preclearance from the Justice Department for any changes in electoral procedures. For decades, the preclearance requirement had helped preserve voting rights for minorities.

Given this sordid background, any breath of support for democratic norms from Republicans feels like fresh air, and granted, there is reason for pride these days alongside the shame. After the presidential election, the institutions held. Thousands of election workers counted votes honestly, Republican state officials withstood pressure from Trump’s deranged rants about a fictitious victory, and some ninety judges — including some Trump had nominated — tossed out his frivolous lawsuits. The Congress, after being shut down by his armed supporters’ invasion of the Capitol, duly reported the electoral votes in Joe Biden’s favor.

But Trump persuaded millions of citizens to distrust the voting process, the keystone of democracy. He whipped them into frenzies of rage and hatred, not just on January 6 but throughout his presidency. What’s more, his party collaborated. With rare exceptions, elected Republicans greeted his malfeasance with silence, excuses, or approval.

It’s tempting to engage in rhapsodies over Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s eloquent, belated denunciation of election denial as several of his colleagues were about to ignore his pleas and challenge the electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side,” he declared, “our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.”

That could still happen. The admonition came too late to quench the fire, after weeks of McConnell’s dithering and evasions, and the parroting of the Big Lie by much of the Republican Party. The exceptions are so few that they stand out heroically: Senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse, for example, principled democrats — small d — who highlight the desperation of a country hungry to celebrate endorsements of democracy by members of a party that works against it.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.