In US elections over the last few decades, the political parties are generally expected to focus on economic issues like jobs and health care, or on so-called culture war issues, such as abortion rights or marriage equality.
But in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, the Republicans, led by President Trump, have also been experimenting with a new and frightening third message. They are abandoning issues altogether, and simply claiming that political opposition in general, and the Democratic party in particular, are illegitimate. By doing so, the GOP is taking another step toward abandoning democracy altogether, and laying the ideological groundwork for an authoritarian agenda, no matter who wins in November’s midterms.
As usual, Donald Trump was the most explicit conduit for this Republican strategy of delegitimization. At a rally last Tuesday in Iowa, Trump boasted about putting Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, and praised Republican tax cuts. But he then went further, declaring, “The Democrats have become too extreme. And they’ve become, frankly, too dangerous to govern. They’ve gone wacko.”
The next day in Erie, Pennsylvania, he accused Democrats of turning into “an angry left-wing mob.” He also, as is his habit, demanded that his political opponents be jailed for vaguely defined sins. In Iowa, Trump encouraged chants of “Lock her up!” directed by his faithful toward Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who opposed the Kavanaugh nomination.
While Trump is more open than his fellow Republicans in treating dissent as illegal and illegitimate, he isn’t alone. Sen. Susan Collins accused people who threatened to contribute to her challenger of trying to bribe her to vote against Kavanaugh, effectively framing this method of making political contributions to Democrats as illegal. Sen. Chuck Grassley said that Democrats “have encouraged mob rule”; Marco Rubio called protesters “an angry mob.” Right-wing Fox television personality Tucker Carlson also characterized people chanting in a restaurant to protest Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as a “mob.” In response to Eric Holder quipping that when Republicans go low, Democrats should “kick them,” Carlson warned darkly that Democrats would soon take up shooting and burning.
Trump, Republicans in office and Republican-aligned media have all agreed on a central message: Democratic protest is wrong and dangerous in itself. Trump allies over the last few weeks have doubled down on this message, arguing that the “mob” rhetoric could motivate potential voters.
There’s a certain logic to this approach. Republicans don’t have a lot of concrete accomplishments to tout. The Trump tax cuts – the main Republican legislative accomplishment – are unpopular. Other Trump initiatives, such as separating children from their parents at the border, have likewise been widely (and rightly) condemned. In fact, it’s precisely the broad unpopularity of Republican government that’s inspiring such fervent protest. Republican officials are being buttonholed by protesters in elevators and mocked by protesters in restaurants because they are pursuing policies that terrify and anger their constituents.
Expressing dissent to public officials is how you make those officials recognize that they are governing in ways you disapprove of. That’s how democracy works. It’s why the First Amendment enshrines protest as a constitutional right.
Faced with public backlash, Republicans could try to pursue more popular policies. Or, alternately, they could abandon the democratic project, and attempt to enshrine minoritarian rule though procedural gimmicks and a rejection of accountability.
The Republicans have increasingly chosen the second path. The party’s embrace of voter suppression is one way they have tried to undermine democracy. The rhetorical effort to paint any anti-Republican politics as illegitimate is another. Campaign contributions, contributing to a challenger, or simply being in the opposition party are all smeared as the work of the mob – that mass of people too angry, too unreasoning and too debased to participate in the public sphere.
Obviously, “dissent is illegitimate” is an argument pitched entirely to people who already agree with you. Republicans are trying to turn out their base – which may or may not be an effective midterm strategy. But running on sheer entitlement to power has ramifications far beyond this particular election.
Democracy requires a belief that opposition can still be loyal. The party out of power is allowed to – and indeed required to – criticize the party in power, and organize to try to win elections to replace it. If those in power decide that protest and resistance are illegitimate, violent and dangerous, then you no longer have a democracy.
Instead, you have an authoritarian state, in which repression of dissent is justified to preserve order and keep dangerous, disloyal elements out of power. And while questioning the legitimacy of an incumbent isn’t unprecedented – some Democrats questioned George W. Bush’s after the Florida recount, for instance – the demonization of opposition views as mob mentality is especially dangerous.
Of course, Republicans claim that they are opposed not to all resistance, but merely to disorderly or uncivil resistance. The problem is, once you start delegitimizing one sort of protest, it’s very easy to criminalize all dissent. In Russia, for example, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested for “staging an unsanctioned rally.” Those arrests then become a permanent mark of criminality, which were used to keep him from running against Vladimir Putin.
And if you scoff at the idea that anything like that could happen in America, remember that police arrested more than 200 people, including protesters and journalists, at Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Prosecutors disrupted attendees’ lives for a year before charges were finally dropped.
Trump in 2016 refused to say that he would accept the results of the election if Clinton won. Even when he was victorious, he claimed, in a flagrant lie, that undocumented immigrants voting illegally cost him the popular vote. The Republican party has doubled down since then, painting Democratic criticism and protest as dangerous, irrational, and nefarious.
Hopefully, despite this rhetoric, Republicans will accept election results in November if Democrats win the House, or the Senate, or both. But we should be clear that Republicans are explicitly running on the platform that resistance is intolerable. They’re saying that they only support democracy if they win.
This piece has been updated to clarify Senator Susan Collins’ comments about a recent fundraising effort for her opponent.