“Tell you what Mr. American Airlines,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bellowed several weeks ago, after American Airlines and a hundred or so other major corporations pushed back against voter suppression legislation being pursued by Republican controlled state legislatures across the country. “I take it personally. You’re questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this. When you suggest that we’re trying to suppress the vote, you’re in essence between the lines calling us racist and that will not stand! That will not stand!”
It seemed quaint, really. So old school. So George H.W. Bush. A Republican leader worrying out loud about his integrity. The Republican Party is cascading out of control, tumbling faster and faster down the rabbit hole, firmly in the hands of the crazies and the grifters. QAnon and its demonization of Democrats as pedofile communists, celebration of the January 6th insurrection, and amped up culture wars have become the backdrop for Republican fundraising, as hundreds of millions of dollars are being sucked out of the pockets of the party’s working class base, while corporate donors have walked away in disgust. The GOP’s new rock stars, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, have taken their tent-revival populism show on the road. And, of course, Donald Trump is set to ramp his rallies back up and begin a revenge tour against all those who have wronged him.
Of course, no one says “we want to steal elections” out loud, particularly when they are trying to steal elections. Not these days, anyway. Back in the day, in Dick Daley’s Chicago, or New York, or Boston, or Louisiana, a half a century or more ago, party bosses huddled in smoke-filled rooms to figure out plans for election day. But that was a different world. There’s a reason Trump’s own election fraud commission was quietly disbanded in 2018 without issuing so much as a final report. Hatching conspiracies to rig elections — much less executing them — is near to impossible in a world where everyone is an investigative reporter, with a video camera and tape recorder in their back pocket.
Dan Patrick has reason to be upset. All he and his colleagues are trying to do is what partisans have done for decades: bend the rules for political advantage. It was a sign of our increasingly racially-charged environment that he ceded the moral high ground in suggesting that their efforts at run-of-the-mill voting suppression makes them a bunch of racists. After all, it is safe to say that Texas Republicans have no problem with Black and brown people voting, as long as they vote Republican. Patrick and his compatriots are not really trying to address pervasive voter fraud as their rhetoric suggests, just pervasive Democrat voting.
That problem — pervasive voting and adverse demographic trends– has been a front burner issue for the GOP dating back a half century or more. In 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan revolution, Heritage Foundation co-founder and right-wing icon Paul Weyrich argued that voter suppression was and would continue to be a key to the success of the conservative movement. “So many of our Christians,” he explained, “have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Forty years later, and little has changed. Donald Trump raised eyebrows a bit over a year ago when he launched his attack on mail-in voting. Trump didn’t want to make it easier for people to vote, he wanted to make it easier for him to win. And, like Weyrich, he argued that the easier it was for people to vote, the harder it would be for Republicans to win national elections.
The issue of voter suppression as a core Republican political tactic reached the Supreme Court earlier this year, in a case that challenged voter suppression statutes that were enacted into law by the Arizona legislature five years ago. During oral arguments in March, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Michael Carvin, the attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, what the GOP’s interest was in the Court’s upholding the voting restrictions. Carvin responded by saying the quiet part out loud: “Politics is a zero-sum game. Every extra vote they [Democrats] get… hurts us. It’s the difference between winning an election 50–49 and losing an election 51 to 50.” Democracy, it turns out, is not the imperative. Winning is.
Republicans argue that there is nothing anti-American about voter suppression. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” Utah Senator Mike Lee — a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — famously tweeted last October. “Liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Lee’s words became a rallying cry for many on the right, and were mirrored in a number of essays in April in the National Review (the magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Jr.) that suggested that tightening restrictions on voting was a legitimate defense against leftist Democrat mob rule.
The essays walked a fine line, trying to rationalize the kind of voting restrictions long embraced by Republican elites, even as the authors sought to pander to the anti-elite, populist ferver animating the Trump base. In his piece “Why not fewer voters?” Kevin Wilkinson begged the question of who would get to decide who would not be allowed to vote, while Andrew McCarthy argued that “It would be far better if the franchise were not exercised by ignorant, civics-illiterate people, hypnotized by the flimflam that a great nation needs to be fundamentally transformed rather than competently governed.”
While McCarthy no doubt had the progressive Democrats in mind when he referenced “flimflam” about transforming the nation, a dispassionate observer — should one still exist anymore — might be confused as to whom he was talking about. After all, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was nothing if not an election that turned on “civics-illiterate people, hypnotized by the [MAGA] flimflam that a great nation needs to be fundamentally transformed.” As to fears of mob rule — Republican riot revisionism notwithstanding — it is hard to argue that in the wake of January 6th that moment hasn’t already arrived.
Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have struggled to craft a clear stance on the voter suppression movement sweeping the country. As a partisan matter, they support anything that improves their electoral prospects. At the same time, they understand that those efforts are feeding off of Donald Trump’s Big Lie, and will ultimately undermine the GOP’s — and their own — credibility.
As recently as a few weeks ago, McCarthy and McConnell tried once again to deflect the notion that the party’s submission to Donald Trump is complete, and that his Big Lie is driving events. “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.” McCarthy told reporters on May 11th. To which McConnell added the next day, “I don’t think anyone on our side has been arguing that [voter fraud] has been pervasive all over the country.”
No one, perhaps, except the 70% of Republicans who agreed in a recent CNN poll that “Joe Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency,” and the even greater 87% who now define truth as being whatever Donald Trump says it is, and believe that voter fraud is a significant problem that must be addressed, despite the testimony of Republican officials, ranging from Bill Barr and other Trump administration officials to state election officials across the country.
Donald Trump has never had patience for the long game, however, and it was hard to imagine that enacting voter restrictions in states across the country, and then waiting several years to see if they worked, was going to suit his timeline. So this week he upped the ante. At a widely-publicized QAnon conference (how painful is it to realize that we live in a country that has QAnon conferences) Trump sycophants Mike Flynn and Sydney Powell fed speculation that some sort of coup or election “audits” in Arizona and other states might yet restore Donald Trump to the White House. When that happened, Powell explained authoritatively, Trump would not get back the days he has missed since January 20th, but rather that a new inauguration date would be set, Joe Biden would be moved out of the White House, and Trump would move back in.
No one could have been surprised that the Trump Restoration narrative was a big hit, or that Trump is apparently all in for the proposed August return. And why shouldn’t he be? That nearly a third of Americans now say Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election demonstrates what he and demagogues across the ages have understood: a lie that is repeated often enough will be believed, and the bigger the better.
Now that the new, Bigger Lie is out there — that the 2020 election can be undone, and a restoration of the Trump presidency is in process — will a majority of Republicans believe that lie as well? No doubt the QAnon followers will — the quarter or more of the GOP who that are firmly in the QAnon camp and believe Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles who drink children’s blood — and perhaps also a fair share of Trump’s evangelical base, despite the pleading of some of his evangelical allies that this is a bridge too far. But surely this could be the point on which others say enough is enough. Certainly there are still a large share of Republicans out there who knew all along that Donald Trump was a bad idea, even as they voted for him, and now feel a quiet sense of shame when the subject comes up. We will see.
While Dan Patrick is worried about whether people think he’s a racist, and Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy sit in growing irrelevance in the nation’s capital, it is Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene who have their finger on the pulse of the new GOP. They could care less about voter suppression in Texas, or anything else that has a whiff of the real world about it. The Trump Restoration is here and no doubt they want to run with it. Why worry about stealing an election that is years down the road, when the one that just happened is begging to be overturned?
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.