I have a theory about the Republican Party, and it is that around the time Newt Gingrich became the head of its brain trust, the GOP added a fourth functioning principle to its previous tripod of “Southern Strategy to corner the racist vote,” “Abortion to corner the Evangelical vote” and “Tax cuts to corner the capitalist vote (and money).” The fourth principle was not about kettling and controlling a voting bloc, but rather a principle to maximize its power and to motivate the voting blocs beyond whatever the GOP could offer them politically.
That fourth principle, to put it in its shortest and bluntest form, is:
“But what if we… didn’t?”
Somewhat more broadly, the Republicans recognized there was a suite of political conventions and traditions that were designed to make it easier for things to get done, and that this suite of conventions and traditions were exploitable by denial. While people in both parties (and the parties themselves) would occasionally use this exploit, it was not done systematically.
That is, until Gingrich saw that practice as a weakness to be attacked. Here’s an early version:
“Treat the members of the other political party as colleagues rather than bitter enemies? Okay, but what if we… didn’t?“
And it worked! Which is to say that it got attention, raised temperatures and was an effective political cudgel against those who didn’t understand (or didn’t want to believe) that the political ground was shifting underneath their feet. Gingrich was a political genius (until he wasn’t), and he set the pattern of Republican contravening of norms that advanced inexorably over the years.
Mitch McConnell, seen above, is a master of the “But what if we… didn’t?” school of politics. Allow a sitting president of the opposite party to name a Supreme Court justice? Okay, but what if we didn’t? Stick with the principle that you established with regard to Supreme Court justices being nominated in an election year? Okay, but what if we didn’t? Actually choose to have the Senate be a legislative body rather than just a rubber stamp for conservative judges of questionable competency? Okay, but what if we didn’t? And so on. McConnell understands the depth of his transgression against political norms, you can be sure — he’s been in Congress long enough to remember how it was before — but like Gingrich, he doesn’t particularly care. He doesn’t care, because it get results. The ends justifies the means.
In this, Trump was — and make no mistake, still is — the perfect GOP president. Trump has no loyalty to tradition and operating principles; indeed his entire appeal is transgression. He no interest in procedure, regulation or rule of law. To be sure, he was less “But what if we didn’t” than “I’m just not gonna,” but the effective difference between the two is subtle and in any event abetted the GOP’s “what if we didn’t” principle to a significant degree.
The 2020 election was a perfect storm of “but what if we didn’t?”
So: Joe Biden won the 2020 election and has to be acknowledged as the president.
Okay, but what if we didn’t? Let’s say the election was tainted by fraud!
The facts show that the election was not tainted by fraud and indeed it was one of the most secure elections in US history, and we have to acknowledge those facts.
Okay, but what we didn’t? Let’s take it to court!
More than 60 court cases, on both state and federal levels, rule that, yes, in fact, the election went for Biden without any significant fraud. His electoral count stands and is uncontroversial and should be acknowledged as such when Congress convenes to count the votes on January 6.
Okay, but… what if we didn’t?
Well, now we know what happens when they didn’t.
The Republicans want us to believe they are surprised an insurrection has happened, but why should we believe that? These are not (all) unintelligent people. They knew what they were doing, they knew how they were transgressing, and they knew, every step of the way, what the result of each transgression was meant to be, both in terms of the fabric of democracy in the United States, and on the expectations of the Republican voting base.
There was a Republican mob at the Capitol yesterday because the GOP put them there. Not just yesterday, or through the course of the election, or the four years of the Trump administration. The storming of the Capitol is the (current) culmination of a decades-long project by Republicans, a project of denial, in which they didn’t recognize the validity of power being shared, or the equality of the other party, or the supremacy or desirability of democracy, if democracy meant a diminishment of their power and goals.
Democracy? Okay, but, what if we didn’t?
The Republicans aren’t surprised that this is where we are, and make no mistake that if at any point in the 2020 post-election they could have gotten away with subverting the will of the voters they absolutely would have done so. Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes and 7 million more popular votes than Trump, an unambiguous and, realistically, unassailable number. The Republicans chose to assail it anyway — not just a few members of the party, but as a matter of policy from the top all the way down. What is the number of electoral votes a Democrat now must win to be acknowledged without contestation as the winner of a presidential election by the GOP? We don’t actually know, except to say it has to be more than 306.
Yesterday our nation’s capitol was invaded and looted, and our democracy was shamed, and even then a half dozen Republican senators and more than a hundred GOP representatives who a few hours before were stuffed into shelters for their safety decided to play the “But what if we didn’t?” card. Sedition was preferable to being put on record as acknowledging a loss of power and privilege. Don’t come to me in the light of day and tell me this wasn’t where the GOP understood we would one day end up. The only problem the Republicans have with where we are at the moment is that, for once, “but what if we didn’t?” didn’t do what it was supposed to.
The Republican Party is a traitor to the ideals and practice of democracy in the United States. It fomented, aided and abetted an insurrection. A regrettable number of its members in the national government have signed on for sedition over the peaceful transfer of power (“The peaceful transfer of power? Okay, but what if we… didn’t?”). These seditious members should be drummed out of Congress, right now, and some Republicans who are in power should be charged with crimes. The Republican Party got us as close as we have gotten since the Civil War to the collapse of our democracy, not by accident, but by design, and had the implementation of that design been only a little more competent, both now and over the last few years, it might have succeeded. The GOP is an enemy of the United States — not conservatism as a whole, but its party (although at the moment I have no great kind thoughts about conservatism, either) — and if it had any institutional capacity for shame and self-reflection, it would end itself.
To which I see the Republican Party saying, “Okay, but what if we… didn’t?” Because even now I can tell you that from the GOP point of view the problem isn’t the damage that party has wreaked upon the US and its people. The problem is its plan didn’t work.
The GOP always meant for us to be here. The thing is, there’s somewhere beyond here the GOP still wants us to go. We shouldn’t pretend that the GOP won’t get us back to here as soon as practically possible. And then past it, to the ruin of us all.