Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Long Con versus the Smash-and-Grab: Why Do Republicans Have So Little Finesse?

by Neil H. Buchanan

I have long been predicting that Donald Trump will stay in the White House, fully supported by the Republican Party, no matter what happens in this year's election.  Recent events have made me ever more grimly confident in that prediction.  So unless something wonderful happens -- or more accurately, unless American democracy draws the ultimate inside straight -- the Republicans will get what they have always wanted: permanent and unchallenged power, notwithstanding their extreme unpopularity.

At some point soon, I will likely go back to writing columns about what to expect under a completely unbound Trump dictatorship.  Today, however, I want to ponder why the Republicans were willing to carry out this heist of the American experiment in such a blundering and obvious way.  As I will demonstrate, they could have done it much more smoothly and left themselves with a healthier country to run into the ground.  Why the lack of even a tiny bit of finesse?

My new Verdict column, published today, was in the main a response to the argument -- now being repeated on the left, as Republicans prepare to ram through a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- that Republicans have stuck with Trump so faithfully only because he gives them what they want: hyper-conservative judges/justices and right-wing economic policies (tax giveaways to the rich, more pollution, dangerous workplaces and consumer products, and so on).  This understanding of Republicans' support of Trump was and is wrong, even though some smart people are saying it.

My column points out (yet again) that Republicans could have gotten all of those things without putting up with Trump.  If the quid pro quo is "We support Trump's every depredation and he gives us what we want," then it is a lousy deal for Republicans.  As I put it in the column, "the popular explanation of Trumpian fervor imagines that Republicans are saying, 'Well, I’ll somehow get myself to put up with the icky stuff if I must.' But what if they like the icky stuff?"
The point, as captured in the title of the piece -- "Republicans’ Blind Support for Trump Is NOT About Judges and Tax Cuts but About Bigotry and Raw Power" -- is that Republicans like what Trump brings to the table.  They like it all.  But that leads me to a different question here, which is why they chose to get the power that they want (which they will continue to abuse, to indulge their bigotries) by sticking with Trump, when they could have done so without him.
Because I am a film buff, I have seen a lot of movies about con men (and occasionally women).  I cannot recall the movie (or even if this idea has come up in more than one movie), but I recall an antihero con man saying something like this: "Anyone can steal money.  The mark of a truly beautiful con is when the mark not only knows that you've stolen his money but thanks you for doing it."  This is not merely a matter of artistry but also a smart survival strategy, because a con man's life is much better if he does not need to look over his shoulder or worry about being confronted at any moment by potentially violent victims of his previous schemes.

Although my Verdict column reprises an argument that I offered four years ago that Republicans could have won in 2016 by losing -- abandoning Trump in a way that completely neutralized President Hillary Clinton, allowing Republicans to bully her (and probably impeach her) while expanding their congressional majorities -- I spent most of my time there discussing how Republicans could have stuck with Trump through the election but then dumped him almost immediately thereafter.

And it is not as though Trump failed to provide opportunities.  Imagine, for example, that Republicans had responded in early 2017 to Trump's firing of James Comey as FBI Director (and Trump's admission on NBC that the firing was for corrupt purposes) by having the Republican-led House impeach Trump and the Republican-led Senate convict and remove him.  The votes could have been unanimous or nearly so.  Mike Pence would have been president for at least the next three and a half years.
Notably, the Republicans' electoral routs from 2017-19 would not have happened.  Nancy Pelosi would still be minority leader (or retired), Republicans would have picked up much more than 2 seats in a very favorable U.S. Senate map in 2018, Virginia would still have Republicans in the majority in both houses of the state legislature, the governors of Kentucky and Louisiana would be Republicans, and on and on.  Republicans this year would be likely to pick up a Senate seat or two rather than possibly lose their majority (absent a coup, of course).  And they could be set up with a presidential candidate this year who is not Donald Trump, which means that they could count on continued low turnout among minority and younger voters.

Imagine the voter suppression laws that they could have passed, the national must-carry laws, the complete ban on abortion, the permissive campaign finance laws, the repeals of consumer protection laws, and everything else that a united Republican government -- not distracted by the Trump Show -- could have provided!  Without any leadership from Trump's White House, they completely botched their attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and even their cherished stroke-the-rich 2017 tax cut was a huge mess that they could have written much more cleverly if they had had the time.

But they gave up that possibility, not only after the Comey firing but after Charlottesville and every other Trumpian provocation, including the actual impeachment of Trump in late 2019.
Now, most notably, they are being asked whether they have anything at all to say about Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.  Republican lawyers, meanwhile, are conferring with the Republican-led legislatures in swing states to simply ignore the popular votes in those states and send Trump's supporters to the Electoral College.

I am not saying that I expected Republicans to be too ashamed to do any of this.  Long before Trump, they had made it very clear that they were willing to distort and damage whatever was necessary to gain and hold power.  After all, when Senate Republicans stole Merrick Garland's seat on the Supreme Court, they did so while their entire caucus (save the pathetic Jeff Sessions) was united in opposition to Trump.

To go back to the con man analogy, Republicans could have continued to be relatively smooth actors, occasionally doing things that upset people like me but counting on moderate Democrats not to respond tit-for-tat to their power grabs.  They were already able to take majorities in both the House and Senate with a minority of votes cast, and all they had to do was continue using their Supreme Court picks' gifts like Shelby County v. Holder and Janus v. AFSCME (along with plenty of other outrageous extra-constitutional decisions) to lock themselves into permanent majority status.

And it is important to notice that even though my argument in today's Verdict column is true -- that Republicans do not view supporting Trump's bigotry or thirst for autocracy as bad things to be tolerated but as affirmative attributes to like about him -- they could have had all of that without constantly being subject to Trump's bullying and unpredictability.

In 2016 and 2017, they already could see a clear path to turning the U.S. into a sham democracy without ever admitting that they were doing so.  If we, the victims of their con, might not actually have thanked them for fleecing us of our birthright, we would have at worst grumbled about it and continued to try to out-organize and out-vote them -- all in an environment where Republicans continued to change the rules to make it impossible to lose power.

So why the smash-and-grab?  After all, with Trump saying bluntly more than a month before the election that he does not plan even to allow the votes to be tallied and that he will count on his partisans on the Supreme Court to deliver his victory, this is going to become ugly.  Democrats and progressive leaders, knowing that there is nothing they can do to stop Trump through normal means, are already calling for massive demonstrations against Trump's lawlessness.

That will not go well for anyone, including Republican politicians.  There will inevitably be violence and death, as right-wing militias use the opportunity to murder protesters, and surely Republicans like McConnell would prefer not to be governing a chaotic country.  It is in their interest, perhaps more than anyone else's, not to have the victims of their grift aware of the bluntly anti-American method by which the Constitution is being nullified.

Is it that Republicans were truly worried that demographic change was going to catch up with them before they could consolidate power sans Trump?  Possibly, but they were already holding so many of the levers of power that it was impossible to stop them.
The only explanation remaining is that at each step of the way they made the easy choice, even though the accumulation of those choices was obviously leading to where we are today.  Confronting Trump made them uncomfortable, and they wanted to be comfortable for a bit longer.

And now, there is nothing for Republicans to do but try to answer questions about their commitment to the peaceful transfer of power and claim to know nothing about Trump's other plans.  They could have ruled over a docile post-democratic nation.  Instead, they will be left with a nation in existential crisis -- and they will still have to kiss Trump's ring.  They are grabbing the loot, but they have made it as hard on themselves (and all of us) as could be imagined.


James F. said...

Well stated, as always. I'm not sure the national-level GOP has any interest in governance. A chaotic mess of a nation is perfectly livable for their true constituency (the very wealthiest) -- it's why they don't care about climate change, the deterioration of public water supplies, etc. In the absence of a functioning government, sheer power reigns supreme, and they're probably quite fine with that.

Greg said...

I think this misses the mark because it tries to think of Republicans as a decision-making group rather than as individuals making individual decisions.

Up until the election (or at least the 2016 Republican convention) most Republicans didn't expect Trump to be that bad. Once Trump was in office, he made it very clear that any Republican who opposed him would feel the full force of his and his supporters' wrath. This made even Republicans afraid of him and the primary challenge they would likely lose if the full force of Trump and his supporters backed their opponent.

Thus, individual Republicans ceded their power to Trump, consolidating power in him and the Majority Leader. No one could start an organized Republican resistance to Trump, because anyone who started one was immediately ridiculed and their position threatened, a warning to the others to fall in line.

Trump keeps his power because he's as much a threat to individual Republicans as he is to the Republic as a whole.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thank you, James F. You make a really good point, and I'll probably write about this at more length soon, so I appreciate your providing me with a new column topic. As a preliminary matter, I am thinking about the extreme inequality in Latin America and its effect on how rich people live. One of my cousins is (or maybe was, given that I haven't spoken with him in years) a top exec for one of the Big 3 U.S. auto companies, and he was at one point assigned to run their South American operations. He was amazed to learn that, when he was visiting sites there, he had to be driven around in bulletproof cars, surrounded by gun-toting security forces. U.S. bigwigs are extremely valuable hostages, after all. It was not only uncomfortable but cumbersome and more than a little bit dangerous. I'm not sure that people like him wouldn't be willing to live in that kind of world (given that they would be among the superrich, even more than they already are here), but it's not a slam dunk that they would prefer to live in mortal danger at all times, cowering in bunkers and wondering if their body guards have been bought off. As I say, it's an interesting question.

Fred Raymond said...

The Republican Party acts strictly in its own self interest, and therefore has zero regard for the US population.

By logical extension, all Republicans act strictly in their own personal self interest, as described above by Greg.

The Prime Example of course is DT, who always does only what he perceives to give him the greatest possible advantage at that instant in time. No other attribution should ever be given to anything he says or does.

James F. said...

@ Neil H: Yes -- I believe it was former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz who described something very similar. Getting carefully driven around the swankiest areas in a hugely unequal country. He noticed it, and it very much altered his worldview. (That in itself is unusual, and I'm sure other factors were at play, but that's the one he wrote about.)

Thank you for engaging with readers. I know very little about law, that's why I read you folks.

Unknown said...

While I agree their crudeness of action is as palpable as an EM field in the presence of a 50 megavolt Van De Graaff generator, the mechanisms which automatically remove trump from power and keep him out are not under his influence. For example, the entire presidential detail of the Secret Service not only knows when a president's term expires and the fact that expiration date is immutable but they are also required to know this as part of their job; likewise with the Joint Chiefs and scores of high-level officials. The number of people who might be willing to help him retain power and who are in a position to do it by extra-legal means is too small and their influence too ineffective to pull it off.

Greg said...

@Fred My point wasn't actually that Republicans are unique, it's that over time they themselves become victims of the autocratic leader, because they are unable to usurp his power without giving up things that they want.

I don't necessarily think the rank-and-file Republican legislator here is that different from the rank-and-file Democratic legislator, although I think the Democrats are somewhat less likely to elect an autocratic leader like Trump. (The "Bernie Bros." make me not totally confident about this, though.)

The CGP Grey "Rules for Rulers" does a pretty good job of summing up how this can work:

Michael A Livingston said...

I think the problem here is that if you don’t accept the Republicans’ core belief—that the country is/was off the rails and that Trump, albeit a little bit loony, is a necessary corrective—nothing they do makes very much sense. But it’s equally true that Israel makes no sense if you don’t have a certain view of Jewish history; that hockey makes no sense if you don’t enjoy watching people skate back and forth hitting a plastic disk into a goal; and so forth. You’re dealing with beliefs systems that are not susceptible to quantitative analysis. So I am dubious about the ability of somebody outside the tent, so t speak, analyzing the behavior inside it. I think you can argue that the Republicans have done quite well given the hand they were allotted, and may continue to do better than you think in the future. With Trump of without him.