How Competent Do Republicans Have to Be to Turn the US Into a One-Party State?

by Neil H. Buchanan

I am not above reveling in schadenfreude.  Indeed, one of the few pleasures from observing US politics in 2023 has been to watch Republicans -- especially those in the US House, who are the proverbial dog that caught the car -- struggle to carry out even the most basic acts of governing.  They could not get their act together even to elect their own Speaker on the first day of the congressional term, having had weeks before that date to get themselves up and running.

More than a dozen ballots of ritual humiliation later -- achieved only after an endless number of ridiculous concessions to their most out-there members, along with an unknowable number of private side deals -- they installed the hapless Kevin McCarthy to become what should henceforth be known as the Follower of the House.  As only one of McCarthy's many problems, he barely speaks English (see Dana Milbank's December 2022 Washington Post piece: "Is Kevin McCarthy okay?") even though he speaks no other languages.

I continue to think, as Professor Dorf and I wrote earlier this week, that President Biden made a mistake in "elevat[ing] McCarthy in the eyes of the political class" by negotiating a debt deal, but that is beside the point.  Because "McCarthy got rolled," he merely proved that he is not up to the job.  The most extreme members of the Republicans' all-extremist House majority are furious with him, and they now cannot even forgive him enough to pass bills that they favor, carrying out a "mutiny" that even McCarthy described as "chaos."

But it is not only McCarthy who deserves headlines like "Why Kevin McCarthy Is So Bad at This."  They are all bad at governing.  The clown cavalcade of "oversight" in the House continues not only to come up empty in manufacturing dirt on Democrats, but one of their first hearings even elicited testimony showing that Twitter "changed its policies to allow Trump to post content that broke its rules."  Beyond the observation from conservative pundit David Frum that "The GOP Is Just Obnoxious," they are all at least as bad at this as Kevin McCarthy is.

All of which should be good news to those of us who worry that the Republicans are on the verge of turning this country into a one-party, minority-ruled state.  But as the title of this column implies, maybe it is not in fact necessary to be good at this to pull off a bloodless coup.  Is it?

I ask this question in the context of my latest Verdict column (which, given recent trends, I should note is sole-authored, meaning that Professor Dorf is in no way implicated here): "Republican One-Party Rule Might—Might—Not Be Inevitable."  In that column, I give myself no opportunity to enjoy the respite provided by the temporary suspension of the debt ceiling, instead diving right back into one of my other apocalypse-infused bodies of writing: the end of American constitutional democracy.

Long-time readers of my work will recognize the basic story that I tell in that column, but I do offer a few enhancements.  Rather than running through the full list of ways in which the Republicans could subvert future elections -- a menu that I have discussed before and that includes partisan takeovers of vote-counting, the nutty "independent state legislature" gambit, legislation (even absent ISL) in Republican-controlled states to set aside the popular vote where necessary, and so on -- I focus only on the problem of the January 6 joint session of Congress to certify the results of the Electoral College's vote.

The bottom line is that, if (as seems highly likely) the Republicans hold the House and retake the Senate in the November 2024 elections, they will reject any Electoral College outcome in which their nominee is not the winner.  Again, I have described that path to dictatorship a few times (links in today's column), but today is the first time that I have laid out this specific path in step-by-step fashion.  Even without anything else going wrong, Republicans in Congress can name whoever they want to be President.

In the end, then, I was surprised to find myself writing this: "This country, it seems, has what amounts to a parliamentary system, at least if Republicans have anything to say about it."  That is, the January 6 session allows simple majorities of both houses to find fault with an election under the flimsiest of pretexts and then to recognize their own party's nominee as the legitimate winner.  What would Alexander Hamilton say?  (Aside: Of course this is asymmetric.  I suppose it is possible that the Democrats at some point could become as anti-democratic as today's Republicans are, but it is currently not even close.)

The other added feature in today's column was the observation that my governor's recent light-bulb moment about the 22nd Amendment could blow up in his face.  That is, in his assiduous efforts not to criticize Donald Trump, the leading (but distant) challenger noticed that whereas Trump is eligible to serve only one more term as President, the governor could serve two.  Trump has already savaged his opponent on this, because the only way for the governor to make the term limit issue matter is to argue that he is not very good at accomplishing things, so it will take eight full years to "end woke" or "destroy leftism" or whatever.

Trump's reply, in essence: If you can't do it in six months, like I will, then you have no business running against me.  That Trump is completely full of it (he could not even get his own party to build his wall when they controlled the entire federal government for two years) does not change the fact that his retort is devastating.  And that does not even take into account that the next Republican presidency will result in so much voter suppression and manipulation of the political system that it will not matter whether Trump serves only one more term -- although, health permitting, he will certainly try to "set aside the Constitution" and install himself as Your Favorite President for Life.

This then leads to my observation that, substance aside, nobody voting on January 6, 2025 is likely to want to install a two-term President, especially not a person who is widely despised by his own former colleagues.  I cite a column in Vice News observing that "being an ‘asshole’ has its downsides when you’re running for president."  But even if anyone liked him, the personal ambitions of every other would-be future president are worth noting.

More broadly, does everyone in the Republican Party truly want to be "jostling for position in the Politburo"?  Even if they are willing to end democracy as we know it, many of them would prefer to have robust intra-party democracy, because that is still the route to power for those who want to challenge their leaders.

But these factors are still not quite responsive to the question motivating this column: What if Republicans are simply bad at this?  Even beyond the hurdles based on personal ambitions and other strategic matters, what if -- like many would-be authoritarian parties before them -- the Republicans simply cannot keep themselves together well enough to do what they want to do?  In other words, can we add incompetence to the list of things that might save us, along with intramural paralysis?

I am skeptical.  Despite the evidence of Republican dysfunction in state governments around the country, they are definitely getting many things -- very, very bad things -- done.  Just ask anyone who is in, or who cares about, the LGBTQIA+ community, who is a racial or ethnic minority, or who could become pregnant.  Or, in my case, who is a university professor who is now legally prohibited from saying certain things in class about systemic racism, gay rights, and many other scholarly subjects.

In the end, I am confident that the one-party Republican governments of the future will be utterly inept, to say nothing of being wholly corrupt.  Even so, before they reach the point where they can trip all over themselves, they will lock down the system.  The current follies in the House, after all, ultimately do not matter, because the Republicans' bills will all die in the Senate or be vetoed.  When it does matter, they will get where they need to be.  To the detriment of the rest of us.