Today’s Republicans: ultra-rightists merge forces and symbolism. Missouri Legislative Library photo.
How Democrats can crush GOP extremists
by Mark Green — Common Dreams
Is rhetoric passe?
Traditional media consider the economy, abortion, crime, and immigration as key 2022 variables. Can Democrats still find messages that elevate the possible death of a working Democracy—access to voting, majority rules, rule of law, peaceful transfer of power—to become a tie-breaker in a tight election?
Those who discount political slogans as a side-show have overlooked Abraham “The Rail Splitter” Lincoln, the propaganda of “Blood and Soil” in 1920s Germany, the “I Like Ike” slogan of the early 1950s, Reagan’s “Morning in America,” and of course the infamous “Make America Great Again” pitch—all of which provided a strategic lens to focus target audiences.
As the clash between democracy and despotism hurtles toward November, American politics now has become a contest between governing Democrats trying to enact policies for families and GOP insurgents running on faux populism to blur their right-wing radicalism. Trump Republicans largely just rotate loaded culture-war phrases—words like “Woke,” “Canceled,” “Fake News,” “Socialist,” “Trans,” “Open Borders,” and “Critical Race Theory”—in order to slyly scratch the itch of anxious white voters and to villainize Democrats. (Earlier iterations included “death panels,” “death taxes,” “migrant caravans,” “the war on Christmas,” and “Dr. Seuss…”—the opportunities to trigger the confirmation biases of their easily-triggered base are endless.)
Yet such language has indeed managed to steer much of the national conversation due to voters with five-second attention spans, smash-mouths at Fox News, and the sad reality that hateful rhetoric can attract more attention than positive policy. Adding to the problem has been the reluctance of above-the-fray Democrats to return fire. “Democrats Deliver,” “For the People,” and “Build Back Better” were nice homilies but drowned out by far-right polemicists with the subtlety of Russian foot soldiers.
In this Age of Rage, Democrats need more passionate, memorable language to contrast the moral values and political vision of the two major parties. President Biden did launch a strong counterattack with his “defense of democracy” speech in Philadelphia in early September. While that alone won’t sway any significant number of Trump cultists, the goal is more modest—if even 5 percent of Independents, soft-Republicans, and non-voters understand that extremism isn’t patriotism then a 7 million vote margin of victory in 2020 could grow into a 12 million vote margin by 2024 while making any attempt to sabotage democracy appear treasonous.
Early evidence—Democratic successes in six of six by-elections since 2020 and the 60% Kansas vote for reproductive choice—offers a hint that may be happening. Whether Democrats can continue their momentum will likely depend on their willingness to maintain three strategies: 1) stay on offense; 2) keep tattooing Trump on the back of Republicans; and 3) show how anti-majoritarian rules—e.g., about dark corporate money, gerrymandering, and the filibuster—have big consequences, like screwing millions of workers out of a higher minimum wage.
Contrast #1: “Mainstream vs. Extreme.”
Most voters know at some inchoate level that a party now dominated by theocrats, corporatists, and white nationalists is fundamentally different from one led by Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
But simply attacking “extremists’” may fall short since the MAGA playbook will simply find some hyperbolic reference as a flimsy rebuttal. What about AOC—isn’t she extreme? Or what about that guy who considered killing Justice Kavanaugh? Or they will pout that calling them “extremists” is like Hillary implying that all Republicans are “deplorable.”
No, not all Republicans, but many. Here are the receipts:
- Team Trump tried to violently overthrow our constitutional democracy by stopping the peaceful transfer of power; promised, if reelected, to pardon those convicted of insurrection-connected crimes; misled the public early in the Covid-19 pandemic destroying tens of thousands of lives; are openly conspired to rig the next election; want to criminalize all abortions; enforce new state laws making it harder for minorities to vote; and invoke the parlance of war to inflame MAGA mobs who then threaten local officials.
- This already malevolent list only grows as the news and a slew of books continues to further incriminate—never exonerate—the ex-president. At the same time, GOP presidential contenders continue their near-gravitational race-to-the-bottom to see who can incite Trump’s far-right base the most.
- According to multiple polls, some half of registered Republicans doubt Obama is an American, associate pedophilia with the Democratic Party, and believe that white people suffer more discrimination than Black people .…while 60-70 percent embrace The Big Lie that Biden stole the 2020 election. This QAnon-level insanity provides an array of material for powerful messages: e.g., “Big Brother Republicans are dangerous extremists.”
Contrast #2: Whose side are you on?
Since at least the Robber Baron era, Republicans exploit patriotic poetry during campaigns (“the Exceptional Nation”) and then prosaically deliver lower taxes and deregulation to their wealthy donors once in office. But events such as January 6 and the Dobbs decision by U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing majoirty put Democrats in a position to win the age-old election question, Whose side are you on?
Look at the history of social progress from FDR to Biden opposed by Republicans: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, stronger labor laws, the Affordable Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights legislation, environmental and consumer protections, and recent investments in the future like the bipartisan infrastructure law and the more recent Inflation Reduction Act. Imagine America without them.
Compare that to the 2022 plan of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the National Senate Campaign Committee, to attack Social Security and bedrock anti-pollution laws that keep our air and water clean. Democrats can now stick Scott’s party with a slogan they can run against: “Let’s Make America 1922 Again.”
Contrast #3: “The Party of Corruption”
Despite a long run as the party of “law and order,” today’s GOP is compromised by violent militants and lawless leaders. When the majority of a party says they believe the Jan. 6 mob were “patriots” and that’s party’s leaders warn of “riots in the streets” if Trump is charged, it should be impossible to pose as sentries of safety.
Worse, the far-right so often talk up a “coming Civil War” within the context of their “Second Amendment rights” that they appear indifferent to the impact their incendiary words have on millions of armed and unstable followers, such as the gunman who attacked an FBI office in Cincinnati after Trump called them “thugs.” The unwillingness of Republican officials to condemn violence can only be seen as coaxing more of it. And any organization that opposes a ban on the AR-15—the weapon of choice for slaughtering children—can effectively be called “soft on crime.”
The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) recently estimated that Trump committed as many as 55 crimes while in office. Indeed, there’s so much illegality in TrumpLand that perpetrators ironically benefit from scandal fatigue as frequency normalizes corruption. When one law or norm appears to be broken, Trumpers always conjure up some excuse and soon enough another scandal arrives to distract from the previous.
But explaining away any single scandal ignores how MAGA’s whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. Trump himself is now the subject of at least six criminal probes, surely a record for an ex-leader in a western democracy. Politifact reports that there were 142 people indicted over 18 years in the Nixon, Reagan, and Trump administrations. In the 20 years under Carter, Clinton, and Obama, there were only 3.
Recall when a few “influence peddlers” in 1948 and the gift of a vicuna coat to Ike aide Sherman Adams in 1956 made corruption a big issue in both those election years. From the vantage point of 2022, to quote Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog, “this is nothing.”
Since Sen. Joe McCarthy gleefully described the Democratic Party as the “Party of Treason” when it clearly wasn’t, it should be kosher to call today’s GOP the “Party of Corruption” which it very much is.
Contrast #4: Freedom or Fascism?
Anat Shenker-Osario, podcast host and founder of ASO Communications, has attracted much notice for showing how the GOP embraces the language of freedom while trying to ban abortions, books, vaccines, trans kids, marriage equality, and voting rights. Leading Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and newly-elected Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) have all embraced this winning formula.
It used to be seen as a naive epithet to call the GOP “fascists” (or even “semi- fascists” in Biden’s telling). But if their unapologetic assaults on freedom and democracy are not an American version of fascism—by a party forever calling Democrats “communists” and “socialists”—what would be?
To take one example, “Critical Race Theory”—which is taught in zero grade schools—should lead Democrats to reply: “Stop exploiting hatred. Parents want educators choosing books, not politicians banning them.”
Contrast #5: 50% More Economic Growth.
World-wide inflation is too high (due largely to the pandemic, Putin’s war, and corporate price-gouging). Yet Democrats also deserve polemical blame for allowing Republicans to be seen as better on the economy by 14 points in a recent NYTimes/Siena poll.
If you add up economic growth for every president since 1961, it rose 50 percent faster under Democratic administrations. Trump and Bush II each bequeathed deep recessions that cost trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. According to analyst Simon Rosenberg, 96% of all the jobs created since 1989 occurred during the 18 years of Democratic presidents (Clinton, Obama, Biden) rather than the 16 years of the Bushes and Trump. Biden’s economy has returned to pre-pandemic employment levels.
We’re reminded of Jon Lovitz on “Saturday Night Live” who, in the role of Michael Dukakis watching George H. W. Bush stumble through a debate, thinks to himself, “How am I losing to this guy?” Today, Lovitz-Dukakis could campaign on “An economy for the many, not the few” or “Vote yourself a pay raise.”
Whenever a Democrat says “Trump lies,” skeptical voters reply, “Well, they all lie.” Which may be true. What’s a unicorn, however, is an ex-president who nearly always lies (as Steve Bannon has privately marveled) while his political enablers silently squirm.
Again, quantity counts. Never before in our history has a president made over 34,000 documented lies and falsehoods in one term (or 22 times per day in 2020), or claimed he won an election he lost by 74 electoral college votes. Never has a losing candidate pretended that “voter fraud” resulted in the loss of key states when scores of judges and the U.S. Attorney General say otherwise, not to mention that nearly all voter fraud cases this election cycle were committed by Republicans. A democracy relying on a minimum of mutual trust cannot survive a Pinocchio Party.
Trump is a poisoned chalice
At every opportunity, Democrats ought to hang Trump around the neck of all GOP opponents. They may protest “but he’s not on the ballot,” except he is the top dog insisting on fealty from all members of the party.
Democrats associated the disgraced Nixon with all Republican candidates on the 1974 ballot, winning 49 House seats. It would be political malpractice if Democrats don’t make the GOP pay for their active or silent embrace of a politician who in two recent national polls (NBC and Marquette) show has fallen to 34%, his lowest popularity since leaving office. Looks like being a one-man crime wave is not a political plus.
The elections of 2022 and 2024 will turn on substance and slogans. A party that does not believe in fair elections, the rule of law, climate violence, and the science of vaccines cannot be trusted to govern a contemporary society.
Marketplace prices are high. But democracy is priceless… and on the ballot this November.
Mark Green was the first Public Advocate for New York City and is the author or editor of 25 books, including including “Who Runs Congress?” (1972), “Losing Our Democracy” (2004), and “Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All” (2020), co-authored with Ralph Nader.
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