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Minority Rule, Part II: The GOP's 12 Strategies for Undermining American Democracy
a.k.a., what happens one party realizes it will never return to power legitimately...
Welcome back to Doomsday Scenario, my newsletter examining whether things are really as bad as they seem? In the first half of this inaugural essay, I talked about how we’ve living through a national, collective failure of imagination, watching a slow-motion insurgency unfold in our country without reckoning seriously with how—and why—the GOP has abandoned democratic norms and behaviors.
I want to start this second half where that essay closed: The reason for the GOP’s sudden turn is clear: Put simply, the Republican Party understands that it increasingly cannot win free and fair national elections, and it’s doing everything it can across the country to undermine them going forward and lock in its ability to rule even as its voter base shrinks. Nationally, it is trying to do everything it can to resist (or avoid) the arrival of a younger, more diverse, more socially tolerant, urban nation. This trend isn’t new (in fact, this dilemma was the core of my first book, more than a dozen years ago, about how globalization and technology would reshape the 2008 presidential race) and in many ways, the radicalization of the GOP began in the era of Richard Nixon and the “Southern Strategy” a half-century ago.
The American system has been based on majority rule with protection for the rights of the minority—today, we’re seeing something more like the opposite occur as the GOP illegitimately solidifies its rule and policies as a minority party.
An Era of Minority Rule
While pundits wonder, debate, and tsk-tsk at the various norms that the GOP is breaking—from the Supreme Court to peaceful transitions of power and more—the real answer for such norm violations is simple: Our system of norms has historically worked in American politics because each party recognizes the cyclical nature of our elections. Even if you’re the majority today, you might be the minority again in the next election, so both parties have had a historic incentive to preserve basic norms that protect the minority; after all, you know that someday you will want those norms and protections in the future when you’re back in the minority.
Under our system, in theory, you never want the majority to have too much power—or, as the majority, never want to wield power too ruthlessly—because someday you’ll be back in the minority.
The GOP’s abuse of norms nationally, by Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and others, recognizes that under current trends it will never be back in the majority legitimately in the United States — and so it must abuse, end, and destroy the norms and guardrails that have held American politics in check for generations.
The collective goal of these abuses is clear: The GOP wants to capture and preserve minority rule.
It is doing so through a clear playbook that relies on 12 distinct but interrelated strategies to lock in its ability to effect minority rule—strategies that collectively make clear how the MAGA-Republican Party increasingly is an authoritarian party. Individually and together, these strategies undermine American democracy and citizens’ faith in their institutions and government.
Here's how I think about the key parts of the GOP’s big-picture strategy to undermine American democracy:
1) Open embrace of white nationalism :: Since Donald Trump’s first campaign speech, where he called Mexicans “rapists,” the GOP has taken a hard-right into ever-more-open white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and antisemitism politics—not the least of which was the “Muslim Ban” that Donald Trump enacted hours into his presidency. We’ve seen this from Charlottesville to even more recent incidents of antisemitism around comments made by Kanye West. The GOP understands its base is shrinking and it needs to militarize them in order to continue to hold power.
2) Threatening, stoking, and outright encouraging political violence :: Ever since the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago in August, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has circled ever closer to outright threats of violence if he’s indicted. In fact, threats of violence — and the embrace of those who do commit political violence — has become a central part of the MAGA platform across the country. Kyle Rittenhouse is lionized. Ashli Babbitt is a martyr. And January 6th has been written off as tourism. White nationalist militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys have become central to GOP efforts across the country, and right-wing media and GOP officials outright encourage and joke about violence against Democratic officials. A key part of this strategy is how Republicans stoke fear in voters about unchecked gun violence by both leaving gun violence unchecked and through actually embracing a reckless gun culture that encourages ever more guns in more places.
3) Legislative and judicial assaults on voting rights :: A key aspect of the GOP’s national and local platform is increasingly aimed at making sure that as few people vote as possible—knowing, of course, that higher voter turnout, particularly by minorities, is bad for the Republican candidates. We often shorthand this as a “gerrymandering” problem (and yes, one of the biggest problems in American politics is that most GOP members of Congress exist in districts built such that they more fear a primary than a loss in the general election), but it’s much broader: It’s about criminalizing giving water to people in line to vote, shrinking and closing polling places and polling hours, making it harder for people to vote absentee or drop off their ballot, and inventing fake reasons to justify voter ID laws. One of the clearest recent examples of this is how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to make people afraid to vote in Florida with high-profile arrests on dubious grounds (so dubious, in fact, that it appears all of DeSantis’s arrests will be dismissed.)
The GOP is hardly hiding their embrace of this strategy. As the Washington Post reported Tuesday, “the Republican running for governor of Wisconsin this week said his party would permanently control the state if he wins. ‘Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor,’ construction executive Tim Michels told supporters Monday at a campaign stop.”
4) Broad-based political attacks on the integrity of elections and the embrace of Trump’s “Big Lie” :: Intimately related to the GOP’s assault on voting rights, but strategically distinct, is the Republican Party’s ever-more-extreme embrace of election denialism. While much of this over the last two years has focused on retrospectively denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election, it’s clear that GOP candidates up and down the ticket will try to undermine elections where they don’t win next week. “If you care about the survival of our republic, we cannot give people power who will not honor elections,” Liz Cheney says in a new ad targeting the election-denialism ticket in Arizona. “We must have elected officials who honor that responsibility.” As Nate Persily, one of the nation’s leading election experts says, these threats will be really hard to counter: “Our system is incapable of handling [this].” A major part of this (also see #12 below) is partisan-izing local election roles that have historically been nonpartisan and harassing and threatening violence against ordinary poll workers and election officials to drive out working in good faith to protect elections at the local level.
5) The undemocratic capture and weaponization of the judiciary :: It almost goes without saying now that a key backstop of the GOP’s strategy for minority rule is about flooding the federal courts with unqualified ideologues who put politics above the law. [[Cough, cough, Aileen Cannon, cough cough.]] This strategy in many ways has been Mitch McConnell’s pet project for years in the US Senate and is reflected most clearly in his hypocrisy-rich handling of Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016 vs. Amy Coney Barrett in 2020. The result at this point is well-known and stark: A majority of the nine-member court and five of the six justices who overturned Roe v. Wade this year, a policy that is broadly popular and widely accepted across the country, were appointed by two GOP presidents who actually lost the popular vote.
6) The reinvention of the Religious Right :: For those of us who came of age during the George W. Bush “compassionate conservative” era, when the Evangelical Right seemed on the march in US politics, few aspects of the modern GOP seem more surprising than the sheer ideological corruption of today’s religious right — where white Christian leaders have embraced a man in Donald Trump who embodies and lives precisely none of their moral or spiritual values and has been credibly accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, and where the “family values” party increasingly is led by morally bankrupt candidates like Herschel Walker who seem to be everything that Evangelicals once stood against.
7) The open embrace of conspiracy and denigration of science, technology, and key institutions :: It’s worth remembering how the very idea of the “Deep State,” which has a long and dark history overseas, didn’t even really exist in American politics until the Trump era. Now, though, conspiracy theories—from QAnon to Pizzagate to Covid-19 vaccines—are a key part of the GOP platform (and increasingly openly embraced and winked and nodded at even by Donald Trump himself. These attacks play on distrust of the wealthy and intellectual elites and anxieties about science and technology. These lies—and many of them are in fact deeply vicious and hurtful lies, not the least of which are the party’s Covid-19 lies that led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in GOP states—are fundamental to undermining national institutions, and, as we see in the court papers of Paul Pelosi’s attackers, these conspiracies are particularly a key part of the information diet of many of those driven to the worst violence.
8) Creation of parallel institutions :: The GOP would hardly be as effective in spreading these lies and conspiracies without a generation-long effort to create parallel institutions, like Fox News and talk radio, to counter what it sees (usually wrongly) as the liberal, fact-based mainstream media. Today, we’re seeing the worst, most violent corners of the GOP pushed toward ever more fringe networks, like OAN, Rumble, TruthSocial, and Parler, but this isn’t solely about media—one of the most interesting trends in the far-right over the last few years has been its embrace of crypto as a hedge against traditional banking and governments.
9) Rise of dark money funding :: One of the most pernicious strategies of the conservative movement over the last forty years has been its steady erosion of good-government campaign finance laws passed after Watergate—most notably, of course, Citizens United and the rise of anonymous Super PACs that can flood races with untraceable money. The reason for this assault on democracy is clear: The GOP’s policies are, broadly speaking, unpopular and so as Jane Mayer has best documented, most of the GOP’s policy and career apparatus is funded by a tiny handful of billionaires, like the Kochs and Peter Thiel, who have been willing to make a cynical trade to promote the social ideas that motivate GOP voters in exchange for the GOP pushing business deregulation and tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest few in the country. (This particularly thread was a part of a revealing documentary I helped executive produce last year if you’re interested.)
10) Undermining good government :: In office and in power, it’s notable how the GOP increasingly does everything it can to break government. As a historian I’m struck by how two generations of GOP presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through even George W. Bush, as well as many representatives and senators, largely engaged in governing in good faith—working within the structures and strictures of normal procedure to accomplish shared goals. Around the time President Obama came to power and the never-quite-as-grassroots-as-it-was-made-to-be Tea Party revolt happened, a strain of outright nihilism took over the GOP.
Today, one of the GOP’s main talking points is that government doesn’t work—but that’s largely because the GOP is actively breaking it. We’ve seen ever-escalating assaults on the basic function of the US government and the dismantling of the administrative state—including defunding agencies like the IRS, placing holds and blocking presidential nominees to paralyze government, reckless fights over the debt ceiling, disregarding normal personnel procedures and installing unusual, unconfirmed “actings,” among other actions. While we’ve been reminder of the Trump administration’s abuse of “acting” officials amid the January 6th hearings, it’s worth noting that abuses for so widespread that for the final year of Trump’s presidency, the administration couldn’t even legally convince a court who was in charge of the Department of Homeland Security. The Trump administration notably saw escalating crimes and ethics violations by Cabinet secretaries and White House staff.
11) The weaponization of bad and anti-democratic government :: Just as key as undermining good government is the way that the GOP is taking advantage of *bad* government—that is abusing or enforcing norms only as it benefits them. Filibusters for me and not for thee, as Mitch McConnell might say. Equally important here is the way that the GOP resists local, state, and national reforms — pro-democracy reforms like those the United States has made routinely over and across nearly 250 years of evolving government and morals — that would allow for a more equal and balanced democracy, including the electoral college, which increasingly skews presidential politics toward the rural white states where the GOP is strongest. The American story is one of evolution, where generation by generation rights are extended to new groups and new populations and we adjust accordingly as a country. The GOP wants to make sure we are trapped in our past.
12) National-izing and partisan-izing local politics and policies :: Closely related to the efforts to undermine good government and embrace conspiracy theories is the national—and overt—Republican attempt to poison local and state politics with the national culture wars and threats of violence that are corrupting Washington politics. Look no further than places like Virginia, and last year’s gubernatorial race with Glenn Youngkin, to see how the GOP is using false-controversies like Critical Race Theory, The 1619 Project, and LGBT bathrooms — this year’s urban myth bug-a-boo is kitty litter boxes in schools — to poison local elections, bring national politics into roles like school boards, and generally (again) drive out well-meaning volunteer officials working in good faith on behalf of their communities.
It’s important throughout all of this to recognize and think through how all these strategies work together to accomplish the MAGA-GOP’s goal of white minority rule in America.
They work to undermine and attack elections, use violence and threats of violence to discourage people from participating, and then lament how the election results are not legitimate.
The GOP calls for and encourages violence in America’s streets, while encouraging ever more guns in ever more places, and then laments the lawlessness of America and uses that lawlessness to inject fear into voters.
The GOP cuts government funding, ridicules, attacks, and encourage threats against nonpartisan civil servants, and then laments how ineffective government is.
I’m going to spend some time in future essays exploring these strategies for minority rule more deeply, how they’re undemocratic, and how the GOP is weaponizing them to undermine our government and political institutions and remake the country as an authoritarian (or “semi-facism” as has Joe Biden called it) country under minority rule. Each of these strategies has been a mix of rhetoric and action, and they’re uniquely and collectively deeply corrosive to our government, institutions, and our democracy.
In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be writing here about these various threads and strategies and the way that they individually and collectively threaten the future of American democracy.
In the meantime, I’ve got my fingers crossed that next week isn’t the GOP wave pundits are predicting, because if it is, our country is in very serious trouble.
So: Don’t forget to vote. Our nation’s future is on the ballot next week.
PS: I’m going to use these newsletter postscripts as a place to be a bit more personal, offer reading recommendations, and the like. So here’s my best piece of life advice: I spent yesterday morning at the funeral for a friend’s father — it was a high school friend I haven’t seen in probably a decade (or longer) and have probably only spoken to two or three times in that decade, but there’s something about those early friends that sticks with you through life, and when I heard her father died last week, I knew I had to be at the funeral. I’m so glad I went. In fact, as my work colleagues know, one of my life maxims has long been: Always go to the funeral. There’s almost nothing you can do in life that’s easier to do for you and yet means more to the person involved than showing up to a funeral. What was funny was my friend in her eulogy talked about the same idea—and said that Always go to the funeral was one of her father’s maxims too. I wonder if I learned it from him?
PPS: After the funeral, I flew to Texas yesterday afternoon, for this weekend’s Texas Book Festival, and our plane paralleled the Ohio River for a good chunk of the flight. I got this great view of tugs and barges working the Ohio here near Uniontown, Kentucky (there are three tugs/barges visible here if you look closely).
All the way, I was thinking of Rinker Buck’s new book, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, where he built and then sailed an old-fashioned flatboat down the Ohio and the Mississippi. It was a fascinating travelogue and exploration of how America became a maritime nation. It’s a follow-on to his book THE OREGON TRAIL, where he similarly built a Conestoga Wagon and then rode it across the country. Definitely check both books out if you haven’t. I want to be Rinker Buck someday when I grow up.