By Heather Cox Richardson 1/31/21
The most prominent story these days is that the Republican Party is sliding toward a full-on embrace of authoritarianism. Former president Trump’s exit and ban from his favorite social media outlets has left a vacuum that younger politicians imitating Trump’s style are eager to fill by rallying people to the former president’s standard.
Notably, Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have tried to step into the former president’s media space by behaving outrageously and becoming his acolytes. Gaetz last week traveled to Wyoming to attack Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), the third most powerful Republican in the House, for her vote in support of Trump’s impeachment. Not to be outdone, yesterday Greene tweeted that she had spoken to Trump and has his support, although neither her camp nor his would comment on her statement.
Republican state parties have also thrown in their lot with the former president. In Arizona, the state party voted to censure former Senator Jeff Flake, the late Senator John McCain’s wife Cindy, and Governor Doug Ducey for criticizing the former president. In South Carolina, the state party formally censured Representative Tom Rice for voting to impeach Trump, and Republican lawmakers are starting to consider stripping Cheney of her party position, a development that led former President George W. Bush to indicate his support for her this weekend. She has already drawn a primary challenger.
Across the country, Republican-dominated legislatures are trying to suppress the voting that led to the high voter turnout that fueled Democratic victories in 2020. According to the Brennan Center, which tracks voting rights, 28 states have put forward more than 100 bills to limit voting. Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, whose voters chose Biden this year after going for Trump in 2016, all have introduced plans to lower voting rates. So have other states like Texas, which have voted Republican in recent years but show signs of turning blue.
The former president would like to solidify power over the party, but he has his own problems right now. The top five lawyers in his team defending him against the article of impeachment in his Senate trial all quit this weekend. Trump apparently wanted them to argue that the attack on the Capitol was justified because Democrats stole the election from him. Recognizing that this is pure fantasy—courts have already thrown this argument out more than 60 times—which could put them in legal jeopardy, the lawyers instead wanted to argue that it is unconstitutional to try a former president on charges of impeachment.
Tonight, Trump’s office announced that David Schoen and Bruce L. Castor, Jr., will lead his defense. Schoen represented Trump advisor Roger Stone when he challenged his convictions; Castor was the district attorney who promised actor Bill Cosby he would not be prosecuted for indecent assault. The impeachment trial is scheduled to start on February 9.
There are signs that some Republicans have finally had enough of their party’s march toward authoritarianism, especially as pro-Trump Republicans grab headlines for their outrageous behavior, including shutting down a mass vaccination effort at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for about an hour yesterday.
Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a 2010 Tea Partier but now one of the ten Republicans in the House to vote in favor of impeachment, told Anthony Fisher of Business Insider that “My dad’s cousins sent me a petition — a certified letter — saying they disowned me because I’m in ‘the devil’s army’ now….”
Kinzinger announced today that he has started a political action committee (PAC) to finance a challenge to Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. Calling Trump’s loyalists in the Republican caucus “political terrorists,” Kinzinger said in the video launching the PAC, “Republicans must say enough is enough. It’s time to unplug the outrage machine, reject the politics of personality, and cast aside the conspiracy theories and the rage.”
It also appears to be sinking in to Republicans that momentum is on the side of the Democrats. Biden’s executive actions have generally been popular, and his support for workers threatens to shift a key constituency from the Republicans to the Democrats.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus proposal offers to give to ordinary Americans, hurting badly from the coronavirus recession, the kind of government attention that has lately gone to wealthier Americans. Among other things, it calls for $1400 stimulus payments, extends unemployment benefits, provides funds for state and local governments, and establishes a higher minimum wage. While Biden has said repeatedly that he would like Republican support for this measure, the Democrats have enough votes to pass a version of it without Republican support.
This would put Republicans in the position of voting against a measure that promises to be popular, and at least ten Republican senators would prefer not to do that. Today, they offered their own $600 billion counterproposal, and asked for a meeting with President Biden to discuss it.
In their letter to the president, they hinted that they think the nation has devoted enough money to the economic crisis already, noting that there is still money unspent from the previous coronavirus packages. But they did not state that reasoning explicitly, perhaps recognizing that this argument will not be popular from people who voted for Trump’s 2017 tax cut, which disproportionately benefited the wealthy, when one in seven adults say their households don’t have enough food to eat.
“We want to work in good faith with you and your administration to meet the health, economic and societal challenges of the covid crisis,” the senators wrote. After years in which Republican senators refused to discuss bills with the Democrats, this is a change indeed.
But perhaps not enough of one. In the Washington Post, James Downie noted that a proposal that is less than a third of Biden’s package is not a compromise. It also cuts stimulus checks down to $1000, cuts supplemental unemployment insurance, gives no local or state aid, and kills the minimum wage increase.
When asked why Democrats should compromise rather than go ahead without them, as Republicans repeatedly did when they held the majority, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) told “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the Union,” respectively, that Biden should honor his call for unity and that refusing to do so would kill future hopes for bipartisanship.
In an article in The Guardian today, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich dismissed Republican concerns about the national debt, noting that if they were worried about it, they could just tax the very wealthy. “The total wealth of America’s 660 billionaires has grown by… $1.1 [trillion] since the start of the pandemic, a 40% increase,” he noted. Those billionaires could fund almost all of Biden’s proposal and still be as rich as they were before the pandemic hit.
Reich suggested that “[t]he real reason Republicans want to block Biden is they fear his plans will work.” A successful government response to coronavirus, the economic crisis, inequality, the climate crisis, and poverty would devastate modern-day Republicans’ insistence that the solution to every problem is tax cuts and private enterprise. If Biden’s plans succeed, Reich wrote, Americans’ faith in government, and in our democracy, will be restored.
Tonight, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that Biden has spoken with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and has invited her and the other nine signers of the letter to the White House (we later learned they will meet tomorrow).
But Psaki’s statement did not give ground. It reiterated the need for fast action, and noted that “$1400 relief checks, a substantial investment in fighting COVID and schools, aid to small businesses and hurting families, and funds to keep first responders on the job (and more) – is badly needed. As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little. Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment.”