HCR: Just how radical has the Republican Party become?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 28, 2021

This afternoon, Republicans in the Senate killed the bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. The vote was 54 to 35, and yet the thirty-five “no” votes won because of the current shape of the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to break, even if the minority doesn’t show up to vote. 

For their part, having killed the bipartisan, independent commission, Republicans are now complaining that the Democrats might set up a committee on their own. Maine Senator Susan Collins told Politico, “The most likely outcome, sadly, is probably the Democratic leaders will appoint a select committee. We’ll have a partisan investigation. It won’t have credibility with people like me, but the press will cover it because that’s what’s going on.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could indeed set up such a House committee, although she has been clear that she preferred the bipartisan approach. Such a select committee could issue subpoenas and hold hearings to investigate the people involved in the attack. Republicans, who likely fear some of their own would be implicated, are already claiming such a committee would be partisan. President Biden could also set up a commission, which he could then staff in a bipartisan fashion, but without congressional support it could not issue subpoenas. 

On Thursday, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) continued to hope Republicans would vote for the commission, saying,  “…the Democrats have basically given everything they’ve asked for, any impediment that would have been there, and there’s no reason not to now unless you just don’t want to hear the truth.” Today, after the vote, he said, “I never thought I’d see it up close and personal that politics could trump our country. I’m going to fight to save this country.” 

Indeed, by refusing to investigate what is arguably the most dangerous attack on our democracy in our history, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has brought out into the open just how radical the Republican Party has become.

As if in illustration of the party’s increasingly antidemocratic radicalism, in Georgia last night, Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) continued to stoke the same Big Lie that drove the insurrectionists, claiming (falsely) that former president Trump won the 2020 election. The two representatives are on a tour of rallies, possibly to distract from the scandals in which they’re embroiled. Last night, Gaetz, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking, told attendees that the nation’s founders wrote the Second Amendment to enable citizens to rise up against the government. “It’s not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports,” he said. “The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary.”

As the audience cheered, Gaetz continued: “I hope it never does, but it sure is important to recognize the founding principles of this nation and to make sure that they are fully understood.”

For his part, President Biden appears to be trying to undercut the increasingly radical Republicans by trying to improve conditions across the country, especially for those hurting economically as the nation’s factories automate and as their jobs move overseas. 

When he took office, his first order of business was to get the coronavirus under control, demonstrating that the federal government could, indeed, do good for the people. That has been a roaring success, with about 62% of American adults currently having received at least one vaccine. Biden is now aiming to have 70% of American adults vaccinated by July 4. New cases are plunging as the vaccines take effect, and the country is reopening rapidly.

Biden also turned quickly to repairing the economy, with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which expanded unemployment benefits and the child tax credit. That credit will start to show up in people’s bank accounts in mid-July and is expected to cut child poverty in half. 

So far, Biden’s approach to turning the mood of the country seems to be working: while his predecessor is polling at 39% approval and 57% disapproval, Biden is currently enjoying a 63% job approval rating. 

We’ll see how these two themes play out. Today, Biden released a proposed $6.01 trillion budget, tying together three plans he’s already proposed—the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, and $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending—and adding more to invest in education, health, science, and infrastructure. The proposal increases defense spending by 1.7% and nondefense spending by 16%. Overall, it increases federal spending to levels like those of WWII. By 2031, it would peg spending at $8.2 trillion. Deficits would run higher than $1.3 trillion for the next ten years but then would begin to decrease.

The president proposes to pay for the additional spending by increasing revenue by $4.17 trillion through taxes on individuals who have an annual income of more than $1 million and by revising the top capital gains rate to 39.6%, plus a 3.8% Medicare surtax, bringing the rate to 43.4%. (The current rate is 20% plus the Medicare surtax, making it 23.8%). The White House figures the capital gains tax reform should raise about $322 billion over the next decade. 

The budget shows Biden aiming to rebuild the middle class and make America globally competitive again. Acting director of Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young said that the administration had earlier called for such investment because, “The country had been weakened by decades of underinvestment in these areas.” The 2022 budget would, she said, “grow the economy, create jobs, and do so responsibly by requiring the wealthiest Americans and big corporations to pay their fair share.”

Doubling down on the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which funneled money upward even as corporate tax revenues fell 31%, Republicans have vowed to oppose all tax increases and want no part of Biden’s proposed spending. 

Today, McConnell responded to the budget proposal with words that were somewhat unfortunate coming, as they did, on the same day the Republicans refused to create a bipartisan commission to investigate an attack on our government. “If Washington Democrats can move beyond the socialist daydreams and the go-it-alone partisanship,” he said, “we could get a lot of important work done for our country.” 

HCR: Find the courage to step on the train

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 23, 2021

Frederick Douglass wrote his autobiography three times, but to protect the people who helped him run away from enslavement, he did not explain how he had managed to get away until the last version.

Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838. In his twenty years of life, he had had a series of masters, some kind, some harsh, and one who almost killed him. But by 1838, he was a skilled worker in the local shipyards, earning good money for his master and enjoying a measure of freedom, as well as protection. He had good friends in the area and had fallen in love with the woman who would become his wife.

It was enslavement, but within that existence, it was a pretty good position. His peers in the cotton fields of the Deep South were beaten like animals, their deaths by violence unremarkable. Douglass himself had come close to being “sold down the river”—a term that referred to the slave convoys that traveled down the Mississippi River from older, worn out lands in the East to fresh, raw lands in Mississippi and Louisiana—and he knew that being forced to labor on a plantation in the Deep South would kill him.

His relatively safe position would have been enough for a lot of people. They would have thanked God for their blessings and stayed put. In 1838, Frederick Douglass was no different than they were: an unknown slave, hoping to get through each day. Like them, he might have accepted his conditions and disappeared into the past, leaving the status quo unchanged.

But he refused.

His scheme for escaping to freedom was ridiculously easy. In the days of slavery, free black sailors carried documents with them to prove to southern authorities that they were free, so they could move from northern and foreign ports to southern ports without being detained. These were the days before photos, so officials described the man listed on the free papers as they saw him: his color, distinguishing marks, scars. Douglass worked in shipyards, and had met a sailor whose free papers might cover Douglass… if the white official who looked at them didn’t look too closely. Risking his own freedom, that sailor lent Douglass his papers.

To escape from slavery, all Douglass had to do was board a train. That’s it: he just had to step on a train. If he were lucky, and the railroad conductor didn’t catch him, and no one recognized him and called him out, he could be free. But if he were caught, he would be sold down river, almost certainly to his death.

To me, Douglass’s decision to step aboard that train is everything. How many of us would have taken that risk, especially knowing that even in the best case, success would mean trying to build a new life, far away from everyone we had ever known? Douglass’s step was such a little one, such an easy one… except that it meant the difference between life and death, the difference between a forgotten, enslaved shipyard worker and the great Frederick Douglass, who went on to become a powerful voice for American liberty.

Tomorrow, my students will graduate, and every year, students ask me if I have any advice for them as they leave college or university, advice I wish I had had at their age. The answer is yes, after all these years of living and of studying history, I have one piece of advice:

When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right… find the courage to step on the train.

HCR: GOP denies January 6 insurrection; Criminal charges forthcoming for Trump

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 20, 2021

The news grabbing the headlines today is the congressional fight over the creation of a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the events surrounding the January 6 insurrection.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made demands of the Democrats that he evidently expected Democrats to refuse, enabling him to object to the commission by claiming it was partisan. But the Democrats agreed to his conditions, forcing him to object in such a way that it was clear he is simply covering for the former president and, likely, for himself, because he does not want to have to testify to what he observed or participated in in the days around that event (including, for example, the hostile phone call with Trump when McCarthy was inside the besieged Capitol).

McCarthy and the Republican whip, Steven Scalise (R-LA), whose job is to get Republican members to vote along the lines leadership requires, set out to get Republican representatives to oppose the creation of the commission. But when the House voted on the bill this afternoon, 35 Republicans broke ranks to join the Democrats and vote to create  the commission. The defections were a sign that McCarthy and the Trump caucus do not entirely own the House Republicans yet; 35 Republicans would like to know what the heck happened on January 6. One hundred and seventy-five Republicans want to sweep the whole event under the rug. The final vote on the bill to create the commission was 252-175.

Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH) spoke for those of us who are gobsmacked that anyone could say we do not need to investigate the most profound attack on our democracy in our history. He thanked the Republicans supporting the creation of the independent commission and then turned on the rest. “Benghazi. You guys chased the former secretary of state all over the country, spent millions of dollars. We have people scaling the Capitol, hitting the Capitol police with lead pipes across the head, and we can’t get bipartisanship. What else has to happen in this country? Cops: this is a slap in the face to every rank-and-file cop in the United States. If we’re going to take on China, if we’re going to rebuild the country, if we’re going to reverse climate change, we need two political parties in this country that are both living in reality—and you ain’t one of them.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced he will not support it. After Trump’s second impeachment trial, McConnell said that he hadn’t voted to convict Trump because the former president would face punishment later. Now he has attacked the bipartisan commission as partisan and said, “It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could actually lay on top of existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” implying that there has been an investigation already—there has not—and that the fact we don’t know what such a commission would uncover means we have no need to uncover it.

All of this matters because the January 6 insurrection was an attack on our democracy, and the Republican Party has concluded that they do not want us to know what happened. A number of Republicans have said they believe that “Antifa” was behind the riot; if they really thought that were the case, wouldn’t they want an investigation?

The only logical conclusion is that they are afraid of what an investigation will uncover. And, in fact, that’s precisely what Republican senators are saying: they do not want an investigation to color the 2020 election. Today Senate Republican whip John Thune (R-SD) said that the findings of any investigation “could be weaponized politically and drug into next year” (although the bipartisan agreement requires the investigation to be over by the end of 2021). After years of weaponizing investigations—Benghazi, Secretary of State Clinton’s emails, Hunter Biden—the Republicans are facing an investigation, based in reality, that likely will reflect badly on them. They want no part of it.

But it is going to be very difficult to stuff back into the bottle the genie of interest in what the heck went on during the Trump administration. Yesterday’s announcement by New York Attorney General Letitia James that her office’s investigation into the Trump Organization has become a criminal investigation sparked fireworks from the former president. Today he issued a long, rambling statement that rehashed all his complaints about, well, everything, but the centerpiece was James’s announcement. It was weird and unhinged, even for him, and suggested that he is very worried that there will be criminal charges forthcoming.

And today a filing from the Department of Justice showed that, under Biden, the department has found the parents of 54 more children, from whom they were separated at our southern border by the Trump administration in an attempt to stop refugees from entering the country. The previous administration separated at least 2800 children from their parents. Shortly after he took office, Biden created a task force in the Department of Homeland Security to reunite families. The parents of 391 migrant children have still not been found.

HCR: “Saving America” – just as white supremacists “saved” the Jim Crow South

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 14, 2021

This morning, as expected, the House Republicans elected Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Trump’s choice for conference chair, to replace Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY). This means that the four top House Republican leaders—Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), Stefanik, and Policy Committee Chair Gary Palmer (R-AL)—all voted to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. 

Stefanik thanked “President Trump for his support,” saying “he is a critical part of our Republican team.” She went on to say that “House Republicans are united in our fight to save our country from the radical Socialist Democrat agenda of President Biden and Nancy Pelosi.”

Today’s vote confirmed that the leaders of the current Republican Party are willing to abandon democracy in order to save the country from what they call “socialism.”

But what Republicans mean when they say “socialism” is not the political system most countries recognize when they use that word: one in which the people, through their government, own the means of production. What Republicans mean comes from America’s peculiar history after the Civil War, when new national taxation coincided with the expansion of voting to include Black men.

In the years just after the firing stopped, white southerners who hated the idea that Black men could use the vote to protect themselves terrorized their Black neighbors. Pretending to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, they dressed in white robes with hoods to cover their faces and warned formerly enslaved people not to show up at the polls. But in 1870, Congress created the Department of Justice, and President U.S. Grant’s attorney general set out to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. 

In 1871, southern leaders changed their tactics. The same men who had vowed that Black people would never be equal to whites began to say that their objection to Black voting was not based on race. No, they said, their objection was that Black people were poor and uneducated and would elect lawmakers who promised to give them things—hospitals, and roads, and schools—that could be paid for only through tax levies on people with property: white men. In this formulation, voting was not a means to ensuring equality; it was a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to African Americans who wanted a handout. Black voting meant “socialism,” and it would destroy America.

With this argument, northerners who had fought alongside Black colleagues and insisted they must be equal before the law on racial grounds were willing to see Black men kept from the polls. Black voting, which northerners had recognized as key to African Americans being able to protect their interests—and, for that matter, to defend the national government from the former Confederates who still wanted to destroy it—slowed. And then it stopped. 

The South became a one-party state ruled by a small elite class, defined by white supremacy, and mired in poverty. For its part, the North also turned on workers, undermining the labor movement and focusing on protecting the new industrial factories whose owners claimed they were the ones driving the economy. 

In the 1930s, the Great Depression changed this equation. When the bottom fell out of the economy, Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure. As early as 1937, Republican businessmen and southern Democrats began to talk of coming together to stop what they considered socialism. But most Americans liked this New Deal, and its opponents had little hope of attracting enough voters to stop its expansion.

That equation changed after World War II, when Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower began to use the government to advance racial equality. Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the military prompted southern Democrats to form their own short-lived segregationist party. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional enabled opponents of the new government system to tie racism to their cause. They warned that the expanded government meant the expensive protection of Black rights, which cost tax dollars. They argued it was simply a redistribution of wealth, just as their counterparts had done in the Reconstruction South.

With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that argument increasingly fed the idea that Black and Brown people were lazy and wanted to receive government handouts rather than work. Businessmen and social traditionalists eager to get rid of the popular New Deal government told voters that government programs to help ordinary Americans were “socialism,” redistributing money from hardworking white people to lazy people of color. They talked of “makers” and “takers.”

To purge the nation of socialism, then, and return it to the pre–New Deal government, they set out to limit voting. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation that has designed much of the legislation currently being passed in Republican-dominated states, said “I don’t want everybody to vote….our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 

By 1986, Republicans were talking about cutting down on Black voters through “ballot integrity” drives. As Democrats sought to expand voting, most notably with the 1993 Motor Voter Act, Republicans began to charge that they were losing elections only because of voter fraud, although experts agree that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and does not change election outcomes. Since then, arguing that they are simply protecting the vote, Republicans have become dependent on ID laws and other voter suppression measures. 

But by 2020, it was clear that the Republicans’ drive to slash the government back to its 1920 form, along with the racism and sexism that had become central to the party to pull voters to their standard, had become so unpopular that it was unlikely they could continue to win elections. And so, Republicans began to say that the United States is “not a democracy,” as Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted in October. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” he continued, “liberty, peace, and prospe[r]ity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

With the election of Democrat Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a Democratic Congress, the leadership of the Republican Party has taken the next step. They are rejecting the legitimacy of the election, doubling down on Trump’s Big Lie that he won. Claiming to want to combat “voter fraud,” they are backing bills across the country to suppress Democratic voting, making sure that no one but a Republican can win an election.

Just as white southerners argued after the Civil War, Republican leaders claim to be acting in the best interests of the nation. They are standing firm against “the radical Socialist Democrat agenda,” making sure that no wealthy person’s tax dollars go to schools or roads or social programs. 

They are “saving” America, just as white supremacists “saved” the Jim Crow South.

HCR: Cheney shines a light on the “threat America has never seen before”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 11, 2021

Tonight, in a speech that claimed every piece of the Republican landscape since 1980, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney launched a broadside against the Republican leaders who have shackled the party to the former president.

“Today we face a threat America has never seen before,” Cheney said. “A former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence. Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president. They have heard only his words, but not the truth, as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.”

Cheney recalled the determination of those in Kenya, Russia, and Poland to risk their lives to vote for freedom, and talked of how the dream of American democracy had inspired them. She touched on religion, assuring listeners that God has favored America. She invoked Reagan, claiming that his Republican Party won the Cold War and saying that America is now on the cusp of another cold war with communist China.

This impending struggle highlighted the importance of today’s domestic struggle: “Attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure. We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.”

Cheney went on to claim that she stood on conservative principles Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has abandoned. The fundamental conservative principle is the rule of law, she reminded listeners, and those backing Trump’s Big Lie are denying that rule and undermining our democracy. The election is over, she said, and “Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution.” It is imperative, she said, to act to prevent “the unraveling of our democracy.”

“This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar.”

Tomorrow, House Republicans will vote on whether to keep Cheney at the number three spot in the party in the House—she is expected to be removed—and Trump’s own former deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, will tell the House Oversight Committee that after the election, the Justice Department “had been presented with no evidence of widespread voter fraud at a scale sufficient to change the outcome of the 2020 election.”

On Thursday, over 100 former Republican leaders will drop a letter saying that if party leadership does not separate itself from former president Trump, they will start a third party. They are calling themselves the “rationals” against the “radicals,” and they include former governors and representatives, as well as Republican officeholders.

This revolt against the Trump loyalists in the Republican Party signals that, no matter what leadership is saying, many Republicans—including Republican lawmakers—are not, in fact, united behind the former president. After all, he never broke 50% approval when he was president, and he lost the White House and Congress for the party. And, now that he is locked out of Twitter and Facebook, it appears he can no longer command the audience he used to. In the week since he launched a new blog, it has attracted a little over 212,000 likes, shares, and comments. The top post got just 16,000 engagements.

Meanwhile, 63% of Americans approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing.

What’s at stake in the fight over Cheney’s position in the Republican Party—admit it, did you ever think you would care about who was the third most important House Republican?—is not some obscure struggle for political seniority. It’s a fight over whether the Republican Party will wed itself to the Big Lie that a Democratic president is illegitimate, despite all evidence to the contrary. Cheney is not a Democrat by a long shot, and she is correctly calling out the danger of the Big Lie for what it is: a dagger pointed at the heart of our democracy.