Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
December 29, 2022
Today, President Joe Biden signed into law the bipartisan year-end omnibus funding bill passed by the House and the Senate before lawmakers left town.
The $1.7 trillion measure addresses key goals of both parties. It funds the military and domestic programs. It funds public health and science, invests in law enforcement, and funds programs to prevent violence against women. It funds veterans’ services, and it provides assistance to Ukraine in its struggle to protect itself against Russia’s invasion. It updates the Electoral Count Act to prevent a president from trying to overturn a presidential election, as former president Trump did.
Biden said, “This bill is further proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to deliver for the American people, and I’m looking forward to continued bipartisan progress in the year ahead.”
But on his social media platform, Trump took a stand against the bill that funds the government. “Something is going on with [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell [(R-KY)] and all of the terribly and virtually automatic ‘surrenders’ he makes to the Marxist Democrats, like on the $1.7 Trillion ‘Ominous’ Bill,” Trump wrote. “Could have killed it using the Debt Ceiling, or made it MUCH better in the Republican House. Nobody can be this stupid.” Then he went on to blame the deal on McConnell’s wife, Trump’s own Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, using a racist slur.
This exchange reveals the dynamic dominating political leadership at the end of 2022. Biden and the Democrats are trying to show that the government can produce popular results for the American people. They are joined in that effort by Republicans who recognize that, for all their talk about liberty, their constituents want to see the government address their concerns. Together, they have passed the omnibus bill, as well as the CHIPS and Science Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law, and gun safety legislation.
This cooperation to pass popular legislation is an important shift in American politics.
But Trump and his cronies remain determined to return to power, apparently either to stop this federal action Trump incorrectly calls “Marxism” or, in the case of extremist Republicans, to use the government not to provide a basic social safety net, regulate business, promote infrastructure, or protect civil rights—as it has done since 1933—but instead to enforce right-wing religious values on the country. They reject the small-government economic focus of the Reagan Republicans in favor of using a strong government to enforce religion.
The determination of Trump and his team to dominate the government, and through it the country, has been illustrated powerfully once again today with the release of more transcripts from testimony before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Former White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Griffin recalled how Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, dismissed the idea that the Trump administration should coordinate with the incoming Biden officials over the coronavirus pandemic. “It was the first COVID… meeting that Jared led after [Biden won],” Griffin recalled, “& Dr. Birx… said, “Well, should we be looping the Biden transition into these conversations?” & Jared just said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Similarly, in an extraordinarily petty exchange, the chief of staff to former first lady Melania Trump, Stefanie Grisham, recalled that Trump wanted to fire the chief White House usher, Tim Harleth, for being in contact with the Biden team about the presidential transition. (Secret Service agents told Trump about the contact, raising more questions about the role of the agents around Trump.) Melania Trump stopped the firing out of concern for the stories Harleth could tell about the Trump family, but he was let go just before Biden’s inauguration, leaving the Biden’s standing before the closed doors of the White House for an awkwardly long time when they entered for the first time.
This determination of far-right Republicans to bend the country to their will presents a problem for the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans came around to backing Trump in 2017 after he promised them lower taxes and less regulation, the goals they had embraced since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
But Trump managed to stay in power by feeding the reactionaries in the party: those who reject the idea of American equality. Trump’s base is fiercely opposed to immigration and against the rights of LGBTQ Americans, while also in favor of curtailing the rights of women and minorities. Rejecting the equality at the heart of liberal democracy, many of them hope to enforce religious rules on the rest of the country and admire Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán for replacing democracy with what Orbán has called “Christian democracy,” or “illiberal democracy” that enforces patriarchal heterosexual hierarchies. As Trump encouraged them to, many of them reject as “fraudulent” any elections that do not put their candidates in power.
Now, as Republican establishment leaders recognize that Trump’s star is fading and his legal troubles seem likely to get worse—his tax returns will be released tomorrow, among other things—they seem eager to cut Trump loose to resurrect their anti-tax, anti-regulation policies. But those Americans who reject democracy and want a strong government to enforce their values are fighting for control of the Republican Party.
The far right has turned against Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, whom Trump hand-picked and who helped arrange the false electors in 2020. Trump loyalist Mike Lindell, the pillow magnate, is challenging McDaniel. Of more concern to her is the challenge of Harmeet Dhillon, a prominent election denier who has provided legal counsel for Trump in his struggles against the January 6th committee, calling it “a purely political witch-hunt, total abuse of process & power serving no legitimate legislative purpose.” Orbán supporter and Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson and Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk are backing Dhillon.
Kirk, who is a prodigious fundraiser, has warned the RNC that the party must listen “to the grassroots, our donors, and the biggest organizations and voices in the conservative movement” or it would lose in 2024. “If ignored, we will have the most stunted and muted Republican Party in the history of the conservative movement, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.”
The far right is also challenging the bid of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for House speaker, creating such havoc that today former Republican representative, senator, and secretary of defense William S. Cohen and former congressional staff director and presidential senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations Alton Frye published an op-ed in the New York Times warning that “the Republican caucus is dominated by campaigns and commitments that gravely encumber efforts to define common ground in the political center.” They urged House members to recruit a moderate speaker from outside the chamber and to “fortify those Republicans who seek to move the party beyond the corrosive Trump era.”
They called for a secret ballot, so Republican members won’t have to fear retaliation.
Cohen and Frye suggested that organization of the House by an outsider would allow for “meaningful coalition building,” but the Republicans about to take control of the House have so far indicated only that they intend to investigate the Biden administration before the 2024 election, a throwback to the methods party leaders have used since 1994 to win elections by portraying the Democrats as corrupt.
Representatives James Comer (R-KY) and Jim Jordan (R-OH), who are expected to take over the House Oversight Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively, have already demanded records from the White House. When White House Special Counsel Richard Sauber said the White House would respond to those committees after the Republicans were in charge of them—a position administrations have as taken since the 1980s—Comer and Jordan took to social media today to complain that “at every turn the Biden White House seeks to obstruct congressional oversight and hide information from the American people.” (Jordan, of course, refused to respond to a subpoena from the January 6th committee.)
The year 2022 has seen an important split in the Republican Party. The party’s response to voters’ dislike appears to be either to reject democracy altogether or to double down on the old rhetoric that has worked in the past, although you have to wonder if they have gone to that well so many times it’s drying up.
In the meantime, the Democrats have worked with willing Republicans to demonstrate that lawmakers in a democracy really can accomplish big things for the American people, and for the world.