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Last night in Utah, as Vice President Mike Pence lied his way through what could be the last debate of the cycle, the host state’s senior Republican senator, Mike Lee, went on a rant against democracy.
It is not clear exactly what set the senator off. His first tweet on the subject came early on, just after the moderator—Susan Page of USA Today—opened with a bit of pablum. (“It is my honor to moderate this debate, an important part of our democracy.”)
But what really seems to have gotten Lee going was Kamala Harris’ extended defense of democracy at the end of the debate. Citing her candidate’s breadth of support from hundreds of generals and retired national security experts, she said:
I believe they are doing that because they know that Joe Biden has a deep, deep-seated commitment to fight for our democracy, and to fight for the integrity of our democracy, and to bring integrity back to the White House. We believe in the American people, we believe in our democracy … And we will not let anyone subvert our democracy with what Donald Trump has been doing as he did on the debate stage last week, when, again, in front of 70 million people, he openly attempted to suppress the vote … So I’ll repeat what Joe said: Please vote.
After stewing about this for a few hours, Lee finally tweeted this:
The Long Version
The Republican Party has been dying, electorally, for a decade. There was nothing inevitable about that. When I was a kid in the 1980s and early 1990s, I didn’t know that non-Republicans could even be president. Democrats thought they had to sound like Ronald Reagan to win. In the mid-aughts, when I was roaming the Capitol as a young reporter, people talked seriously about a “Permanent Republican Majority.”
Then, at the end of that decade, the GOP’s signature issues—the Iraq War and supply-side economics—were revealed to have been built on a pack of lies, and the parties’ fortunes switched.
In 2013, following Obama’s second election, the Republican National Committee mounted an “autopsy” aimed at reversing their losses at the voting booth. The resulting report did not do much soul-searching about the Bush administration’s legacy of ruin and war, but it did make suggestions about reversing the party’s losing trends: Emphasize “tolerance and respect.” “Establish a presence in African American communities.” Design and fund “tools that easily allow voter registration, [and] the request for an absentee ballot.”
Instead, the GOP went in the opposite direction. With a narcissistic authoritarian on the ticket, they eked out a technical victory relying almost entirely on white voters—scraping by on the narrowest of state margins while losing the popular vote for the sixth time in seven straight elections. It was always going to be a hard trick to pull off twice. Now, with a record of lies, death, and economic destruction that would make Dick Cheney blush, polls indicate it will probably be impossible.
That is, unless something else intervenes.
By the people
The condemnations against Lee’s tweets started this morning. By now, some conservative cranks are surely leaping to his defense, arguing he is simply parsing the mythical difference between democracy and a republic (as if representative government is possible without both)—or perhaps that the late-night tweetstorm was a product of a COVID-addled mind.
But Lee is no mere crank, nor some obscure troll. He is the senior senator from an important GOP state, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and the son of Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general. He is also, crucially at the moment, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which next week is expected to approve the nomination of the ultraconservative Trump-appointed Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, taking the seat held for 27 years by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Five years ago, Lee had no trouble invoking the word. In a 2015 floor speech, he argued that Senate Democrats were subverting democracy by proposing an alternative funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security to the one passed by the Republican-controlled House. “It’s time to stop delaying democracy; it’s time to stop hiding from the American people,” he said.
What happened since is that Lee and other Republicans’ assumptions about what the American people wanted proved to be a chimera. (It was not, it turned out, a more expansive DHS funding bill.) Republicans expended little effort trying to bring large numbers of Latino and nonwhite immigrant voters into a party whose white base was becoming aggressively xenophobic. And it turned out that few who were not already converted wanted any part of a so-called “Growth and Opportunity Party” whose priorities were to enrich corporations and deny individuals healthcare, and whose signal accomplishments had been to start the forever wars and the Great Recession.
When Trump managed to sneak into office, thanks in part to an extensive, internationally coordinated ratfucking campaign, some Republicans may have hoped that their electoral troubles were over. But they had only begun. Trump is extraordinarily unpopular. His ongoing illness—despite attempts from Obama, Biden, Harris, and liberal media stars to model sympathy—has only made him hated more. For Republican congressional candidates, he is a life-preserver filled with cement; Arizonans were treated this week the spectacle of GOP Senator Martha McSally flailing when asked if she supported the president.
If you can keep it
To save themselves, the Republicans are unleashing the power of a presidential administration that is undemocratic to its core. Efforts at voter suppression are well-documented and ongoing. Just before the debate, a memo from Bill Barr’s Justice Department, leaked to ProPublica, revealed that our country’s chief law-enforcement officials may be preparing to interfere in voting processes in new ways they know could alter the outcome of the election.
Already, Justice Department officials have been caught violating voters’ privacy in an effort to blow an isolated incident involving nine ballots into a national scandal aimed at discrediting the entire election in advance.
Trump himself is openly counting on the assistance of a wave of violent intimidation at the polls and in the streets by white supremacist and other neo-fascist groups. Encouraging them, and keeping them broadly on his side, is part of why Trump repeated his well-worn pattern of equivocation, bothsidesing, and deception when asked for his position on such extremist groups at the Sept. 29 debate. (The FBI has warned to be on guard for a surge of right-wing terror around the election; six members of a right-wing militia in Michigan were charged today with a plan to kidnap the Democratic governor.)
This is all extremely dangerous, to put it mildly. I don’t presume to know what the will of the American people is. Nobody does, that’s what free and open elections are meant to approximate. Sometimes majorities make bad choices, and minorities often need protection from both the mob and oppressive governments—that’s what the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights and other amendments are for. Our system has never been perfect, but all the best solutions point to more democracy, not less.
I don’t know what system of government Mike Lee is fantasizing about replacing American democracy with. If he’s smart, and we’re lucky, we will never have to find out.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Illustration: First Civil Act of the Republic of Athens by Pierre Michel Alix