Anyone But the People: Rebecca Solnit on the Party of Trump’s Attack on Democracy

From Voter Suppression to Courting Foreign Interference

One of the failures of journalism is the way that news appears in fragments, though  understanding comes from putting the pieces together. Reading of the arrest of two of Rudolf Giuliani’s associates for conspiring “to circumvent the federal laws against foreign influence by engaging in a scheme to funnel foreign money to candidates for federal and state office so that the defendants could buy potential influence with the candidates, campaigns, and the candidates’ governments” made me think, especially since it took place during the preliminary impeachment hearings against Donald J. Trump for soliciting aid from a foreign government for his own election advantage against a rival (and the withholding of foreign aid—aka your money and mine—to compel that aid).

Those federal laws exist as part of the idea of representative government: that elected officials will be accountable to the people of this nation, and only those people, and not any others. (It’s also behind the emoluments clause of the Constitution Trump has been violating regularly, which is why there are two emoluments lawsuits against him working their way through the courts.) That ideal that has been much eroded by the unequal wealth that, particularly since Citizens United, has given ever-more unequal power to the wealthy of this country. But that in the 2016 presidential election the winning candidate’s team solicited foreign aid and is back doing it again says volumes about what the Republican Party has become.

This has happened in innumerable ways. Last month, for example, the Washington Post reported,  “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for providing states with an additional $250 million in election security funding, an abrupt turnaround after more than a year of opposition from the Kentucky Republican on the issue. McConnell, who has been derided by Democrats as ’Moscow Mitch’ for repeatedly blocking efforts to combat Russian interference in U.S. elections,” seems to have only allowed this when the pressure and public attacks became overwhelming. There are more analogous examples than I have time to muster.

The other half of this self-portrait their deeds paint is voter suppression. The Republican Party has, for a long time, conspired in every possible way—acts of voter suppression from striking people from the rolls to removing polling places to the Crosscheck program, voter intimidation, gerrymandering—to prevent people, especially Black people and poor people, from voting. It works: it’s likely that Donald Trump’s minority victory in 2016 was due to voter suppression, as well as invited foreign intervention and the rest. In 2017, the great voting rights journalist Ari Berman reported the dramatic drop in black voter turnout in Wisconsin was due to a Republican voter-ID law and other attempts to prevent people from voting: He quotes Neil Albrecht, Milwaukee’s election director, who told him “I would estimate that 25 to 35 percent of the 41,000 decrease in voters, or somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 voters, likely did not vote due to the photo ID requirement,” he said later. “It is very probable that between the photo ID law and the changes to voter registration, enough people were prevented from voting to have changed the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin.” And then he notes, “If Wisconsin had seen the same turnout increase as states whose laws stayed the same, “we estimate that over 200,000 more voters would have voted in Wisconsin in 2016,” the study said.” Trump won the state by 22,177 votes. If we had full fair enfranchisement, we would have a radically different nation, in terms of its policies and who was carrying them out, which is to say we have an unrepresentative non-democracy at present.

What do foreign aid and voter suppression have in common? They’re both cynical moves against the very idea of representative government. Some people here will be thinking “What about the Democrats,” and the Democrats at this point in history range from corporate-funded centrists to ultra-progressives, and one of the stories yet to be told adequately is how the (virtually all-Democrat) Congressional Black Caucus has been both the keeper of the country’s conscience and the launcher of some of its most progressive ideas and impulses, from Detroit congressman John Conyers’s universal healthcare proposals that others, notably Bernie Sanders later took up, to Maxine Waters’s and John Lewis’s bold leadership in calling out the illegitimacy of Donald J. Trump early and often. They aren’t all Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but they aren’t all Chuck Schumer either, and the Democratic Caucus in the lower house is actually close to representing this 39% non-white country. Business Insider reported of the 116th House of Representatives, “A full 34% of the incoming House Democrats but 2% of their Republican colleagues identify as people of color.” Representative democracy is itself always problematic, and the term itself is an oxymoron about the flaws and limits of representation, but it is better than the other option at hand, and it can be more representative or less.

One of the stories yet to be told adequately is how the (virtually all-Democrat) Congressional Black Caucus has been both the keeper of the country’s conscience and the launcher of some of its most progressive ideas.

Let us think about two things at once that are perhaps one thing: the Republican Party’s attempt to prevent eligible voters from voting and their deep involvement in pursuing foreign money and support. It is at bottom a belief that money is the only citizen who matters, or money and power, a consequence of a political party that has, in an increasingly non-white and progressive-minded country, disdained to try to succeed by representing the will of the people. These are the acts of a would-be oligarchy with disturbing enthusiasm for oligarchs across the ocean, notably Putin and his Russian billionaires, and in Trump’s case also the authoritarians of Brazil, Turkey, North Korea, and the Philippines. And they are the acts of politicians who believe devoutly in the rights of corporations and hardly at all in the rights of human beings. As corporations have become increasingly transnational, their loyalties have followed the money.

There is a faintly silver lining glimmering in this somewhere. Trump has led the Republicans down the road of oligarchical anti-democracy at a breakneck speed; they were already on the path, but shuffling decorously along it. It will be hard for the party to present itself as anything other than the party of angry white men looking out for the interests of billionaires and corporations with some misogynist white supremacy and God-is-Hate sprinkles on top (which is pretty much what they were before, only now what was hitherto genteelly clothed is naked and drunk and loudly puking on your doorstep). Which means that, in concert with an increasingly non-white, increasingly progressive electorate, it will be harder for them to win elections in many parts of the country and national elections. California, a non-white -majority state, is now a wholly-Democrat-headed state and it seems hard to imagine a Republican winning state office ever again, though not so long ago we gave the nation former California senator Richard Nixon and former California governor Ronald Reagan.

The political violence—shooting immigrants, shooting synagogues and mosques—and the invocation of civil war are the measures of desperate men, clear that the political process will not work for them, exactly because they are a minority, and because they disdain that process and disdain the majority and the constituencies—women, non-white people, non-Christians, non-straight people, trans people—who make it up. Violence itself is a high-handed way of forcing your will on others with disregard for their rights (and in that light the fact that Trump is now being accused of dozens more sexual assaults is perfectly consistent with the ideology and character he and his posse display).

They have disdained to try to succeed by representing the will of the people, and the will of the people will need to flex its power to escape their agenda. The 2020 election, if it is not fatally corrupted, will be hard for whatever Republican crawls out of the swamp slime of Trump’s scandals to win, and after that the party will be increasingly marginalized. I don’t know what happens to a country with pockets of hard-right whiteness in southern and rural areas but a diverse more-left majority; it’s a recipe for division. I don’t want to see a one-party country, and living in the one-party town of San Francisco I see how readily that becomes corrupt. But it seems increasingly clear that the Republicans have set themselves on a collision course with history: either they overcome the will of the people and representative democracy or the latter overcome them.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-something books about geography, community, art, politics, hope, and feminism and the author, most recently of Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) and Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado.

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