Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) arrives in the House chamber before the start of the 7th failed attempt to elect a speaker in the Capitol on Thursday, January 5, 2023.

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It Is Comforting—But Foolish—to Believe the House GOP Inquisition Will Fail

The Republican Party is acting on behalf of a terrible and dangerous political perspective. But that does not mean they won't succeed.

If you are anyone but a MAGA enthusiast, and you care about the future of democracy in the United States, then you think that what the Republican Party and especially the House Republican majority has planned for the next two years is very bad.

And it is very, very bad.

And yet strangely, many of the same people who talk about how very bad it is also refuse to take it seriously.

I am a very regular watcher of MSNBC. Since the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency, I have enjoyed the network’s coverage of Trumpism, which often features really smart commentators, a few of whom are even my friends, who relentlessly critique Trumpism. I believe it is fair to say that MSNBC, now the home of both Never Trump former Republicans and some of the most prominent liberals, represents the mainstream centrist view of things: Trumpism is terrible, the Republican Party fully in its grip must be defeated, and democracy must be defended.

I share all of those beliefs. But there is one further claim that more or less defines this centrist perspective, and it is one that I do not share: that the Republican Party is a “clown car” and what it is doing might be dangerous but ultimately so crazy that it cannot possibly succeed.

And so MSNBC viewers are treated to a regular and constant barrage of variations of comments such as these (paraphrases of things I hear said regularly by Joe Scarborough and Lawrence O’Donnell, other hosts, and a great many guests):

  • “All of this talk about investigations is not political, it is performative.”
  • “These extremist plans for oversight are nothing but a distraction from their own lack of a governing philosophy.”
  • “These far-right pronouncements and commitments are out of step with the American electorate, which rejected the extremist agenda in November.”
  • “These crazy efforts cannot work, and it is hard to understand why any sane politician would commit to them, for such commitments will only weaken their chances for re-election.”

The most extreme version of this sentiment was articulated this weekend on MSNBC by Lucy Caldwell, one of the many professional Democratic campaign operatives to appear regularly on the network. Caldwell declared that the investigation of Joe Biden’s mishandling of classified documents just announced by the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee, led by Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is a good thing that ought to be welcomed by Democrats, because the accusations against Biden are bogus and the investigation will only blow up in House Republican faces.

Each of these tropes in a different way makes light of the very real right-wing threat to liberal democracy. It might be comforting to imagine that the MAGA-dominated Republican Party cannot succeed. But it is stupid, as wishful thinking always is in politics. And it seriously underestimates the gravity of the situation.

Fact 1: Every Republican in the House majority was elected by voters last November. And the pro-Trump/anti-Bidenism of these candidates was no secret, even if most of the candidates blended it with rhetoric about inflation, deficits, public education, etc. It was widely reported in both the mainstream media and the right-wing/Fox News media that if they retook the House, Republicans, with Jordan in the vanguard, would initiate “Benghazi on Steroids” investigations with the intention of ruining the Biden administration and delegitimizing now-reviled parts of the so-called “deep state.” And these people—around a hundred of whom had voted in 2021 to invalidate Biden’s electoral victory—were elected by the voters in their districts, who in each case rejected a Democrat who among other things claimed to stand for democracy. And the entire pro-Trumpist House Republican leadership was re-elected.

It is simply not true that “voters rejected Republican extremism” in November. In many places and races, some very important, voters did reject extremists. But in many other races they did not. And while the “red wave” failed, the Republicans still won control of the House. To imagine that somehow “the voters” in aggregate really prefer Nancy Pelosi and Bennie Thompson and Adam Schiff and the rule of law—this is delusional. And to imagine that voters will see through the hypocrisies and lies of Jordan and his colleagues and that the performative humiliation of Biden and his administration will somehow redound to the benefit of Democrats in 2024—this is even more delusional.

It is simply not true that “voters rejected Republican extremism” in November.

Fact 2: The Republican culture war against liberalism is not a “distraction.” It is a passionately committed politics of the far-right, and its powerful leaders and many millions of followers are attacking the things that they believe are destroying the country: “liberals,” “Marxists,” “Critical Race Theorists” and “gender radicals” seeking to take over schools and destroy “normal” family life and undermine law and order and Make America Weak.

There really is a MAGA ideology. It is promulgated—with slight differences—by Trump and Pence and DeSantis and Gaetz and Boebert and Jordan and Scalise and Cruz and Hawley and Graham and Ingraham and Carlson and Trump, Jr. It is preached to millions from the pulpits of many hundreds of Evangelical churches across the country. It is broadcast and disseminated by Fox News and One America News and Newsmax and scores of podcasts and social media feeds that have many millions of followers. And it is given a veneer of respectability by journals such as American Greatness and The American Mind and American Affairs and Claremont Review of Books and by the reactionary educational initiatives of Hillsdale College (which has apparently been invited by Governor Ron DeSantis to take over and transform Florida’s premier liberal arts college, New College).

This is all very real.

Most and indeed all of the beliefs at the core of MAGA ideology might rest on paranoid conspiracy theories and misinformation and disinformation. The holders of these beliefs might not really understand American history and how the U.S. constitutional system works; they might not care about the ethics of democracy or the rule of law; they might be deluded about how their political passions serve or fail to serve their economic interests, or how their reactionary dispositions are in tension with their embrace of modern technologies. And the leaders who purvey these claims might be opportunistic or manipulative, and might understand that some of what they are saying is not factually true or is contradicted by other factual truths. That is how ideology works. And it is very real—even if it is complex or admits differences—and is often held with some confusion or ambivalence.

The MAGA activists want to destroy the Democratic Party—and liberalism more generally—as they seek to alter the political landscape and electoral law so that Democratic voters become politically marginalized.

They want to destroy a Justice Department that they believe, rightly, institutionalizes a certain basic commitment to the rule of law that stands in the way of their agenda and their Caesarist desire for A Strong Man to lead them.

They want to attack scientific institutions because such institutions promote climate change concerns and reproductive freedom and a wide range of choices that they wish to take off the political table.

They want to attack teacher unions and indeed professional education, and “restore” control of schools to “normal parents” interested in “family values” and “patriotism” and “American Greatness.”

They want to eviscerate Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League and a wide and deep network of institutions all across the country that promote public health and modern medicine for women and for LGBTQ individuals.

And they want to whip up hatred for liberals and progressives and feminists and climate activists and BLM activists and queer activists and a Democratic Party which is at least minimally hospitable to these groups.

And they are doing these things.

And the Inquisitions promised by Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor-Greene and the entire House Republican majority that unanimously supported the “Rules Package” that centered on this agenda are serving this purpose, attacking and weakening the Democratic Party and the broad democratic left.

These attacks are not a distraction from politics. They are the goals of Republican politics.

And they are “performative” only in the sense that so much of politics is “performative,” from demonstrations and rallies and speeches and ads and Tweets and TV appearances.

The House Republicans are performing, i.e., enacting, their hatred of liberal democracy. And they are doing it in full public view. So that their supporters can see, and be emboldened, and so that their opponents can watch as their leaders and their values are debased and brought down.

Fact 3: All of this might be demagogic and racist and reactionary and contrary to modern science and modern medicine and hostile to public health and the rule of law and hostile to liberal democracy itself. Indeed, all of this might be dangerous and might even be evil. But this does not make it any less real.

Can it work?

Can evil work? Can dictatorship work? Look around . . .

It works, in different ways to be sure, in Russia and China and Turkey and Hungary and Belarus and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Sudan and in many other places. . .

A great deal of moral and political awfulness has “worked” for a great many ruling individuals and parties for a great deal of modern history.

It worked—for around three-quarters of a century—in the Soviet Union.

True, it only worked for around 20 years in fascist Italy, and it only worked for around 12 years in Nazi Germany. But even in those relatively short-lived examples, it worked quite well, for the fascists, who succeeded in destroying political oppositions, arresting thousands, murdering millions . . .

What “works?”

A great deal of moral and political awfulness has “worked” for a great many ruling individuals and parties for a great deal of modern history.

Is the U.S. far from that now? In some ways yes. In some ways maybe not so much. These are the very things that many smart people are discussing and debating right now, in the face of a very real crisis of liberal democracy that is being promoted and intensified by very real enemies of liberal democracy. To the extent that history has “verdicts,” they can only be known in hindsight. And to the extent that the last century furnishes any lessons at all, it can be said with some confidence that there is no guarantee that either political leaders or masses will be moved by a concern for human dignity; no guarantee that what is good or right is what will prevail; and no guarantee that liberal, constitutional, pluralistic democracy must survive.

And that is why it is both foolish and dangerous to believe that what the MAGA-Republican party is now doing must fail.

The party is acting on behalf of a terrible and dangerous political perspective.

The only way to be sure that the party and its supporters will fail is to defeat them.

And the only way to defeat them is to treat what they are saying and doing with the utter seriousness that it deserves.

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