When a dictator sees weakness, the dictator tries to increase his own power — which is exactly what Donald Trump has done over the last twenty-four hours.
After Democrats spent the weekend signaling surrender on the Supreme Court vacancy and suggesting they have no appetite to fight over the judiciary or threaten to expand the court, Trump on Wednesday declared that he may not agree to a peaceful transfer of power, and he openly admitted that he is trying to rush through a judicial nominee so that the court can give him a second term. He suggested that he will “get rid of the ballots” and “there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
This is a crime in process — specifically, a coup that will be engineered remotely by Zoom, as Republican lawmakers now plan to leave Washington without passing a pandemic relief bill and return only for votes to install a new Supreme Court justice to throw the election.
Amid this onslaught, Democrats are behaving as if you can stop a coup merely by telling people to vote in an election where their ballots might get thrown out.
But the lesson here is the converse: Democrats’ culture of learned helplessness is no match for authoritarianism.
If opposition party lawmakers don’t stop imagining a return to normalcy and brunch — and if millions of Democratic voters don’t start immediately demanding that their party’s leaders begin fighting to stop Trump’s court pick right now — then whatever is left of American democracy is probably finished.
Yes, the situation is that dire.
Democrats Cower, Trump Pounces
The events of the past few days have moved at lightning speed, so it’s worth reviewing what’s happened to see the story that’s unfolding.
It all started over the weekend with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer seeming to signal that Senate Democrats wouldn’t try to do much to stop Trump’s pick. At the same time, weeks after she gave a DNC speech saying Democrats are “championing a woman’s right to choose and defending Roe v. Wade,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi reacted to the Supreme Court vacancy by ending the threat of a government shutdown that might have obstructed an anti-choice court nominee.
When Schumer was subsequently shamed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into using at least some of the procedural power at his disposal — preventing the Senate from holding committee hearings Tuesday afternoon — senator Maggie Hassan’s office issued a statement saying the New Hampshire Democrat was “extremely frustrated that today’s hearing on defending state and local entities from cyber threats amid COVID-19 will have to be rescheduled.”
Meanwhile, other Senate Democrats chimed in by telling Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that, actually, Republicans shouldn’t fear Democrats expanding the Supreme Court in the event that the GOP installs a Trump pick.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said on Monday she wouldn’t support ending the filibuster in a Democratic-controlled Senate — a prerequisite for any talk of adding court seats (or passing any progressive agenda items). “Well, I don’t believe in doing that, I think. I think the filibuster serves a purpose,” Feinstein said, according to The Hill. Ignoring the huge increase in GOP filibusters, she insisted: “It is not often used, it’s often less used now than when I first came, and I think it’s part of the Senate that differentiates itself.”
Illinois senator Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat, dismissed the idea of expanding the court, in comments reported by ABC on Wednesday: “There’s no serious conversation among my colleagues about this prospect. It is speculative, it is in the future, if at all.”
Durbin also told The Hill that it isn’t smart politically for Democrats to talk about expanding the court right now. “You’ll notice it’s the arguments being used by Sen. McConnell on the floor now,” he said. “We have all these threats of changes in the future if we go ahead with this filling this vacancy. I think we ought to focus on the nominee, that nominee’s beliefs, and what they’re likely to do on the court in the context of the Affordable Care Act.”
Meanwhile, after Joe Biden managed to muster only a non-ironic appeal to Republicans’ nonexistent conscience, Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet went to the floor to apologize to Mitch McConnell for having the gall to previously violate Senate norms.
“I’ve apologized on this floor before, about that vote,” he continued. “It has led us, partly, to where we are today.”
Those messages of surrender were quickly echoed by Democrats’ Senate candidates — they telegraphed to voters that even though the party has always said it would never capitulate on fundamental issues like abortion and civil rights, the judiciary is effectively gone, and there’s nothing they plan to do about it if they win their races.
With Democrats cowering in fear, Trump pounced.
On Wednesday, he declined to say that he would peacefully transfer power in the event that he loses the election. He also linked the fate of the 2020 election directly to the outcome of the Supreme Court vacancy.
“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court,” he said. “And I think it’s very important we have nine justices.”
Republicans piled on one more insult for good measure. Senator John Thune of North Dakota told CNN that senators are going to leave Washington as early this week without passing a new coronavirus stimulus bill — two months after Americans stopped receiving expanded federal unemployment benefits — and will likely only return to vote on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
The Crescendo of the GOP’s War on Democracy
What we see in this sequence of events is the simultaneous and horrifying culmination of the different kinds of “by any means necessary” pathologies that define each party.
On the Republican side, this pathology is a relentless amoral quest for power that originally led the party into the realm of voter suppression and that now has resulted in a GOP president openly working to end democracy.
There is no pretense. There is no deception. This is a right-out-in-the-open attempt to destroy the system that lets voters choose their governmental leaders — and that initiative is happening not only in Washington, but in the states.
“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority,” the Atlantic reported yesterday. “With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act.”
Ultimately, the legal proceedings could make it to the Supreme Court, which would be further tilted to Trump if he gets his nominee installed.
“Donald Trump isn’t just trying to steal a Supreme Court seat — he’s trying to steal the election along with it,” said Brian Fallon of the progressive group Demand Justice. “Even though Republicans may claim to already have the votes to confirm Trump’s pick, Democrats cannot afford to compartmentalize this Supreme Court fight because the fate of the election itself may ride on it.”
The Democrats’ Learned Helplessness
On the Democratic side, the “win by all means necessary” pathology is not like the GOP’s — it is not anti-democratic, it is instead anti-opposition. It is a pathology that embraces any capitulation — no matter how amoral — in the name of electability, living to fight another day and good manners.
This pathology has been long in the making. For years now, Democratic politicians have come to know that a generation of liberals raised on The West Wing and MSNBC roundtables has been inculcated to not merely tolerate selling out — but to laud it as an act of political savvy. If abandoning, say, pledges to support unions and helping the GOP grind workers into the dust theoretically helps a Democrat outmaneuver a Republican in a swing-state election, the Democratic voter is led to believe that this move must be good, smart, and worthy of applause. Respect for institutions, bipartisanship, and manners is more important than outcomes.
Ironically, this capitulation-lauding mindset that prioritizes winning hasn’t actually won much — it has corresponded with some of the largest Democratic electoral losses in modern history, allowing the rise of the Republican fascism that now threatens to destroy our country.
And yet, more and more issues have nonetheless been subverted by this way of thinking. Indeed, Democratic politicians today can drop their promises about financial regulations, workplace protections, climate change, union rights, and health care, kicking the face of humanity over and over and over again — and they can still rest assured that many Democratic voters and activists will accept the dishonesty and even applaud the capitulations as proof of necessary pragmatism to outwit the GOP threat. Every policy decision gets filtered through the lens of a cable news pundit, on TV and at home.
And now, at a moment of historic crisis, this learned helplessness and worship of norms, process, and etiquette has convinced rank-and-file Democrats to stand down once again. The party’s lawmakers are now rushing out to take bargaining chips off the table — chips like ending the filibuster, procedural delays of the Senate, halting the must-pass budget bill, and a future expanded court.
Trump is on the attack, and they are unilaterally disarming — with potentially disastrous consequences.
In the short term, this behavior undermines AOC and others, who are actually trying to use every tool they have to halt a Trump nominee before that nominee is in a position to swing a Supreme Court ruling that could decide the presidential election.
At the same time, Senate Democrats insinuating that they believe the court is gone forever — and will never be expanded — are depriving their presidential ticket of its most elemental save-the-Supreme-Court argument that is always used to unify voters in the final stretch of a campaign.
The long-term consequences are just as bad. If the Democratic Party’s politicians, activists, and voters are fine with getting steamrolled by Trump and letting the high court shift to the hard right because that supposedly is a shrewd election maneuver — then what will they not be fine with? What isn’t negotiable in the name of making a “smart move”? What capitulation won’t they cheer on?
Would the opposition party now allow a coup in the name of bipartisanship, comity, and etiquette?
In another era, that would be a ridiculous question — like something out of a dark satire. But it is the question.
No matter how shrewd a move you’ve convinced yourself a Democratic surrender is, no matter how many times some smug TV pundit or smarmy politician tells you surrender is necessary pragmatism, the Democratic Party’s learned helplessness is now on the verge of helping Republicans get away with ending the American experiment.
That’s not savvy, it won’t help win an election — and it sure as hell won’t stop the fascism that’s now upon us.