It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (17 page)

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.

But as I write this in the autumn of 2019, a coalition of civil rights groups is suing the State of Florida for passing legislation signed by the Republican governor that the suit claims is an attempt to institute a new poll tax. And they are right. The new legislation follows a 2018 amendment to the Florida Constitution that granted voting rights to the estimated 1.4 million Floridians with a prior felony conviction. The follow-up legislation requires those who had been convicted of a felony to pay all court fees and fines that are outstanding before they are allowed to vote. The intent of this is no different from that of the Alabama Constitution of 1901, charging voters $1.50 to vote. What percentages of those former felons are black? “In 2016, more than 418,000 black people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn't vote due to a felony record, according to the Sentencing Project,”
Vox
wrote shortly after the 2018 amendment was passed granting voting rights to former felons.
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Along with poll taxes, so-called literacy tests were standards in the Jim Crow era. Before the Voting Rights Act, Louisiana had this test. It was intended to be given to anyone who could not prove he or she graduated from the fifth grade, but in practice the local polling-place officials could demand anyone take it. (Who has a copy of their grade school transcript to prove they had graduated from the fifth grade?)
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It had to be completed in ten minutes, and one mistake disqualified a voter. The new voter suppression of the Republican Party is almost an inevitable outcome of the party's failure to expand beyond white voters, combined with a self-rationalizing conviction that winning by any means is more than justified; it is required to save the country from…something. Socialism is the current “Greater Threat” that is being trotted out on the field. But on the sidelines are other “Greater Threats” resting for a return. The key player of recent years has been the Muslim “Greater Threat.” Republican legislators have introduced more than two hundred anti-Sharia bills across the country. The Republican Party was perfectly happy to support a nominee for president running on a “total and complete ban of Muslims entering the United States” platform.

But the looming threat of some socialist takeover of America or Sharia law becoming the new Supreme Court standard is all nonsense. And most Republican elected officials know it's nonsense, just as they know Donald Trump is an unqualified idiot. But what many Republican politicians actually do believe is that they represent the “real” America, and they are somewhere from uncomfortable to frightened by America's changing landscape. Instead of embracing the change that renews America and defines America, Republicans have more often than not reacted like the white neighborhood that feared property values would drop once the “wrong” kinds of people moved in. You see this in the very language used by Republicans: “working-class voters” usually means white working-class voters. “Ordinary Americans” means non-urban Christians, mostly white. It is reminiscent of when Mississippi's governor Ross Barnett addressed a Jewish group in Jackson, Mississippi, with “We are all good Christian men and women.” The common thread is fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of losing power while forgetting the purpose of power.

Fear is at the heart of most conspiracy theories, and the current Republican Party is driven by conspiracy theories, a result of years of nutty radio mixed with nutty internet supercharged by a nutty president. When they are the stuff of midnight radio shows, wildly elaborate conspiracy theories have a certain amusingly harmless quality, but when they are driven by a president and accepted by his political party, conspiracies are a serious attack on the connective tissues of trust that hold a civil society together. When a president claims—and repeats over and over—that millions voted illegally and the entire apparatus of his party accepts this as true by silence, if not by active confirmation, it can be used to justify extreme measures that further the political goals of the party. Of course it makes sense to demand IDs at polling places when millions are voting illegally. Of course it makes sense to spend billions to build a wall on our southern border when America is being invaded with illegals who come here to rape, murder,…and vote. This, of course, is an insane notion. Illegal voting has long been a felony, and the idea that of all the felonies possible to commit, someone would risk the consequences of a felony conviction to vote is one of the more almost-charming absurdities imaginable. Our problem in America is getting people to vote, not stopping illegals.

Conspiracies are a key element of the Trump Republican effort to build an alternative universe in which their lies will be truth. When you insist that the sky is green, the best argument is not to deny the sky is blue but to build a world in which the sky is in fact green. Then everyone who says it is blue is clearly a liar. Like so much about Donald Trump's relationship to the Republican Party, he merely represents the next step in a process that has been half a century in the making. Trump's Deep State is just a variation of Joe McCarthy's mythical Communists infesting the State Department, the “enemies within.” The two had the same lawyer, Roy Cohn. The difference between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump is that in the 1950s there were those in the Republican Party who would stand up to McCarthy, while now there are few with the integrity to confront Donald Trump. In the 1950s, America had a president, Dwight Eisenhower, who saw the danger of Joe McCarthy. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Joe McCarthy
is
president.

Labeling any media you don't like as “fake news” is an all-encompassing conspiracy theory that makes truth an enemy. Same goes with denouncing anyone in government who might stand in the way of an authoritarian president as a member of the shadowy “Deep State.” The Trump/right-wing conspiracies have a common thread of labeling truth a conspiracy. It's reflective of the general projection that characterizes Trump and is becoming increasingly common in Republican politics: Trump is a racist who elevated white nationalists like Steve Bannon from lurking in the shadows of society to the White House. Trump's defense is to attack others on race. “Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future,” he said in the 2016 campaign.
17
As
Psychology Today
wrote, “Too often, Trump sounds like he is turning things inside (of him) out, engaging in the unconscious defense mechanism that Freud called projection: the attribution of one's own forbidden—and typically malevolent—motives, impulses, or emotions to others.”
18

Republicans are increasingly uneasy in a world of change. That uniquely American sense of optimism that was once claimed by both Democrats and Republicans has been replaced with a dark foreboding of what lies ahead for a threatened America. No longer is to be born in America to win life's lottery and know you are among the luckiest on earth; in the Trump Republican view, Americans are suckers, victims, the mark for a hostile world. Everyone is out to get America, from the Canadians to the Chinese. Anger has replaced gratitude. In a view of the world that has America under siege, extreme measures are needed, and good men and women must do what it takes to defend America. This means electing Republicans, and how you elect them is of less importance than the necessity of winning. The voter suppression that is increasingly embraced by a Republican Party unburdened by a watchful Voting Rights Act is not a subversion of democracy but a defense of democracy. To these Republicans, burning the village to save it makes perfect sense.

Carol Anderson, in
One Person, No Vote,
sums up the intent and result of the Republican efforts to change the makeup of the electorate in the 2016 election, in which the African American vote declined for the first time in twenty years:

Minority voters did not just refuse to show up; Republican legislatures and governors systematically blocked African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans from the polls. Pushed by both the impending demographic collapse of the Republican Party, whose overwhelmingly white constituency is becoming an ever smaller share of the electorate, and the GOP's extremist inability to craft policies that speak to an increasingly diverse nation, the Republicans opted to disfranchise rather than reform. The GOP, therefore, enacted a range of undemocratic and desperate measures to block the access of African American, Latino, and other minority voters to the ballot box. Using a series of voter suppression tactics, the GOP harassed, obstructed, frustrated, and purged American citizens from having a say in their own democracy.
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The Republican Party will signal that it is a healthy, growing political party when it embraces efforts to make it easier to register and vote for all segments of the electorate, not just Republicans and likely Republicans. What does it say about a party that it opposes automatically registering every voter at age eighteen or opposes efforts to register voters automatically when they receive or renew a driver's license? The country has a crisis of voter participation: half of the eligible voters do not register, and of those who do, only half actually vote. In a
Washington Post
article headlined “New Data Makes It Clear: Nonvoters Handed Trump the Presidency,” Philip Bump analyzes a study by the Pew Research Center that reveals that “those who didn't vote are as responsible for the outcome of the election as those who did.” Bump writes,

As we noted shortly after the election, about 30 percent of Americans were eligible to vote but decided not to, a higher percentage than the portion of the country who voted for either Trump or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Pew's data shows that almost half of the nonvoters were nonwhite and two-thirds were under age 50. More than half of those who didn't vote earned less than $30,000 a year; more than half of those who did vote were over age 50.

Demographic groups that preferred Trump were three times as likely to be a bigger part of the voter pool than nonvoters. Among groups that preferred Clinton, they were about 50 percent more likely to be a bigger part of the nonvoting community.
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Nonvoters were disproportionately poorer, nonwhite, and younger, all groups that, if they had voted, favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by wide margins. Republicans put up a smoke screen of reasons to try to explain why they are against efforts to encourage voting by automatic registration, which, at base level, is a fundamentally antidemocratic instinct. When Oregon passed legislation to register any resident who has contact with the DMV retroactively to 2013, every Republican legislator opposed it. The Republican state party chair, Suzanne Gallagher, said,

We do not support government automatically registering every Oregonian to vote, as these Amendments would require. This should be the choice of the citizen, not the mandate of the State. This is one more difference between the two parties. Democrats believe the government should register people to vote. Republicans believe people have an individual responsibility to vote.
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Gallagher cited concerns of privacy because being registered to vote places your name and address on a voting roll list, which is a public document. It's an argument that in itself has the whiff of conspiracy floating over it, a fear of some unknown forces that might take advantage of…a voter roll. It would stand to reason that for this to be legitimate, some negative consequences must have befallen those who had registered. But that's applying logic to a problem no one really believes is a problem. The same people who have no problem mandating reproductive choices for women cite personal freedom as an opposition to registering voters. Nonsense. Republicans in Oregon don't want to make it easier for those who are less likely to vote for Republicans to participate in the system.

Of course another reaction might be to analyze why it is the Republican Party is less appealing to those who are poorer, younger, and nonwhite and try to change the party so that it has more appeal, rather than trying to block these groups from voting. But Republicans have thrown their power behind making sure more of “their” people vote instead of trying to make the party more appealing. It's a losing strategy in a country that is changing as rapidly as America. Republicans have fallen in love with the Electoral College because they see it as a way for the “real America” to balance the power of the “coastal elites.” Only once since 1988 have Republicans won the popular vote in a presidential race. A sane reaction to that reality would be to acknowledge that the party must fundamentally change. Instead, the reaction is a fierce defense of the Electoral College, which has allowed two Republicans, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, to become president with the minority of the vote. I worked in the Bush campaign, and some of us would darkly joke, “Anybody can become president when you get more votes. To lose by half a million and become president takes professionals.” It seemed funny at the time. Less so now.

It has become a fundamental tenet of the modern Republican Party to hate California, which is extraordinarily revealing. Something is deeply disturbed about a political party if it considers the most populous state part of the long list of “otherness” that Republicans see as separating the true America from something dangerous and anti-American. How did this happen? How did the state that gave us Ronald Reagan, the state that defined for the world what it was to be an American, the state with the largest number of military bases and the greatest farms of America, the state that built the world's first great post-automobile city, the state with the industries that changed the world, from Apple to Hollywood—how did that become for Republicans an alien place to be scorned and ridiculed? As Michael Grunwald wrote in a piece for
Politico
called “Trump's War on California,” California is thriving by any measure, but

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