By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
The signs are ominous for Democrats. Pundits, polls and primary results all signal a rout in November’s midterm elections.
The incumbent president’s party is expected to lose support for the 19th time in the 20 midterms held since 1946, and surrender its majorities in Congress for the fourth time since 2006. That will effectively neutralize President Biden for the rest of his term. The consequences for America’s future could be disastrous.
Rising inflation and crime will very likely prove to be the decisive factor in the Republican Party’s assault on our democracy. It’s hard to see how the economy and quality of life issues won’t be top-of-the-list for many voters. Never mind that the GOP has no detailed plan that I am aware of for curbing inflation, fixing supply chain problems or addressing social needs (good affordable health care, anyone?) other than its old standbys of tax cuts and more drilling for oil (which will be sold on the world market where OPEC can keep prices high by cutting its own production).
But Republicans are in the enviable position of simply being able to complain and blame and let public concern with pocketbook issues return them to power.
There was a time when the GOP would have already committed political suicide for all but banning abortion, never mind trying to overturn the 2020 election by dubious means. But this is a different and very scary era when a major party can safely embrace racists, fascist militia groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whack-a-doodle QAnon conspiracy theories, and highly questionable candidates like Senatorial would-bes Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz and House loose cannon Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Unless the House Select Committee’s public hearings — which began by underscoring President Trump’s central role in the January 6 insurrection, that House Republicans sought pardons for their activities, and the brutal violence Trump’s followers were (and likely still are) willing to commit— succeed in moving the public’s concern needle and keep it there until November, and the GOP is punished at the polls and in court, a dangerous precedent will have been set. Peaceful transfers of power will no longer be assured if bad actors know they can cross our legal and traditional limits with impunity.
As Trump famously boasted, he could shoot someone on Fifth Ave. and not lose any voters. After all we now know about his attempted coup and highly questionable behavior while in office, is there really anything a president can do that will bring the hammer of justice down upon him? The legal process could take many years and finding an impartial jury is likely impossible. That means voters will have to do the heavy lifting.
One major problem is emotional fatigue. After being shocked or angered, humans are prone to eventually becoming indifferent to even horrifying things like war and terrible suffering. We’ve already been bombarded by Jan. 6 revelations for more than a year. It’s hard to imagine what will stir the nation to act when events like the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are inevitably fading into the news cycle.
Meanwhile, pain at the gas pump and in stores will be constantly present for an indefinite period. We’re a materialistic society that likes its comforts and indulgences. We resent having to live on a budget. It’s very likely that little else will matter to key voters in November.
It’s obvious that the majority on the right will not be swayed by anything the Jan. 6 hearings reveal. The left is already convinced that women’s rights and our democracy are under grave assault. That leaves the fate of the nation in the hands of the independents who played a critical role in Biden’s victory in 2020.
How much will swing voters who want an economic fix really fret about the Republican focus on things like Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ+ controversies that will likely dominate the party’s agenda? The temptation to give the GOP a fresh crack at inflation will be strong even without specifics on how lower prices can be achieved. Politics is about raw emotion now, not dry facts, details and careful thought.
There is great danger in the belief or casual acceptance that the Jan. 6 siege and the plot to overturn the 2020 election are merely politics as usual and political discourse, and it is time to focus on more pressing matters like the economy and crime. An NBC News poll has found that Trump is more popular now than when he left office and a majority of Americans (55%) believe he was only partially responsible for the insurrection.
This is a far cry from nation’s reaction to Watergate, which I still remember vividly. (I was 14 when the story broke.) The mere threat of impeachment was enough to drive Nixon to resign and there were no sustained, reality-defying attempts to deny what was on the recordings of the President or what his aides said in their testimony during hearings that were widely and closely watched.
Yes, I knew Republicans who felt Nixon was hounded from office, but there was a widespread concern across the political spectrum that he and his allies who committed the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters had crossed a totally unacceptable line. Trump and his allies in the GOP have gone miles beyond it and now all bets are off.
It was once unthinkable that so many in this country would tolerate and even defend Trump and his party’s outrageous, childish, unhinged behavior, bald-faced hypocrisy, barely concealed nods to racism, scandals, and likely illegal behavior. Americans used to have much higher standards for their elected officials, who at least went through the motions of maintaining some semblance of honor and integrity.
A large segment of America’s population actually believes (or is too afraid to say otherwise) that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump even though explanations of exactly how it was swiped keep changing and multiple investigations since George W. Bush’s administration have not uncovered any sign that voter fraud exists on a significant level nationally.
Adhering to the belief that Trump was robbed, despite a glaring lack of legally recognized evidence, is now a litmus test for candidacy and inclusion in the GOP. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have become party pariahs for their roles on the Jan. 6 committee. And of the 35 House Republicans who voted for a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol riot, 10 have resigned, retired or been defeated in primaries.
Our society has a very short attention span. A lot can happen between now and the mid-terms, and if the economy remains sour, the GOP may well pull off the most brazen, consequential acts in American political history.
The bottom line is if enough voters aren’t sufficiently concerned about accountability, the GOP could be returned to power and lock itself in for an extended period of revenge politics. Probes of Trump and the Jan. 6 plot will surely end. Pardons will likely be issued to those who have been convicted of participating in the siege. Investigations of prominent Democrats will begin. Taylor Greene and Ted Cruz have already threatened to impeach Biden.
There’s also the wild card of the strict new voter laws in 19 Republican states, such as Georgia. Right-wing media crowed that turnout for recent primaries was well above expectations, thus giving lie to charges of voter suppression. But primaries are different from general elections when the stakes for each party are much higher and there is more incentive to interfere.
I won’t be shocked if in November, and especially later in 2024, we see widespread claims of voter obstruction, harassment and dubious denial as well as charges of fraud, not to mention litigation, if Democrats win. Do you really think Republicans will return to recognizing the legitimacy of their opponents?
As if warming up, David Perdue filed a lawsuit, since dismissed, that claimed his landslide defeat in Georgia’s May 24 Republican gubernatorial primary was the result of hanky-panky. What would he and the GOP say and do if he’d lost the general election race for governor to a Democrat?
Democrats are a tough sell to voters, especially young ones (less than a million between the ages of 18 and 34 watched the committee’s first televised hearing on network TV, frustrated by the party’s inability to do much since retaking Congress and the White House two years ago, but why do Republicans deserve to be rewarded after all they have been doing to block needed legislation and violate our Constitution and undermine democracy? How can we ever be sure again that our votes will really count when so much subterfuge is likely to happen again?
America needs at least two rational political parties to keep each other honest and focused on addressing the pressing needs of citizens. We could go a long way toward achieving that by bringing the GOP to its senses with a rout in November, legally punishing the extremists for whom power by any means necessary is the ultimate goal, and by removing the vast sums of special interest money that pollute and corrupt our political process.
I don’t see how those things will happen, and that makes the upcoming midterms so fraught. Our democratic system needs to be protected, bolstered and improved. Without it, who knows what life in America will be like in the foreseeable future?
Russia’s oligarchic kleptocracy should give you a rough idea.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.