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The Republican Plot to Turn Back the Clock Is Just Getting Started

Conservatives have no plans to moderate their destructive agenda after the overturning of Roe. Their next goal: a national abortion ban.

Clarence Thomas and Mitch McConnell
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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell at a Heritage Foundation event last year in Washington, D.C.

As told by former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson this week, on January 6, 2021, President Donald Trump went to a “Stop the Steal” rally, hoping to meet a crowd of armed and angry supporters whom he expected to personally lead to the U.S. Capitol; he lashed out when he was told that no, he could not join his mob in their collective mission. Hutchinson’s account sent shock waves through the media, and for good reason: Her testimony speaks to Trump’s intentions that day, a pattern of facts that’s often very necessary but very elusive in successful criminal prosecutions.

But while this may have gone a long way to helping some future criminal case get made, it’s also true that we didn’t actually learn anything new about the man who served as the president for four misbegotten years. No new facts are necessary to demonstrate that Trump was a sulky, smooth-brained baby, prone to fits of pouty anger, enabled by a coterie of vile liars and violent stooges. What’s far more interesting is how these revelations reflect upon the contemporary Republican Party. In Washington, as you know, the jury is still out on whether the GOP is redeemable. But based upon what you’ve learned during the January 6 commission’s work, would you say they seem like a party that holds comity, compromise, fellowship, or restraint as a civic virtue? Do they hew to any civic virtues at all?

It’s a question that answers itself; those Republicans who might cleave to a more reasoned form of political rhetoric are mostly doing so now from the safety of newsletters or the MSNBC greenroom; conservatives who once spoke of higher ideals, or even who want to govern, are retiring from their posts. The one avatar of this imagined “better” GOP, Liz Cheney—herself no peach—is being drummed out of the party. With all this in mind, we shouldn’t have much trouble drawing conclusions about the Republican Party’s plans in the days and weeks ahead.

Oddly enough, however, the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe has given rise to a new round of insistences and assurances that the GOP writ large is not as bad as all that. Surely, they won’t pry other hard-won rights out of our hands. Why, they may even build a super-robust welfare state! I’m here to tell you that this is incorrect. Yes, a push for a national ban on abortion is coming. Yes, an attempt to roll back contraception rights and marriage equality will follow. Yes, Republicans will abolish the filibuster to complete their work if they need to. These next moves are fully embedded in the logic of the Dobbs decision, but more to the point, Republicans are simply saying these things out loud.

The conservative justices have, in their legal opinions in Dobbs, embedded vague assurances that they won’t be pushing for more than what they’ve already taken. Alito, for example, wrote, “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He doesn’t say anything about returning matters to the states, however. The court’s conservative majority, in any event, isn’t shy about stepping in and overruling state governments when they do something that they don’t like. As Carol Rose, the legal director of the ACLU noted, of Alito’s decision, “This is not an originalist document, it’s an ideological document” that invites Republicans at the federal level to forgo their supposed fealty to states’ rights in favor of a snatch-and-grab job.

As TNR’s Matt Ford points out, Brett Kavanaugh, in his concurrence, “emphasized that Dobbs did not threaten the court’s precedents on contraception, same-sex marriage, or similar issues.” He also said “that states could not … ban women from traveling to other states to obtain” abortions. Should you take the conservative justices at their word when they make such commitments? I invite you to recall that just this week, their decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District rested on an obvious lie. Besides all that, there is Clarence Thomas’s own concurring opinion to consider, which does in fact set the stage to undo the aforementioned precedents. While it’s being sold as an outlier among the court’s conservatives, the seemingly far-out opinions that Thomas expresses on one day have a funny way of becoming the majority opinion not long afterward, Matt notes.

Republicans, of course, hardly need the permission of the Supreme Court justices to carry out such aims. As The Washington Post’s Caroline Kitchener reported this week, anti-abortion activists and GOP lawmakers have begun developing their strategy for a national abortion ban. This is no surprise: As I noted in December, the Republican Party is a slave to purity tests. There is no moderating force to be found anywhere in its ranks; only a loud clamoring from its donors and leaders to push further. Lest you imagine there is a place for moderate Republicans, let’s recall the recent television ad put forth by Eric Greitens, the controversial Republican front-runner for Missouri’s Senate seat, in which he led a squad of armed men on a hunt to kill “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.” That’s how this party views moderate squishes now—as worthy of extinction.

It’s not clear that Democrats have woken up to what the GOP has become. The Biden administration still seems to think the Republican Party’s fever might break. On Wednesday, Biden reportedly reached a “deal” with Senator Mitch McConnell agreeing to support the nomination of an anti-abortion judge to the federal bench. (The timing is just exquisite.) Sizable majorities of normal Americans, however, both oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to gut Roe and are worried about what rights might be stripped next. No one should dissuade these people of their fears. It’s in moments like this that people, concerned about looming disasters, often get treated by media elites as alarmists—Chicken Littles squawking about doom in the sky. Have you read the news lately? The sky has fallen; the next disaster is on its way.

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The Democrats’ Theory of Change: Wait for the Republicans to Screw Up

The party tends to succeed only after the GOP brings disaster. Meanwhile, conservatives are busy executing decades-long plans that are transforming the country.

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This week, when I saw The New York Times teasing a story on Twitter about a “coordinated, multiyear strategy” that Republicans were about to bring to fruition, my first thought was, “Sure, they’re about to overturn Roe v. Wade.” It took me a minute to remember that they actually had two such projects in the works and that the Times was referring to the culmination of a plan to “limit the federal government’s authority to reduce carbon dioxide from power plants.” That these plans are coming to fruition at the same time is all the more notable because their outcomes are not likely to be popular. The vast majority of Americans support abortion rights; few if any want to be shouldered with the burden of cleaning up the pollution to which a hamstrung Environmental Protection Agency cannot tend.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s June docket, this is a boom time for coordinated multiyear strategies, so much so that you wonder: Do the Democrats have any of their own up their sleeve? Alas, for Democrats the flowers of such labors seem unlikely to bloom anytime soon. But what is sprouting from the roughly tilled soil of our politics is a clear distinction between the two parties’ theories of change. For the GOP, change comes after long periods of hard work, steady funding, and maintaining enthusiasm and momentum through periods of setback. For Democrats, change is reactive, coming only after the GOP’s ambitions have hurt just enough people to make Republican rule untenable. It’s clear that the first approach is proving more successful and more durable than the other.

Naturally, that the Republicans have managed to prevail on some long-term plans despite the relative unpopularity of their policies comes down to a few structural advantages. The ideological homogeneity of their electorate makes both messaging and expectations management much easier than what’s possible in the Democrats’ own frequently fractious tent. We’re also seeing the long-term investment made by the Christian right finally pay off. In decades past, institutional Republicans haven’t always seen eye to eye with the religious right, but together they have created a base that’s excited to vote in local and national elections. Over time, whatever cleavage may have existed has been sanded down, and now they’re building the future together.

The most important advantage the Republicans enjoy, of course, is that they’ve been far more adept at rigging the electoral system to their advantage through a by-any-means-necessary approach that helps them overcome the unpopularity of their policies. Democrats can, and often do, win more votes across the country in national elections, but the way their voters are concentrated in urban locales, combined with the GOP’s willingness to slice and dice districts through aggressive gerrymandering (with an assist from a friendly judiciary) means that Democrats have to run up the score and beat Republicans by wider margins to actually take control in Washington (and even in certain statehouses and state legislatures).

Despite all of that, Democrats do win elections, and occasionally wrest control of the government away from the GOP. But in recent cycles, to make that possible some truly terrible things had to happen to ordinary people first: The humiliating failure of the Iraq War and the depredations of the 2008 financial crisis facilitated Obama’s trifecta; Trump’s misshapen and scandalous first two years handed Democrats a wave midterm election in 2018; the Covid-19 pandemic created the conditions necessary for Biden to defeat the advantages Trump enjoyed as an incumbent president. The Democrats’ mantra may as well be: “We’ll always be there when the other guys screw up.”

There are worrying signs that Democrats have been conditioned to believe that the key to their success comes through periodic collapse—that there is a perverse comfort to be taken in the courting of imminent disaster. At the moment, Democrats’ hopes for the midterms lie in the potential galvanization of voters that might (or might not) follow the gutting of reproductive freedom. And across the country, Democrats are trying to help extremist candidates win GOP primaries in the hopes that those candidates will be less competitive in the general elections. Larry Summers believes that whipping inflation will require higher unemployment rates, and Democrats are listening. Even the strange reluctance among national Democrats to rise to the defense of the LGBTQ community, amid the daily genocidal rhetoric of Republicans, suggests that they’re counting on some amount of mayhem to inspire a normalcy-inducing backlash. It’s quite depressing to live in a political system where one party can only ascend to power on the backs of the victims the other party leaves behind.

Any solution must begin with a commitment to evening the asymmetries between the parties’ structure and strategies. Democrats need their own equivalent of the Federalist Society and their own plan to remake the judiciary and retrieve all the civil rights that are about to be stolen. They need to start staking out long-term transformative goals and define themselves in the same way the GOP has for generations, as a party with a wholesale commitment to a specific vision of the world. And they need to get their voters excited about casting their ballots at all levels of government—and then embrace a politics that works harder between election days.

But more immediately, Democrats should stop talking about the GOP they wish existed—a party that, in their imagining, up until recently was reasonable and only went astray when Trump came to power—and start talking in stark, unforgiving terms about the GOP that actually exists: a party that committed itself to the decades-long labor of fulfilling the very projects that now threaten to bring a new round of mayhem and harm. It’s nice that voters seem to turn to Democrats whenever there is a multitude of casualties, but Democrats need to break this cycle if they ever want to possess the durable power necessary to reverse the maladies that will soon be unleashed.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

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