No One Forced Republicans to Do Any of These Things

Jamelle Bouie – November 8, 2022

Donald Trump speaks at an open-air rally.
Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx famously observed, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Our choices are shaped, and even bound, by the histories and institutions we inhabit. And yet they’re still our choices. We are moral agents, responsible for our decisions even if we can’t fully escape the matrix in which we make them.

And yet so much of the conversation about the modern Republican Party assumes the opposite: that Republican politicians are impossibly bound to the needs and desires of their coalition and unable to resist its demands. Many — too many — political observers speak as if Republican leaders and officials had no choice but to accept Donald Trump into the fold; no choice but to apologize for his every transgression; no choice but to humor his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election; and now, no choice but to embrace election-denying candidates around the country.

But that’s nonsense. For all the pressures of the base, for all the fear of Trump and his gift for ridicule, for all the demands of the donor class, it is also true that at every turn Republicans in Washington and elsewhere have made an active and affirmative choice to embrace the worst elements of their party — and jettison the norms and values that make democracy work — for the sake of their narrow political and ideological objectives.

Those objectives, for what it’s worth, are nothing new. To the extent that the Trump-era Republican Party has an agenda, it is what it has always been: to be a handmaiden to the total domination of capital, to facilitate the upward redistribution of wealth and to strengthen hierarchies of class and status. To those ends, Republicans in Washington have already announced plans to reduce social insurancecut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and restrict abortion rights.

The crucial midterm elections

Republicans seem to be surging heading into November, with Democrats struggling to break through, as voters turn their focus from abortion to crime and inflation. Even if the polls are as off, as pollsters fear, all signs seem to be pointing toward a strong showing for the G.O.P.

For months now, Times Opinion has been covering how we got here. Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward argued that Democrats abandoned rural America. Alec MacGillis traced how the party ignored the economic decline of the Midwest. And Michelle Cottle described the innovative Republican ground game in South Texas.

Opinion has also been identifying the candidates who could define the future of their party. Sam Adler-Bell captured the bleak nationalism of Blake Masters, the Arizona Republican challenging Senator Mark Kelly. Christopher Caldwell described the transformation of J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist from Ohio who went from Trump critic to proud member of the MAGA faithful. Michelle Goldberg traveled to Washington state to profile Joe Kent, a burgeoning star on the right.

And throughout this election cycle, Opinion has held discussions with groups of experts – hosted by Frank Bruni, Ross Douthat and others – that have followed the season’s twists and turns, from reviewing the primary landscape to a Democratic backlash against the Dobbs decision which gave way to a Republican surge in the fall. And we paused to consider the mysteries of polls and the politically homeless along the way.

What’s striking, again, is the extent to which many political commentators refuse to accept the moral and political agency of Republican politicians and officials. If there is a threat to democracygoes one argument, it’s because liberals and progressives have refused to compromise their priorities in its defense. And according to another, similar argument, which I wrote about last week, the Democratic Party’s rhetoric embracing democracy is, itself, undermining democracy

As it stands, plenty of Republican politicians and officials are making live plans to undermine any election they might lose. According to a report in The Washington Post, “Republican officials and candidates in at least three battleground states are pushing to disqualify thousands of mail ballots after urging their own supporters to vote on Election Day.”

It’s not that those mail ballots are illegal or illegitimate; the problem is that many have presumably been cast by Democrats. If Republicans can invalidate Democratic mail ballots while counting on their supporters to vote in person on Election Day, then they can forge an easier path to victory in closely divided states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Republicans have attacked ballot access for Native Americans in Arizona — a Democratic-leaning group in a contested swing state — and embarked on a project of voter intimidation in Florida. In August, the state’s new election police force arrested 20 people accused of voter fraud. Fifteen were Black voters charged with casting ballots illegally. Several said they thought they qualified to cast a vote under a state constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to many former felons. And in interviews with investigators, all said they had received a voter registration card from their county election supervisors.

In the absence of any evidence of intent, the state’s case against these supposedly lawbreaking voters will fall apart. But that doesn’t mean the arrests were a failure. Some Floridians, accustomed to helping older family members cast ballots by mail, have refrained from giving assistance for fear of running afoul of the state election police.

The larger point is that we should not treat the Republican effort to suppress and intimidate voters — or invalidate elections — as if it were a force of nature or the automatic result of some mechanical process. Republican politicians in Florida chose to respond to hard-fought elections by burdening their opponents. Republican leaders in Washington, likewise, chose to elevate their most irresponsible colleagues into positions of influence and authority. And Republican politicians nationwide chose to embrace the lies and the conspiracy theories that undergird the idea that the only legitimate elections are the ones Republicans win.

Led by Donald Trump and his many acolytes, the Republican Party is poised to plunge this country into political and constitutional crisis over its refusal to share power or acknowledge defeat. We can treat this as some kind of an inevitability, the only possible outcome given the pieces at play, or we can treat it as what it is: a deliberate choice.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.