America is becoming a very bad movie without a Hollywood ending

America is becoming a very bad movie without a Hollywood ending
Supporters of US President Donald J Trump welcome him as he arrives in West Palm Beach, Florida, US, on 20 January 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH)

If the upcoming US midterm election were a referendum on Joe Biden, who the right has characterised as a senile and demented old fool, there would be no doubt about the outcome. But as a choice between a party that is trying to save the country and a chorus of loons bent on power at all costs, the equation is shifting.

She has become the poster child for victims of the extremism that has taken hold of American politics: a 10-year-old rape victim in the state of Ohio, six weeks pregnant, forced to travel to another state to have an abortion three days after the Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe v Wade judgment.

Her plight was highlighted by US President Joe Biden as he announced measures on Friday, 8 July, to enact federal protections for women seeking an abortion. Her case is all the more poignant because, not content with overthrowing Roe, some Republican politicians are moving to criminalise what this abused child did by having an abortion in neighbouring Indiana after Roe triggered a ban in Ohio.

The victims of the Conservative counter-revolution are piling up. In just the past two months three young men, aged between 18 and 21, have, with AR-15 rifles, massacred 10 shoppers at a largely black supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on 14 May; 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on 24 May; and seven people including a four-year-old kid at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, on 4 July.

These are not just random events, but another day of life in a divided and angry nation.

As one-time Republican operative Mathew Dowd put it: “The problem in America today is fundamentally a broken democracy, not polarisation or division. A supermajority of citizens want Roe v Wade, real gun reform, a raise in minimum wage, higher taxes on the superwealthy, universal healthcare, etc. Today there exists a tyranny of the minority.”

Four months from a consequential midterm election, many are asking whether the Democratic Party can rally the country to defend liberal democracy.

The 6 January committee hearings into Donald Trump’s failed coup have stripped the mask off an utterly lawless former president who was ready to lead his armed supporters into the Capitol to overthrow an election that he knew had been legally decided. Some Americans are alarmed at how close their country came to ending 235 years of democracy — but more shocking is how many don’t care. And there is absolutely no doubt that Trump, if given the chance, would try it again.

Abortion right activists protest in Downtown Miami, Florida, US, on 9 July 2022. (EPA-EFE / Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich)

A suave version of Trump

Though it is unknown whether the former president will be indicted, there are signs that the Republican Party is casting around for ways to move on as their greatest attraction becomes their greatest liability.

The media is starting to take serious note of what is being birthed in the swamps of Florida: a freshly minted Dear Leader with none of the baggage of the Donald, ready to displace him at the head of the Maga army.

Ron DeSantis (43), the governor of Florida, rose to national prominence during the pandemic by adopting extreme anti-lockdown positions and threatening to cut off funding to school districts that insisted on mask mandates. This earned him hero worship in rightwing libertarian circles, even though Florida has one of the worst Covid death rates in the country.

DeSantis has burnished his image as a book-banning culture warrior going after voting rights for black people, bullying transgender kids and railing against “woke gender ideology” and “left-wing elites” – especially at universities, where he has just signed a bill to audit the political views of professors and students.

He has received glowing exposure on Fox News, a bulging campaign war chest from billionaire donors, and enthusiastic endorsement from Washington’s political consultant class who see him as a smarter and more suave version of Trump.

Rick Wilson, himself a former Republican operative and a leading figure in the Never Trumper Lincoln Project, sees momentum growing for DeSantis: “His easy rollup in Florida of the legislature and the courts has given him an authoritarian hard-on that he clearly believes will lead him on a smooth, straight path to the Oval Office. His attacks on personal liberties and free speech worked. Expect a parade of deliberate provocations to feed the Maga boob-bait machine.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a potential Democratic nominee in 2024, aired a television ad in Florida on 4 July attacking DeSantis for banning books, making it harder to vote and “criminalising women and doctors”. 

This was partially payback for DeSantis attacking Democratic-dominated California as a “biomedical security state” for its strict lockdowns during Covid, but what was intriguing was Newsom’s decision to skip over Trump and instead go straight for DeSantis. 

Trump, according to some reports, is getting nervous that the party is slipping out of his control. The insane rallies are still packed, the big guys still come to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring and senior Republicans still give slimy evasions when asked whether they think Biden won the election in 2020.

But a recent poll in the early primary state of New Hampshire had DeSantis ahead of Trump by a few points. Shortly thereafter, Trumpworld floated a story in the New York Times that Trump was planning to declare his candidacy for the presidency early, possibly in the hope that it would dampen DeSantis’s ambitions.

Former US president Donald Trump speaks during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, US, on 14 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Adam Davis)

White grievance

Trump even dangled a carrot, saying that he would not rule out DeSantis as his running mate. But after the last Veep, Mike Pence, came within an ace of being lynched and hung at the Capitol by a mob spurred on by his boss, it is hard to imagine DeSantis being thrilled by such a prospect.

The truth is that the white grievance crowd who now dominates the base of the party, will decide, not office holders like House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who drips with cowardice.

“There was always an element of the Republican Party that was batshit crazy,” Mac Stipanovich, the chief of staff to the former Governor Bob Martinez, a moderate Republican, told the New Yorker. “We did what every other Republican candidate did: we exploited them. We talked about abortion. We promised — and we did nothing.”

Trump trounced the Republican field in 2016 because he was prepared to say out loud what other candidates were only prepared to communicate via dog whistles: Build a wall to keep out Mexicans! Ban all Muslims!

“Trump opened Pandora’s box and let them out,” said Stipanovich. “And all the nasty stuff that was in the underbelly of American politics got a voice. What was 35% of the Republican Party is now 85%. And it’s too late to turn back.”

This explains De Santis’ performative culture war antics. He has passed bills banning right-wing bogeymen like sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants (even though there are none in Florida) and critical race theory (even though it is not taught in Florida schools) – doing and saying things that have no intrinsic value other than to trigger the liberals and excite the Maga mob.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the 2021 Republican Jewish Coalition National Leadership Meeting at the Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, on 6 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Caroline Brehman)

Trump’s gift

Whether or not his own party is able to push him out of the way, Trump’s lasting contribution to the counter-revolution was the gift of three Supreme Court Judges whose role in dragging an already right-wing court to further extremes came to ugly fruition in the last weeks of June.

The ruling that evoked the most visceral response was the Dobbs judgment overruling Roe v Wade and the right of women to control their own bodies, but a slew of other judgments rained down, fulfilling one Republican agenda item after the other. Gun control, climate change and the separation of church and state all came under the sledgehammer.

The Supreme Court is now openly parading around as a wing of the Republican Party. Its judges, appointed for life, are unmoored from any accountability, making life or death decisions on subjects about which they know very little while preventing those in local or state governments or federal agencies from doing their job of safeguarding the health of workers or women, taking weapons of war out of the hands of teenagers or protecting the humanity on the planet Earth.

Half a dozen unelected lawyers dressed in fancy robes, handpicked by a billionaire-funded secret club called the Federalist Society, propagating a narrow and unpopular ideology, are now masquerading as the high priests of a society of 330-million diverse people.

The court has taken a chainsaw to decades of judicial progress that advanced rights for women, black people and workers, all under the doctrine that they are merely returning to the original intentions of the founders — even though the issues grappled with today could not have been dreamt about in the late 18th century when the main economic activity still involved slave owning and women had fewer legal rights than children.

It is not surprising, then, that no matter what the court claims to discover about the intentions of the founders, it almost always produces judgments that benefit Christian evangelicals, big corporations and the Republican Party at large.

Power struggle

This court is not some anomaly, but part of a larger power struggle in American society over the past 40 years.

Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, there has been an aggressive push to unravel the welfare state created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. 

The Conservative movement has promoted small government and the power of large corporations and lower taxes, curtailing union rights, and stripping environmental and other regulations. The scepticism over civil rights for minorities and women and the advancement of the cultural priorities of the Christian right (abortion) and white men (guns) all form part of this story.

The battle has not been entirely one-sided — and there has been pushback during Democratic administrations — but the net outcome is that income and wealth inequality are now higher in the US than in almost any other developed country and the US has fallen from second to 17th in the Human Development Index, with poverty skewing heavily on racial lines.

For the left, the hope of reversing neoliberalism has come from the country’s changing demographics as the electorate becomes blacker and the less advantaged theoretically have more opportunity to bring about change at the ballot box. 

This is not delusional —Democrats have won the popular vote against Republicans in five of the last six presidential elections — and explains the Republicans’ decades-long gaming of the system to entrench minority rule and restrict voting rights under the phoney guise of eliminating voter fraud.

This has now reached a high point. MNBC commentator Mehdi Hassan says the authoritarians have flooded the zone: “It is hard to keep up with just how many attacks on our democracy there are right now, from state governments, state courts, the Supreme Court, and key members of the United States Senate and House. Every day. It’s just relentless.”

Next: A lethal blow to democracy

The Supreme Court’s pernicious role in undermining democracy began in 2000 when a Republican majority on the Court intervened in an election to effectively appoint George W Bush President. 

Since then, the court has thrown out actual laws limiting big money in election campaigns and protecting black voting rights while refusing to stop partisan gerrymandering that has created lopsided congressional and state electoral maps, limited choices for voters and fuelled hyperpartisanship.

Now the court could be preparing its most lethal blow. It has agreed to hear a case in which the Republican legislature of North Carolina is attempting to run around its own state Supreme Court by upholding a principle called the “independent state legislature theory” under which Republican state legislatures can simply throw out election results they don’t like.

This would give legal sanction to what Trump was seeking to achieve in the months after the November 2020 election. It was spelt out starkly by conservative former Judge J Michael Luttig: “Trump and the Republicans can only be stopped from stealing the 2024 election if the Supreme Court rejects the independent state legislature doctrine.” 

The possibility that an election that is literally stolen from voters could be deemed constitutional means that next time they lose Republicans would no longer require a blundering mob of misfits to invade the Capitol.

“‘It can’t happen here’ is still the instinctive response,” says Mehdi Hassan, “even as it is happening here in full public view. The Republicans have just numbed us to it and exploited the average American’s unthinking faith in institutions and norms.”

Stopping the juggernaut

Up to 40% of the American public inhabit a media universe whose members from Fox News down march in lockstep with the Republican Party, filter out alternative views and serve up toxic lies and disinformation that have led roughly a quarter of Republicans to believe that Democrats, as one commentator put it, are a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who murder children for their ‘adrenochrome’.

What are the chances of stopping this juggernaut, especially when the mood in the country is so sour, exhausted by Covid and chaos, inflation and rising gas prices that despite the roaring economy have sent Biden’s approval ratings plummeting?

Democrats such as Newsom and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are taking the fight to the Republicans, connecting the dots between the mass shootings, loss of abortion rights, climate change, voting rights, healthcare, worker rights and all that has been trampled on by this rampant raging machine. They understand that the only way the Democrats can win is by putting democracy itself on the ballot.

The conventional wisdom has it that the president’s party always loses seats in the midterms. If this were a referendum on Biden, who the right has characterised as a senile and demented old fool, there would be no doubt about the outcome.

But as a choice between a party that is trying to save the country and a chorus of loons bent on power at all costs, the equation shifts. The Roe v Wade decision has pushed white suburban middle-class women, one of the most contested demographics, away from the Republicans, and ratcheted up Democratic enthusiasm for voting in November.

If this intensity holds, the Democrats have at least an even chance of holding the Senate and in the best-case scenario holding the House of Representatives and adding the two or three Senate seats that would be necessary to abolish the filibuster that requires most legislation to overcome a 60-vote threshold in the 100-seat chamber.

Constitutional hardball

This would give Democrats the ability to counter Republican obstruction, to codify Roe v Wade as federal law, to pass the voting rights act abolishing gerrymandering and measures that discriminate against black and Hispanic voters — and to pass an electoral law that will ensure that states can not use junk legal trickery to nullify the choice of the voters.

They could even deploy constitutional hardball of their own: expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court or impose term limits and, to overcome the Republican advantage in small rural states in the Senate, grant statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, a US territory that has languished in a political no man’s land for more than 70 years.

But all of that remains highly unlikely, and the battle has to be joined on so many fronts.

Perhaps the Democrats’ best hopes might hinge on Republicans tearing themselves apart if an angry and vengeful Trump goes on a rampage when he is shut out by team DeSantis.

Think of the scenes in Jurassic World where all appears lost and the superpredator velociraptors are about to move in for the kill. Then a Tyrannosaurus rex arrives from nowhere, biting chunks out of the competitor’s neck in a vicious and bloody special effects showdown as the puny humans make their escape. 

Can the reptiles save the day by eating themselves?

Unfortunately, that really only happens in the movies. DM


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