A sobering look at the toxic factions in the Trump-era Republican Party

Timothy Snyder. Photo (cc) 2015 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

A lot of smart people are trying to make sense of last week’s insurrection. Was it an attempted coup? I resisted the label at first on the grounds that there was literally no mechanism by which Congress could be forced to keep Donald Trump in office. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump considered it a coup attempt, and that many of his thugs did as well.

With that in mind, I recommend this piece by Timothy Snyder that’s coming out in next week’s New York Times Magazine. Snyder, a history professor at Yale and the author of 2017’s “On Tyranny,” has written a brilliant analysis of the Republican Party in the Trump era. Reading the whole thing will be well worth your time, but I found two points that he made to be especially clarifying.

The first is whether what we’re looking at is fascism or not. Many of us have been struggling with that ever since Trump rode down the escalator some five and a half years ago. He clearly had authoritarian impulses. But fascism on the order of Franco or Mussolini?

The way Snyder puts it is that Trump’s presidency was defined by post-truth, which amounts to pre-fascism. He writes:

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.

If the coup attempt had somehow succeeded, I suppose we would be looking at actual fascism. But it didn’t, partly because enough of our elected officials held firm and prevented it from happening, partly because the mob was so incompetent. As Snyder writes, “It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.” And yet we now know that some elements of the mob were prepared to take hostages and perhaps worse.

The other useful observation Snyder makes is that the Republicans are dominated by two toxic factions — the “breakers” and the “gamers.” The breakers are led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who were (and presumably remain) prepared to tear it all down in order to empower themselves. The gamers are exemplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was perfectly happy to exploit the chaos created by the likes of Hawley and Cruz — and, of course, Trump himself — in order to carry out their agenda of tax cuts for the rich and right-wing court appointments as far as the eye can see.

It will be fascinating to see whether the gamers are able to move on and or if instead they have damaged themselves beyond repair. I would love nothing better than for prinicipled Republicans who are neither breakers nor gamers split away and form a new conservative party.

But do they have enough of a critical mass to make a difference? I count senators like Mitt Romney Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as well as governors like Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan and Phil Scott. You may have their differences with all of them (I certainly do), but, to their credit, they have refused to align themselves with the breakers or, except on occasion, the gamers.

Snyder offers a chilling look at what we may be in for during the next four years:

For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.

The Trump presidency has been awful in ways that we couldn’t have imagined four years ago — and I’m saying that as someone who expected it would be pretty awful. More than anything, we need to take advantage of the pending Biden presidency and Democratic control of Congress to make sure we don’t continue spinning out of control. As currently constituted, the Republicans should never control the levers of power again. We will see whether they have the capability or the willingness to reform themselves.

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11 thoughts on “A sobering look at the toxic factions in the Trump-era Republican Party

  1. Steve Ross

    I agree with everything you said, Dan. But look at New York State, where the Democrats now have vetoproof supermajorities in both state legislative chambers. They have taken the progressive line, in Trumpian tones — calling for gerrymandering, tax increases (in a state with by far the highest taxation and spending per capita in the USA), stealing property of New York City residents who own apartments wrested from slumlords 30+ years ago in the HDFC program, unlimited get out of jail free, even for people with pending trials for violent crimes and for multiple-repeat offenders… and lots more.

    They justify all of this as helping the poor. And some of that is true, and needed. But without checks and balances and with no major news organizations covering the mayhem and fraud, the Dems can very quickly start acting like Trump and his enablers.

    One upstate county this fall failed to register 2500 voters in time for the November election. It is only being reported now, by a non-profit news site.

    Last time I looked, the NYT had one full time reporter in Albany. It had two in Canberra, Australia.

      1. Steve Ross

        Mindless. Populist. Short-sighted. Easy solutions offered for complex problems. Demonizing opponents, even if the opponents deviate only slightly from progressive orthodoxy. Sounds Trumpian to me.

        The press lionizes and amplifies a loudmouth lout like AOC and her two antisemite squad partners, and pretty much ignores Ayanna Presley, the only adult in the squad room.

  2. The analysis is important, it’s necessary for figuring out a predictive model, what we might expect in the future, and steps that need to be taken to deal with those possibilities. But I worry that it often gets confused with changing things, persuading others, getting through to people who don’t recognize the threats perceived. I think that task requires a different approach from just analysis — I am reminded of the difference between writer-oriented prose and reader-oriented prose. We need to figure out how to present a persuasive and healthy reality instead of relying on any sense that if we just pick the right word, or even concept, we will puncture the problem and it will collapse as everybody says, “Oh yeah, now I get it and see the error of my ways.”.

  3. “To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.”
    Stolen election claims are as old as elections themselves. The Republicans went way beyond this this time, and that’s what deserves to be punished.

  4. Deborah Nam-Krane

    “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” I love this line, and hopefully it gets us past Trump himself and to the core of the problem. Trump knew how to exploit people’s desire to hear what they wanted to hear, and when — because I think we’re looking at when, not if — he’s done, that desire will remain. What is the antidote for that?

    I tend to think Cruz is more of a gamer than a breaker, but that might be my cynicism.

  5. Marcus J Breen

    “As currently constituted, the Republicans should never control the levers of power again.”

    Dan, there were 72 million people who voted Republican / Trump – its almost an entire generation of white supremacist fanatics.

    Riding the public space of self-serving ninnies like Cruz and co should be a given for public life. You can’t do the same with millions of angry white supremacists, with Confederate leanings.

    1. Steve Ross

      To be precise, about 25 million of the 74 million Trump voters are misogynistic, xenophobic, racist. About 25 million are hiding from news under big rocks. About 20 million are greedheads or people who have barely clawed into the middle class and are barely hanging on. About 5 million are true cynics who think Trump is perfectly normal… and their own state/local governments inform their view. These are real numbers, from multiple (private as well as public) polls.

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