It’s hardly news that Donald Trump is tightening his grip on the Republican Party by endorsing hard-right candidates in primary races across the United States. Nor is it unexpected that even in races where Trump hasn’t offered an endorsement, the passions of the MAGA movement are helping extremist candidates surge in these primaries. What is more notable is that some of these candidates have been buoyed by an unusual source: Democratic Party strategists who are spending millions to raise the profile of the most rabid Trumpists.
Writing in The New York Times, Jonathan Weisman reports, “Even as national Democrats set off alarms over the threats posed by far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing an enormously risky strategy: promoting some of those same far-right candidates in G.O.P. primaries in hopes that extremists will be easier for Democrats to beat in November.”
Weisman cites the Democratic Party’s bolstering of Doug Mastriano (who took part in the January 6 riot and is now the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania), as well as the party’s intervention in other races in California, Colorado, and Michigan.
As Weisman documents, “in Colorado, a shadowy new group called Democratic Colorado is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the state’s June 28 primary to broadcast the conservative views of State Representative Ron Hanks, who hopes to challenge Senator Michael Bennet, an incumbent Democrat. Mr. Hanks’s views would be widely shared by Republican primary voters. Left unmentioned—for now—were Mr. Hanks’s bragging about marching to the Capitol on January 6, his false claim that those who attacked the Capitol were left-wing ‘antifa’ and his baseless insistence that the 2020 election was stolen by President Biden.”
This game of bolstering the far right in order to get easier-to-defeat opponents is all the more cynical since it often involves kneecapping Republicans who accepted the 2020 election results—and in some cases voted to impeach Trump. Given that the January 6 hearings are trying, with admittedly only partial success, to craft a bipartisan consensus against Trump’s attempted coup, this boost-the-radicals strategy undermines the larger message the Democrats are pushing. It’s easy for outside observers to conclude that Democratic talk about January 6 and the dangers of Trumpist authoritarianism is just so much political hot air.
This cheap Machiavellian ploy is being criticized by both Democrats and moderate Republicans. Even on its own terms of amoral pragmatism, the strategy makes little sense. Since the upcoming midterms are widely predicted to be a Republican wave and many of the elections take place in relatively close districts and states, the Democrats could be helping extremists not just to win primaries but also to enter elected office. Recent polls in Pennsylvania show only a narrow lead for Josh Shapiro (49 percent) over Doug Mastriano (46 percent). A Governor Mastriano is easily imaginable—and he could then use his power in 2024 to support a Trumpist coup.
The Democrats, in part thanks to their own adventurism, might well face a much larger, more energized, and more authoritarian Republican Party after the midterms. As Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, “If Democrats—and perhaps Nancy Pelosi, in particular—really believe that American democracy is under siege and that Trump and his disciples are an existential threat to the republic, then this is obviously not the fate they should be tempting.”
Elevating the far right isn’t just a partisan maneuver. It’s been the preferred tactic of centrist Democrats since the early 1990s, going back to the ascendency of Clintonism in the 1990s. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the odious Dick Morris—at the time President Clinton’s beloved consigliere—wrote an influential memo on how to use a “ricochet” against the Republicans. Morris advocated passing laws targeting right-wing militias, which Republican lawmakers would then rush to attack in order to hold on to their base. The goal, Morris wrote, was to mimic earlier political moments when a mainstream party was linked to extremism. The examples he provided included McCarthyism and the right-wing backlash to the “ghetto rioters/student demonstrators in ’68.” In other words, Democrats should use the same demagoguery against Republicans that Republicans have used against them. (Morris’s memo can be found in the second edition of his book Behind the Oval Office.)
In 2012, Claire McCaskill, facing a tough reelection campaign in Missouri, successfully used this strategy by running ads elevating the rabid Republican congressman Todd Akin. This paid off when Akin became the GOP nominee and promptly imploded after making deranged comments about rape and abortion, clearing the path for McCaskill. Tellingly, though, when interviewed recently by The New York Times, McCaskill emphasized that 2022 is very different than 2012, warning that a similar strategy could help elect extremists now.
Trump himself offers the best example of how Democratic attempts to play 11-dimensional chess can go badly awry. In 2015, strategists for the Hillary Clinton campaign issued a memo (which was also shared with the Democratic National Committee) about the Republican primaries. “The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right,” the memo reflected. “In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party.” One of the Pied Pipers who deserved elevation, the memo argued, was Trump, seen as someone who could be easily defeated in the unlikely event he got the nomination.
Clinton’s Pied Piper strategy was too clever by half, a prime example of crackpot opportunism. It also illustrates the intellectual and political vacuity of centrist Democrats. They have no real substantive program they can sell, so they need the threat of an extreme right to keep the Democratic base in line.
It’s revealing that Republicans who intervene in Democratic contests do the opposite: They try to tamp down insurgent left-wing candidates and support centrist Democrats. As Liza Featherstone reports in Jacobin, “Several rich Donald Trump supporters have been doing a curious thing this election cycle: sending thousands of dollars to New York Democrats running for state assembly.” The Democrats receiving support are all establishment figures fending off candidates backed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America. The Republican donors are mimicking the broader policy of the Democratic Party establishment, which has been spending big bucks to swat down progressive insurgents in congressional races across the country.
In other words, both the Democratic establishment and Republican donors are pulling in the same direction—tugging away at the political spectrum to shift it to the right. In both cases, the desire is for a political spectrum that runs from the far right to the centrist Democrats, with the left excluded. Given the seesaw nature of American politics, this means that centrist Democrats are working to ensure that at some point in the future, perhaps as early as 2024, the radical right will control both Congress and the presidency. Before that happens, it’s worth asking whether this triumph of the radical right would be the result of a failed strategy—or the fulfillment of a secret desire?