Joe Biden ignited a firestorm of criticism—if firestorm is the right term for the tired, predictable fainting-couch routine the right resorts to when challenged—when he spoke forcefully of the risk that “MAGA Republicans” pose to the United States. He made a valid argument but erred in clinging to the good-vs.-bad Republicans framing, which suggests the conscience of the GOP is a potential solution to the existential threat the party represents. It isn’t, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better it will be for the future of our at-risk democratic institutions.
It is understandable that the president would feel bound by noble but misplaced ideas of decorum to deliver something short of a broadside attack on the opposing political party. In normal times that might make sense; yet the current reality is anything but normal. While Joe Biden is right that not all Republicans fully embrace every absurd belief of those surrounding former President Donald Trump, the unwillingness of more than a scattered few Republican apostates to stop abetting those who push conspiracy theories obliterates meaningful distinctions between the groups. Ten MAGA Republicans and 10 “normal” Republicans happy to play along when it suits their interests are, in practice, 20 MAGA Republicans.
Among the “good” Republicans currently in the Senate, which of them voted against the Trump-appointed, Federalist Society–vetted judges currently acting as a partisan superlegislature to enact the wildly unpopular agenda of the far right? Which prominent conservative voices who spoke out against Donald Trump are similarly opposed to the gaggle of imitators auditioning to be his successor? These are, after all, many of the same voices that reassured us in late 2016 and early 2017 that Trump was merely playing the heel during the campaign and would mature into something resembling an adult with object permanence once in office.
That a handful of Republicans on the national political stage indicate some hesitation to support the election-denying myths that dominate Trump World’s fire hose of grievances is worth little in a country in which state legislatures controlled by wild-eyed MAGA ideologues seem prepared to take the next steps in the right’s assault on the legitimacy of American elections. The occasional finger-wag from the Mitt Romneys and Susan Collinses will be worthless, thrown onto the pile of flimsy reassurances and expressions of “disappointment” their kind has given us over the years.
The Democratic Party holds out hope of appealing to a kind of moderate voter who might be repelled if the GOP is criticized too vigorously, if the proverbial spade is called a spade by someone as prominent as the president. This strategy may have made sense 10, 20 years ago, when the right was still concerned about going through the motions of respectability politics, but it makes no sense now. The next Supreme Court session will include a ruling on Moore v. Harper, giving the conservative-dominated highest court the opportunity to enshrine the debunked so-called “independent state legislatures” doctrine into law. That will happen sometime in the summer of 2023 and when it does, state legislatures will have free reign to manipulate outcomes in presidential elections—even after the votes are done being counted. The clock, therefore, is very much ticking. Potential voters who fail to understand the risks today are unlikely to grasp them in sufficient time to avoid the disasters the GOP is currently intent on causing.
Though it will pain someone like Joe Biden to say it aloud and will equally pain many consensus-oriented moderates and liberals to hear it, the Republican Party cannot and will not be “fixed” by appealing to a largely ostracized group of Good Republicans. The only way to fix the opposing party in American politics is to give them such an electoral drubbing that they will have no choice but to behave differently.
Alarmingly, the country may not have the time to spare to allow that uncertain prospect to play out. Unelected right-wing judges and safely gerrymandered Republican state legislative majorities are already in place and getting increasingly comfortable with doing away with the messy inconveniences of democracy when it suits their goals. If Democrats are fortunate enough to retain their hold on one or both chambers of Congress after the upcoming midterms, the only viable strategy to preclude the right’s plans for an American politics resembling those of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or Vladimir Putin’s Russia will be an aggressive program of limiting the powers of the federal courts stuffed with Trump appointees happy to rubber-stamp anything that will enable right-wing minority rule for the foreseeable future.
With all due respect to Biden’s attempts to soften the rhetorical blow, that those judges are where they are, preparing to do what they intend to do, is the fault of the entire Republican Party. The “MAGA Republicans” may be directing the circus, but all of its clowns are part of the same show.