Republicans recognize that the fundamental issue of the 2022 midterm elections is whether the United States will continue as a constitutional republic or warp into an authoritarian state where the rule of law and the will of the people are casually disregarded. The question is whether Democrats understand that this is what the election is about, and whether they will fight as hard to defend democratic norms as Republicans are fighting to dismantle them.
The GOP is answering the existential question of the era by signaling that it is prepared to abandon the basic premises of the American experiment in order to move toward an authoritarian governance founded on the cult of defeated former president Donald Trump. To that end, Republicans have refashioned their party as the blunt instrument of Trumpism: rejecting even the most conservative members of Congress who voted to impeach a sitting president for inciting insurrection, blocking a bipartisan inquiry into Trump’s plot to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and promising to punish Democrats and Republicans who have pursued investigations of last year’s January 6 Capitol attack. The party has prioritized attacking voting rights and election oversight in the statehouses it controls. It has turned to European white nationalist strongmen, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for inspiration.
The GOP’s singular focus on dismantling democracy and rejecting the rule of law came into stark relief on the morning of August 8, when FBI agents executed a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida. An apoplectic Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted “DEFUND THE FBI!” and vowed, “In January, we take on the enemy within.” Instead of a rebuke, Greene’s extremism earned an echo from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.): “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” he declared. “When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned.” Leaving no doubt about his desire to intimidate the Department of Justice, McCarthy told Attorney General Merrick Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.” The Republican who could be the next speaker of the House was proposing nothing less than obstruction of justice in order to defend Trump.
There is no longer any question about where the GOP stands. But where exactly do the Democrats stand?
While there was some pushback against Republicans’ lawless remarks, the initial response from Democrats was muted. The Mar-a-Lago search came amid a spate of good news for President Biden and his party: strong job creation figures, falling gas prices, legislative victories, and the first hints that inflation rates might finally be leveling off. It was understandable that Democrats wanted to stay on message about the benefits they anticipate from passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, with its investments in health care and climate initiatives, and the CHIPS and Science Act, which will invest nearly $53 billion to develop America’s semiconductor industry. But Democrats are going to suffer this fall if they don’t start speaking with absolute clarity about the threat posed by Trump and a sycophantic Republican Party.
Since June of 2015, Donald Trump has been the central figure in American politics. He has won and he has lost, but he has never been marginalized. That isn’t going to change in the fall of 2022. Trump’s name won’t be on the ballot, but he’ll hover over every contest—as an ambitious endorser of allies, a punisher of foes, and a constant campaigner. Democrats need to mount their own unapologetic campaign against Trump and Trumpism. They have to make it clear that every Republican vote is a vote to empower Trump, attack honest oversight and accountability, and undermine democracy and the rule of law. That doesn’t mean that Democrats can’t talk about what they’ve accomplished and what they hope to accomplish if they retain control of Congress. But they have to put that talk in perspective: If Democrats win, they will continue to govern on behalf of the American people. If Republicans win, they will consolidate power with the purpose of creating chaos for Joe Biden, shielding Donald Trump from accountability, and clearing the way for his 2024 presidential bid and the authoritarian lawlessness that promises to extend from it.