Maya Angelou famously said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” The point is to believe what a person demonstrates themselves to be, regardless of who they claim to be.
The same holds true for political parties.
This past week has been extraordinary. Some of our fellow citizens have demonstrated exactly who they are. Between the Congressional hearings around January 6th, seismic changes coming as a result of Supreme Court rulings, and the beginning of the 2022 political season there has been a great deal to process.
As is my custom, I have turned to history and historians to help in understanding these events.
For those who grew up as I did in an era when a significant number of Republicans still believed in working with Democrats to find common ground, it can be difficult to overcome our pre-conceived notions. I have voted for Republicans in my lifetime and have worked effectively with many officeholders from the party during my four decades in the nonprofit sector. So, it hurts to write this, on numerous levels, not the least of which is because of what it says about our country and its future.
In their public messaging, today’s Republican party claims to be about personal freedom, responsibility, support for life, fealty to the constitution, limited government, and capitalism. Occasionally, when seeking historical legitimacy, they remind us that they are the Party of Lincoln.
This positive message of who they are has been sent, as documented by historian Nancy MacLean, via a well-funded and well-coordinated propaganda machine over the past 60 years. This same machine has simultaneously hammered home the negative point-of-view that only dangerous socialists seek government action that upholds civil rights, protects the marginalized, regulates business, provides clean air and water, enacts sensible gun control laws, fights wealth inequality, backs an individual’s right to love and marry whoever they wish, gives all individuals the right to control their own bodies, and supports public education. This drumbeat of contrasting misinformation coming out of Fox, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, billionaire-funded think tanks, Sinclair broadcasting, right wing talk radio, and the internet, has had the desired effect. At least one-third and probably more of the country now holds the strong belief that the only way to save America is to keep Democrats out of power at all costs, using any means possible.
This past week we were shown undeniable evidence of what the modern Republican Party has become. And what the Republicans have shown us makes it very clear that the once proud Party of Lincoln no longer exists. In fact, much of their language today echos that of Lincoln’s political opponent, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
Exhibit #1: This is a party that has demonstrated that it is willing to overthrow a lawfully elected government in order to stay in power
It pains me to type that headline. But with every hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol — each session more riveting than the previous one — we see and hear “overwhelming proof that former president Trump and his congressional supporters tried to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 presidential election and steal control of our country to keep a minority in power.” The fifth hearing was a “barnburner” to quote historian Heather Cox Richardson, who has been following the hearings and placing them in a larger historical context. She notes that the committee has firmly established the following:
- There was no evidence for Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him. “Instead, recounts, court cases, and investigations all showed that Biden was the true victor by more than 7 million votes in the popular count, and by 306 to 232 votes in the Electoral College.”
- Trump knew there was no evidence for his claims as “his own appointees, including his attorney general William Barr, had told him repeatedly that the incidents he cited as proof were not, in fact, real. Barr called his arguments ‘bullsh*t.’ But Trump continued to push them…”
- His followers were willing to use force and violence, against politicians and law enforcement officers to get what they wanted.
- Trump repeatedly pressured the Department of Justice to say that the 2020 election had been marred by fraud. When they refused, he took his pressure public. He also met with a number of members of Congress who joined the pressure on DOJ and began working with Trump to replace Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen with an unqualified environmental lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, who would state publicly that there were serious instances of fraud (which wasn’t true). Trump backed down from this plan only because he was told — and became convinced — that the move would backfire and would not be helpful.
- Republican elected and party officials in several states where Biden won were also at work on submitting slates of fake electors who would falsely certify that their states voted for Trump.
- A number of members of Congress asked the White House for presidential pardons following the certification of Joe Biden as the next president after the attack of January 6th. As committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said at the hearing, the only reason one asks for a pardon is if he or she believes they have committed a crime.
The evidence at this point is overwhelming. Today’s Republican party was willing to support the overthrow of a lawfully elected government to keep Donald Trump in power. They are working to choose their voters in order to make sure the results are what they want. The country fought a Civil War, however, to defend the will of the majority from the tyranny of the minority.
Exhibit #2: This is a party that has demonstrated a willingness to take away rights from American citizens, even when those rights are supported by large majorities of Americans
The Supreme Court is the autocratic point in our National Government. No monarch in Europe has a power more absolute over the laws, lives, and liberties of his people, than that Court has over our laws, lives, and liberties.
That statement is as true today as it was in 1883.
One day after the most recent January 6th hearing, the Supreme Court stripped a constitutional right from a large portion of the American people when they overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Most historians and commentators cannot think of another instance where the court has rescinded a constitutional right that the people have come to exercise and expect. (*) Attorney and writer Robert B. Hubbell noted:
Standing alone, the abolition of an existing constitutional right that results in the subordination of women to theocratic state legislatures is anti-democratic, un-American, and a violation of human rights. Even so, the manner in which this Court chose to dispense with a right that is recognized in 174 of the world’s 195 nations was hurtful and cruel.”
Three justices appointed by Donald Trump (two as a result of extremely questionable maneuvers by Senator Mitch McConnell to stack the Supreme Court) led that charge. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife is caught up in the efforts to overthrow the 2020 Presidential election, stated out loud that the court should also do away with other rights, such as the right to contraception, L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the right to marry individuals of the same sex. Interestingly, he did not mention the relatively recent right to marry someone of another race, as Justice Thomas — an African American man — is married to a white woman.
The right-wing justices made this decision simply because they could.
As court observer and commentator Linda Greenhouse wrote, Justice Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is also a requiem for the Supreme Court.
Ms Greenhouse wrote one of her first major articles for the New York Times on Roe v. Wade just after the 1973 decision, so she has watched the history of this question from its beginning. She asks us to “consider the implication of Justice Alito’s declaration that Roe v. Wade was ‘egregiously wrong’ from the start. Five of the seven justices in the Roe majority — all except William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall — were appointed by Republican presidents. The votes necessary to preserve the right to abortion 19 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Roe follow-up decision that the court also overturned on Friday, came from five Republican-appointed justices.”
In asserting that these justices led the court into grave error from which it must now be rescued, Justice Alito and his majority are necessarily saying that these predecessors, joining the court over a period of four decades, didn’t know enough, or care enough, to use the right methodology and reach the right decision. The arrogance and unapologetic nature of the opinion are breathtaking.
The ruling is based on very bad history, not to mention very flawed logic that cannot stay consistent from day-to-day. The Court’s majority said in overturning Roe that they were returning power to the states per the constitution’s original intent. But earlier in the week they overturned a 100-year-old state-level gun control law in New York. So much for respecting state control! Last week the court issued a ruling on religious liberty that essentially made separation of church and state — one of the key tenants of our constitution — unconstitutional. Dr. Richarson writes that “in both the Dobbs decision and the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (case), the court used stunningly bad history, clearly just working to get to the modern-day position it wanted. Abortion was, in fact, deeply rooted in this nation’s history not only in the far past but also in the past 49 years, and individual gun rights were not part of our early history.”
When discussing their approach to the constitution, the right-wing justices and their supporters in the Republican party like to call themselves originalists. Historian Joseph J. Ellis quotes the usually understated Justice William Brennan as describing originalism as “arrogance clocked as humility.” Alito’s opinion in Dobbs seems to be a perfect example.
Exhibit #3: This is a party where cruelty has become a feature, not a bug
Federal Judge J. Michael Luttig testified before the January 6th Select Committee on June 16th. As countless commentators have noted, Luttig is a leading conservative thinker and a giant in Republican legal circles. He worked in the Reagan administration, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to a federal judgeship, and was on the short-list for a Supreme Court seat during President George W. Bush’s term. As Dr. Richardson reported, “In January 2021, then–vice president Mike Pence’s staff turned to him for support to make sure Pence didn’t agree to count out electors; Luttig opposed the scheme absolutely.”
Luttig knows the Republican party as well as anyone.
In his testimony, Judge Luttig “examined the ongoing danger to democracy and located it not just on former president Donald Trump and his enablers, but on the entire Republican Party of today, the party that embraces the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, the party that continues to plan to overturn any election in which voters choose a Democrat.”
“[T]he former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy,” Luttig reiterated to NPR’s All Things Considered.
And, as if in confirmation, Dr. Richardson noted that delegates to a convention of the Texas Republican Party approved platform planks on June 18th which are stunning in their reliance on lies and conspiracy theories and acceptance of draconian measures to get their way. These are platform planks
…rejecting “the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and [holding] that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States”; requiring students “to learn about the dignity of the preborn human,” including that life begins at fertilization; treating homosexuality as “an abnormal lifestyle choice”; locking the number of Supreme Court justices at 9; getting rid of the constitutional power to levy income taxes; abolishing the Federal Reserve; rejecting the Equal Rights Amendment; returning Christianity to schools and government; ending all gun safety measures; abolishing the Department of Education; arming teachers; requiring colleges to teach “free-market liberty principles”; defending capital punishment; dictating the ways in which the events at the Alamo are remembered; protecting Confederate monuments; ending gay marriage; withdrawing from the United Nations and the World Health Organization; and calling for a vote “for the people of Texas to determine whether or not the State of Texas should reassert its status as an independent nation.”
There is so much more that could and will be said. However, we have reached a point in our country where a shrinking minority fearful of losing its position of privilege is working overtime to maintain power and control over a majority by any means necessary. A majority who support the right to an abortion and common-sense gun laws. The last time we had this type of fight by a minority to hold onto power was, as explained by historian Joanne B. Freeman, in the decade before the Civil War. Dr. Richardson adds to that point.
In its imposition of minority rule first by insisting on state’s rights and then by demanding federal protection of laws it wants, the Republican Party is echoing the southern Democrats before the Civil War. Like today’s Republicans, as they lost support they entrenched themselves first in the machinery of the federal government and then in the Supreme Court.
“And, finally,” Richardson concludes, “when northerners realized that enslavers had gamed the system to spread slavery across the nation, they came together from all different parties to protest and to stand against that attempt to destroy democracy and hand the country over to a few rich men. Ironically, that was the birth of the Republican Party that, under Abraham Lincoln, worked to create a government ‘of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.’”
Today’s Republican Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln. Instead, it is the party of Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Calhoun, Lincoln’s opponents.
I was tempted to write “unbelievable” in response to last week’s news. However, Dr. Angelou’s quote brings me up short. “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
More to come…
*I will have more about the speech by Frederick Douglass — when he was speaking about a right, given by Congress, that was taken away — on Wednesday.