“The tax bill is part of a bigger theme that we’re going to call The Great American comeback,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, at the committee’s planning retreat in February. “If we stay focused on selling the tax reform package, I think we’re going to hold the House and things are going to be OK for us.”
Republicans tried to stay focused. They talked about the tax cuts and touted economic growth—”After years of stagnation, our economy is finally on the rise. By just about any economic measure, the American people are better off now,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan over the summer. But as of Tuesday, just three weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans are trailing Democrats by nearly 9 percentage points in the congressional generic ballot. FiveThirtyEight gives them a “1 in 5” chance of holding a majority in the House of Representatives. President Trump is still historically unpopular, moderate and independent voters are leaving the GOP in droves, and Democrats are highly motivated to vote.
With the party behind and bereft of further accomplishments to show voters, Republicans have abandoned their script. Instead, they’ve embraced the path set out by Trump in the 2016 presidential election: constant, unyielding demonization of their opponents.
Trump, of course, is leading the charge. “If Democrats are willing to cause such destruction in the pursuit of power, just imagine the devastation they would cause if they obtained the power they so desperately want,” he said last week at a rally in Kansas, attacking Americans who gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court building to protest the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. “You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t hand power to an angry, left-wing mob, and that’s what they have become.”
Congressional Republicans are on the same page. “They have encouraged mob rule,” said Chuck Grassley, attacking Senate Democrats. Likewise, in an interview with NPR, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited “the mob” when he praised Republicans for confirming Kavanaugh. “We stood up to the mob, and we also stood up for the presumption of innocence in this country,” McConnell said.
Republicans in tight re-election fights have also begun slamming their opponents as terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. In California, Rep. Duncan Hunter has accused Democratic opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar as being a “security risk,” attempting to tie him to “Islamists” and “radical Muslims trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.” This is false, but Hunter—under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds—is vulnerable and has made anti-Muslim bigotry a key part of his campaign.
In Virginia, where Republican Rep. Dave Brat faces Democrat Abigail Spanberger in a closely watched race for the state’s 7th District, a GOP super PAC aligned with Paul Ryan has run ads attacking Spanberger for her ties to a Muslim high school in Northern Virginia where she briefly taught English. In 2005, a graduate of that high school was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempted terrorism. There’s no substance to the attack: It’s guilt by association that, like Hunter’s charge, leans on anti-Muslim prejudice.
What’s striking about these attacks, and the charges of “mob rule” in particular, is how they seek to delegitimize Democrats and Democratic opposition. It’s not just that Republican lawmakers disagree with their Democratic challengers’ positions, it’s that the latter are pawns for America’s enemies. Like Republicans in the wake of Obama, Democrats are channeling grass-roots energy in boisterous—but normal—expressions of political behavior. But to Trump and the Republican Party, this isn’t democracy in action, it’s an illegitimate violation of the political order.
You can understand President Trump’s constant (and false) reference to paid protesters as a similar declaration of disbelief in civil society opposition. Real Americans, in the president’s view, aren’t protesting—they’re at his rallies, shouting down the free press.
None of this is new, strategywise. During the George W. Bush administration, Republicans routinely cast Democrats as “weak on terror” to the point of accusing them of sympathizing with terrorist aims. During Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, conservative activists cast liberals and liberal policy as existential threats to the republic. But in age of democratic backsliding—where a president who praises dictators is actively hostile to democratic norms and representative institutions, and where his party is fighting to entrench rule by minority—these attacks take on a more sinister light, particularly given their frequency and lack of any grounding in reality.
Republicans aren’t favored in November, but they could still win. And if the attacks on Democratic candidates and agitators are serious, and not just rhetoric, then they could have real consequences. Already, Trump is pursuing restrictions on protest at the White House. With his regular chants of state action against his Democratic rivals—“Lock Her Up!”—are we confident he won’t try to actualize the latter? If he and his party faces down a “blue wave” and survives, we might be in deeper than we realize.