The Trump GOP is an Existential Threat to Democracy (with Craig Unger)
Harriet Hageman and the durability of MAGA Republicans.
There is a battle raging for the soul of the Republican Party, and the good guys are losing—bigly.
Look at what went down in Wyoming last month. Liz Cheney is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Her father, former vice president Dick Cheney—co-author of the disastrous Iraq War and the egregiously irresponsible Bush II tax cuts—is one of the more reviled political figures in recent history among Democrats. She is anti-choice. She is anti-voting rights. She is pro-corporation. She voted with Trump nine out of ten times. She’s smart, politically savvy, and, as her performance as co-chair of the January 6th Committee made abundantly clear, possessed of that ineffable combination of charisma, gravitas, and sangfroid, so rare on Capitol Hill, that we are pleased to call “presidential.” Too, because of her country-over-party conduct in the aftermath of January 6th, she has crossover appeal: Dems dig her.
If a sane, strategical GOP coalesced around a Liz Cheney presidential candidacy, she would give President Biden a run for his money in 2024. Gen X woman versus Silent Generation man? There’s a good chance she’d win. The Republicans would once again have a staunch conservative in the White House, one who would nominate rightwing judges, bend over backwards for big business—especially the fossil fuel industry—and stymie any attempt to strengthen voting or abortion rights. Cheney ‘24 is a winning move for the GOP. But the Republican Party is not interested in winning free and fair elections. It is only interested in fealty to Donald John Trump, the criminal FPOTUS. That is what makes the party “semi-fascist,” as Joe Biden diplomatically put it.
“What percentage of the party does [Trump] have? Seventy-five percent? I don’t know. I mean, it’s a big percentage,” says the investigative journalist Craig Unger, author of American Kompromat and House of Trump, House of Putin and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “But 75 percent of the Republican Party is not a winning number in a major election.”
Instead of embracing their most viable general-election candidate, the Republican Party has repudiated her. First, they excommunicated her from the GOP. Then, last month, in a Republican primary that in normal times would have been little more than a victory lap, Liz Cheney was resoundingly defeated. Not because of her policy positions. Not because she did a bad job for the people of Wyoming. Because she would not join the MAGA movement. Because she refused to kiss the ring of Donald Trump, a filthy criminal who tried to overthrow the fucking government. Because voters in the Cowboy State listened to alleged sex trafficker Matt Gaetz instead of her.
The final tally was brutal: 49,316 to 113,025. Cheney didn’t even muster a third of the vote.
Her challenger, Harriet Hageman, was widely mocked on Twitter for looking like she was playing the Kathy Bates character in a low budget remake of Misery, but from what I can glean, Hageman is more Elise Stefanik than Marjorie Taylor Greene: ambitious, not cuckoo. She was a Ted Cruz delegate in 2016, was reportedly critical of Trump, and at the Republican National Convention that year voted to “unbind” the delegates—a last-ditch effort by GOP Never-Trumpers to sideline The Donald. Plus, she was allies with Liz Cheney, effusively endorsing her for the House that same year. All she had to do to usurp her erstwhile friend was vociferously recant. Which she did.
Did Hageman really come around on Trump? And if so, when and why? Was she swayed by his calling veterans and soldiers “suckers and losers?” By his sabotage of the pandemic response that left a million dead? By his cavorting with criminals? By his history of rape? By his subservience to Putin? Or was it the time he goaded his MAGA followers to storm the Capitol and attempt to kill his own vice president? Eppur si muove.
In a perfect world, any politician imbued with Trump’s taint would be cast out of Washington forever on general principle. But this isn’t a perfect world, and Hageman bet that kissing the ring on his short finger could win her Wyoming’s lone House seat. She was right. And if there continues to be no political fallout from backing Trump—if, on the contrary, blowing smoke up his prodigious ass is a prerequisite for office in deep red states like Wyoming—then more and more Harriet Hagemans will supplant the Liz Cheneys in the halls of power.
The thing is, what works in Wyoming will not work in a national election. Trump got his ass kicked in 2020, and that was before the insurrection, and the second impeachment, and the January 6th Committee hearings, and the FBI finding classified documents a few steps from the omelet station at Mar-a-Lago. The American people rejected him in 2020, and would do so even more emphatically now. The GOP brain trust, such as it is, must be aware of this. The fact that they haven’t come to Jesus, so to speak, is ominous.
How does a radical, minority party win national elections? As Unger says, “the only way they can get around that is to cheat.” They restrict voting rights. They purge voter rolls. They send jackbooted MAGA thugs to polling stations. They fuck with the post office. They impose poll taxes. They make access to polling places harder in blue areas and easier in red ones. They appoint retrograde judges that will condone all this fascist crap. And if all else fails, they install corrupt state secretaries of state to refuse to certify fair elections.
The main reason this neo-fascist movement exists at all is because, unlike other fringe groups, MAGA Republicans are well funded. “The amount of dark money out there is just mind-blowing,” Unger points me. “You know, I’ve heard estimates of over 30 trillion dollars—that’s with a ‘t-r’—which is like twice the GDP of the United States of America. It’s almost become a geopolitical force, because we see it’s effectively taken over the Republican Party.”
The GOP Dark Money takeover was made possible by the dreadful Citizens United decision, which obliterated the limit that special interest groups can blow on political spending. Sadly, our country’s wealthiest individuals tend to be “libertarian billionaires,” willing to invest vast sums on Trump-endorsed political candidates, who will continue to cut what little taxes they pay—but extremely reluctant to spend to make the country a better place. (John D. Rockefeller gave so much money to charity that he invented modern philanthropy to do it more efficiently; he eradicated hookworm; what the fuck has Elon Musk ever done?) One of these soullness ghouls, Barre Seid, just gave $1.6 billion to Leonard Fucking Leo. That money will almost certainly be used to ratfuck democracy, because the only way Leo and his radical Catholic ilk will be able to transform the United States into the Christofascist hellscape they desire is to circumvent the will of the people. Because, again: most American don’t want this shit.
“The Republican Party is a minority party,” Unger says. “Therefore, democracy is an existential threat to them. So for them to exist, they have to become an existential threat to democracy.”
To kick off Season Four of the PREVAIL podcast, Greg Olear welcomes back the investigative journalist Craig Unger, author of “American Kompromat” and “House of Trump, House of Putin,” to talk about the Ukraine invasion, the FBI, Trump’s money laundering, dark money, Roy Cohn, major media failures, MAGA Republicans, and the ghosts of GOP election fuckery past. Plus: a new superhero emerges.
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Photo credit: Tony Webster. May 3, 2022. A billboard outside of Laramie, Wyoming says “Ditch Liz [Cheney]! Vote for [Harriet] Hageman. Paid for by Wyoming Values PAC. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.”