Ultra-MAGA and the Democracy Game (with Brynn Tannehill)
Washington is looking more and more like Budapest.
In the wake of the Alito draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent refusal of the Republicans to protect the many thousands of women who will be harmed if this happens, President Biden finally went into attack mode, denouncing the GOP’s “ultra-MAGA agenda.”
This is good, but not clear enough. What the President needs to spell out, in no uncertain terms, is that “ultra-MAGA” is shorthand for “fascist.” And then he needs to explain what that actually means: the loss of freedoms the right in particular can’t stop talking about.
The Republican Party, as currently constituted, is a fascist outfit, full stop. There are no messages of hope. There are no promises to govern better. There are no proposals to make life better for all Americans. There is only vassalage to a crooked, thieving, mobbed-up dementia patient, looted money for cronies, and a naked grab for permanent minority rule. If achievement of those aims means sacrificing the LGBT community, and the disabled, and immigrants, and people of color, and women at the authoritarian altar, so be it.
This is no longer your mother’s Republican Party, or your grandfather’s…or his grandfather’s.
Today’s Republican Party is not about equal rights and opportunity, as Lincoln’s party was. It is not about using the government to protect ordinary people, as Theodore Roosevelt’s party was. It is not even about advancing the ability of businesses to do as they deem best, as Ronald Reagan’s party was.
The modern Republican Party is about using the power of the government to enforce the beliefs of a radical minority on the majority of Americans.
“The modern Republican Party as it exists today is an institution that primarily exists to wage culture war, rather than actual policy,” says Brynn Tannehill, author of the superb book American Fascism, and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast.
On rightwing media, Americans are fed a steady diet of sensationalist culture-war agitprop rather than actual news. In a state of perpetual anger at [insert name of boogeyman here], regular consumers of this garbage lose the ability to think rationally. This is all by design. And it is amazingly effective.
With its base absorbed with critical race theory being taught in kindergarten, and provocatively dressed M&Ms, and the War on Christmas, the GOP quietly eviscerates voting rights, preparing for what Tannehill calls permanent minoritarian rule.
“Gerrymandering,” Tannehill says, “and playing with the way vote counting happens and with the way electors are placed and representatives are selected—you can fudge with that until you get the result you want. A great example of this is Hungary, right, where the Fidesz Party only needs to win something like 23 percent of the vote in order to hold a majority of seats in the Hungarian Parliament.”
The new Washington looks a lot like Budapest. “I would say that the best analogy for the United States is Hungary,” she says. Victor Orbán, the current autocrat, returned to power in 2010, “but it wasn’t until 2020 when he used covid to give himself supreme dictatorial power forever. There was a ten-year interregnum of at least pretending to be a democracy, even though, functionally, there is no way for opposition parties to win in Hungary—none.”
The techniques Orbán used to assume power are eerily familiar to Americans: eroding voting rights, controlling the media, subjugating minorities and the LGBT community. “There is a reason why people who yearn for a theocracy, who yearn for a strongman, love Hungary,” Tannehill says. Whether it’s Tucker Carlson, Mike Pence, or CPAC, Budapest is where it’s at. “Hungary is where we’re going,” she says.
American Fascism goes into great depth on how this can, and if nothing changes soon will, be achieved in this country:
The goal of modern authoritarian governments is to win an election, and then use this power of government to tilt the playing field such that the opposition has no meaningful chance of ever winning again. Or, to paraphrase Ender’s Game: “We won the first election. We want to win all the next ones, too.”
In 2010, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way described the emergence of a new kind of government in their book, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. What they observed was neither democratic nor fully authoritarian (or totalitarian), but somewhere in the middle. They named this new phenomenon competitive authoritarianism. These types of governments are known by many names—managed democracy, electoral authoritarianism, illiberal democracy, hybrid regimes—but they all describe the same phenomena.
In competitive authoritarianism there are still elections, but the playing field is so heavily tilted that the opposition has almost no chance of winning. There’s still a legal system, but court rulings almost invariably favor the ruling party. There is still law, but it is applied unequally to the ruling party and the opposition. There are still protests, but they yield no real political change or results, other than occasional beatings by police and paramilitary groups aligned with the ruling party….
In the end, it creates a system where the opposition party can run whatever candidates they wish, hold rallies, collect donations, and function almost normally. They can even win seats in the legislative branch, but never enough to actually make anything happen. Alternately, the legislative branch can be so weakened, and the executive branch become so strong, that it hardly matters who wins control of the legislature. Because the ruling party has deliberately weaponized the functions of government against the opposition, opponents will almost certainly never regain sufficient power through elections to effectively oppose or challenge the ruling party.
We have six months to right the ship, or the Return of the MAGA King will spell the end of American democracy.
Greg Olear talks to Brynn Tannehill, author of the book AMERICAN FASCISM, about how the United States got to the precipice of fascism, how minoritarian rule might look, and what, if anything, we can do to turn the ship around. Plus: a new ballad on a house in Chevy Chase.
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Photo: MGT’s Twitter profile picture, three times, unedited.