On Wednesday evening Rachel Maddow made an excellent point: While Democrats and the Biden administration focus on the mundane aspects of trying to do what’s best for the American people—passing infrastructure legislation, preserving and protecting the right to vote against GOP measures to suppress it, combating the causes and effects of climate change, and trying to ensure that women retain autonomy over their own bodies, for example—for Republicans, even addressing or staking out a position on these issues has become, at most, a peripheral concern.
You would expect a party that professes some legitimate relationship to the American people to at least set forth its policy views on these matters. But, as Maddow noted on Wednesday, that is not what Republicans are talking about. In reality, the Republicans have only one focus now: the negation of fair and lawful elections that don’t go their way. That has been the crux of their entire collective effort since Trump lost the election last November. It is the focus in California, where the racist Fox News crackpot Larry Elder apparently received unpleasant news from his internal polling and is now playing the “fraud” card, in the apparent expectation that he will lose that state’s recall election against Gavin Newsom. It is happening in Nevada, where Trump-endorsed candidate Adam Laxalt has preemptively suggested that if he fails to unseat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in 2022, it will only be due to some unspecified “fraud.”
The “stolen election/voter fraud” theme is now the official GOP talking point. As Maddow observed, Republicans everywhere are now using it and will continue to use it in 2022 and beyond. The tactic is being chiefly promoted and driven by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, and reinforced through his daily podcasts, which, like NBC News, ProPublica and others have pointed out, are now virtually required listening for most Republican officials, whether elected or intent on being elected. This is where their marching orders are coming from.
While Bannon’s podcasts touch obliquely on current events (the latest fixation of their contrived outrage is Afghanistan, for example), the overwhelming emphasis is on conjuring up and amplifying the phony threat of “election fraud,” urging on the nationwide bogus, partisan audits and investigations, and providing preordained conclusions to those investigations. As Pro Publica reported in their analysis of Bannon’s efforts, this nationalization of Trump’s Big Lie has been extraordinarily successful up to this point, prompting a massive surge in local election precinct membership among Trump’s most delusional, violent, and white nationalist base of support:
The new movement is built entirely around Trump’s insistence that the electoral system failed in 2020 and that Republicans can’t let it happen again. The result is a nationwide groundswell of party activists whose central goal is not merely to win elections but to reshape their machinery.
Bannon’s podcast is a disinformation megaphone the likes of which Josef Goebbels could have only dreamed of, and it is incredibly corrosive to this country’s democratic institutions. It is the cynical product of a man who has exercised (or attempted to exercise) an insidious influence not only on far-right, proto-fascist movements and political parties in Europe but now apparently in Brazil as well, on behalf of would-be dictator Jair Bolsonaro. And the fact that the entire GOP is currently operating in lockstep with—and at the bidding of—such a person tells you everything you need to know about how the 2022 election will be framed: Every contest in which a Republican loses will now be susceptible to an ongoing, malicious attack on that election’s integrity, bar none.
And Democrats have every reason to be appalled by this Bannon takeover of the Republican party. (In reality, all Americans should be appalled, but as the listless reaction by the GOP faithful to the terrorist assault of Jan. 6 showed, we cannot expect any fealty to democracy from the vast majority of Republicans.) But there is a silver lining to this seditious perfidy by Bannon and others: it serves to make all forthcoming elections a referendum on Donald Trump, to the exclusion of all else.
Bannon himself has created this effect by tying his entire effort to the 2020 election. (In his podcasts, rather than refer to it directly, he calls it “3 November,” as if the bare mention of the date has a mobilizing resonance similar to Jan. 6 or Sept. 11.) All of the invented, phony, and racially tinged rhetoric about voter fraud hawked in his podcasts stem from the given assumption that Trump was wrongfully denied reelection. And Trump himself has been more than eager to support it, as he showed this week by injecting his assessment of the California recall election as tainted, even before any votes were tallied. Trump’s anointed candidates, such as Laxalt and the countless others who will follow him, have all irrevocably signed onto this playbook. That is their sole roadmap.
So be it. Just a few weeks ago, plenty of political prognosticators were gleefully downplayingDemocrats’ chances in California (and, by implication, the 2022 midterms), touting the fact that Trump was no longer on the ballot. Republicans, by leaping onto the Bannon bandwagon, have now made it essential that he be implicitly on the ballot, even as they resolve to delegitimize any Democratic wins as the product of fraud. Seen in this perspective, every election from this point forward is a referendum on Trump and Trump-ism. Fascist-admirers like Bannon believe that this is a winning strategy, but to an electorate that has already rendered a decidedly negative verdict on Joe Biden’s predecessor—a judgment which was amply reinforced by the horrific attacks by Trump supporters on Jan. 6—he may have inadvertently provided the single strongest motivation for Democrats to vote.
When Georgia held its special election on Jan. 5, pitting Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff against two GOP incumbents, it was in the wake of weeks of rhetoric from Trump attempting to delegitimize the electoral process. At that time, Trump’s mob of white supremacist terrorists had yet to demonstrate their violent and utter contempt for our institutions by assaulting the Capitol. Many political observers concluded that Trump’s efforts sabotaged the GOP’s chances by depressing and demotivating the vote. But the converse effect, the concerted mobilization of the Black vote by Stacey Abrams and others, was perhaps less remarked upon. Far from having its desired effect, the tactic of falsely crying voter fraud hurt GOP turnout.
The entire underlying premise of Bannon’s podcast is the illegitimacy of the Democratic voter. But as the elections of Sens. Warnock and Ossoff showed, people react very negatively to attempts to delegitimize them. For many, it simply increases their resolve to vote. While every district is certainly different, if Republicans expect the tactic to work as a national strategy, they have to resign themselves to the fact that the election thereby becomes all about Trump, everything that Trump did in office and has done in the wake of his defeat. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for example, is doing just that in Virginia right now.
Trump is the most polarizing figure in American politics, and by and large, all Democrats viscerally despise him. By overtly basing their entire strategy on the petulant lies of a failed president, Republicans who choose to follow down the primrose path Bannon has laid for them may well be giving the Democrats a midterm opportunity of a lifetime.
Democrats should embrace that opportunity: make every election a referendum on Donald Trump, tying every Republican to his attempts to overturn the election. And pull out all the stops to get our voters to the polls.