Skip to content

The Center Will Not Hold.

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
A poster reading "One Nation, Under God, Indivisible" from a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021
A poster from a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021 (Anthony Crider)

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


The track record for these predictions has obviously been awful, but things are genuinely looking quite bad for Donald Trump right now. It seems doubtful Garland and the DOJ would have greenlit the raid on Mar-a-Lago if they weren’t really open to indicting Trump; given what they found, it would be remarkable if they didn’t. From Vox:

Since the affidavit outlining the DOJ’s reasons for believing that Trump had documents in his residence that could pertain to the Espionage Act has not been made public, we don’t know the evidence that justifies that possibility.
“If the Justice Department wanted to pursue a criminal case, based on the available information known to the public to date, they appear to have a very strong case,” NYU School of Law professor Ryan Goodman told Axios. The unsealed warrant also cites Section 1519, which refers to the destruction or manipulation of records (whether classified or not) related to a federal investigation or bankruptcy proceedings. As the New York Times’s Charlie Savage reported Friday, it’s unclear whether the DOJ invoked Section 1519 due to Trump’s resistance to giving documents to NARA or something else entirely. The warrant also refers to Section 2071, which makes it illegal to hide, remove from its proper location, destroy, or attempt to destroy a government document — something Trump reportedly did while in office.
Though Trump agreed to release the search warrant and receipts of what the DOJ took from Mar-a-Lago, he has offered several excuses for having the documents in his possession, falsely claiming that former President Barack Obama also retained classified documents, floating the idea that evidence had been planted at Mar-a-Lago, and saying he declassified all the documents in his possession, which could be true but wouldn’t save him from legal penalty. There’s currently no record of such an action, and some national security documents could carry heavy penalties for improper storage whether or not they’re technically classified.

There’s not much the right can do now but try to whip up a froth against the FBI in the hopes that the intensity of their response and more attacks like the one in Cincinnati might save their man. Trump himself has been issuing thinly veiled threats ⁠—  “the temperature has to be brought down” ⁠— and most of the conservative press is backing him up. Tucker Carlson last night:

Really, this puts Trump and Carlson into alignment with centrist voices ⁠— Andrew Yang most prominently, though I suppose I don’t know any better than he does where he is on the political map right now ⁠— who agree that it might be too divisive for the rule of law to apply here. And the centrists, whether they know it or not, are implicitly defending a broader troubling idea: that the law shouldn’t actually apply to political figures who can rally the public behind them.

This is one clear way in which, as I’ve written previously, the center’s normative commitments to comity and bipartisanship only solidify the power of a radicalizing right. And it’s worth thinking through what other principles might be thrown aside in the years ahead in the name of keeping the peace. We already know they’re shaky on democratic values, for instance ⁠— those ambivalent about or hostile to “partisan” Senate and Supreme Court reform, for instance, want to retain a federal system that fuels right-wing extremism, makes it easier than it ought to be for figures like Trump and his allies to get elected, and makes it more difficult than it ought to be to boot them out for abuses of power. So, as much as they loudly fret about the possibility, I’m not too sure how much resistance the center would actually put up to Trump or anyone else stealing an election. If that happens, it’ll happen through state and local government institutions Republicans are now working to take over by legitimate means. It would be one thing if a January 6th-like crowd just stormed the White House and installed Trump there. But Secretaries of State messing with the process is another matter. How sure are we that we won’t hear calls to let those kinds of shenanigans go in the name of preventing a “civil war” or more violence ⁠— to move on with the faith that shame or another election will force the usurpers out of office?

David Frum’s recent defense of Ron DeSantis seems instructive here.

It’s hard to imagine he’s been genuinely fooled, but it’s another indication, regardless, that the right’s budding authoritarians can get passes from the center just for not being Trump, which will matter if Trump really does get sidelined by legal issues.

Meanwhile, Trump-independent attacks on democratic values themselves are getting more explicit at the grassroots level of the Republican Party. Theda Skocpol, one of the leading scholars of the contemporary right, just did a decent interview about this with Elaine Godfrey at The Atlantic. I’d quibble with a couple of her points ⁠— though I get where she’s coming from, I’m less certain that Stop the Steal is purely a metaphor — but she’s right about where the movement’s headed:

Skocpol: I don’t think Stop the Steal is about ballots at all. I don’t believe a lot of people really think that the votes weren’t counted correctly in 2020. They believe that urban people, metropolitan people—disproportionately young and minorities, to be sure, but frankly liberal whites—are an illegitimate brew that’s changing America in unrecognizable ways and taking it away from them. Stop the Steal is a way of saying that. Stop the Steal is a metaphor. And remember, they declared voting fraud before the election.
Godfrey: A metaphor?
Skocpol: It’s a metaphor for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone. Doug Mastriano said it in so many words: It’s a Christian country. That doesn’t mean we’ll throw out everybody else, but they’ve got to accept that we’re the ones setting the tone. That’s what Hungary has in mind. Viktor Orbán has been going a little further. They’re a more muscular and violence-prone version of the same thing.
People in 2016 who were otherwise quite normal would say, There’s something wrong with those votes from Milwaukee and Madison. I’d push back ever so gently and say, Those are big places; it takes a while to count the votes. I’d get a glassy-eyed stare at that point: No, something fishy is going on.
They feel disconnected from and dominated by people who have done something horrible to the country. And Trump gave voice to that. He’s a perfect resonant instrument for that—because he’s a bundle of narcissistic resentments. But he’s no longer necessary.

The New York Times Magazine also just ran a good, long look at “The Arizona Republican Party’s Anti-Democracy Experiment” ⁠— an experiment being conducted not only by high-profile candidates like Kari Lake and Blake Masters, but local groups like “Lions for Liberty,” which hosts events like this one:

I had a weird dream last night about Joseph McCarthy,” said one of the morning’s featured speakers, Jim Arroyo, the head of Arizona’s biggest chapter of the Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary group made up largely of current and former members of the armed forces and law enforcement. McCarthy, he said, “was not only right — he understated the seriousness of it.”
Arroyo’s eschatological rhetoric was echoed by the down-ballot Republican candidates who spoke to the group. One of them was Selina Bliss, a precinct committeewoman and nursing teacher at Yavapai College who was running for a State House seat. (On Aug. 2, she was defeated by the G.O.P. incumbent, Quang Nguyen, who earlier this year authored legislation, later signed into law, requiring that Arizona high school students receive anti-Communist civics instruction.) Bliss reminded her friends and neighbors that they belonged to a thriving activist movement: “We Republicans, we conservatives, we’re the grass roots, we come from the bottom up.”
But after the seeming paean to political participation, she took a turn. “I want to address something that’s bugging me for a long time,” Bliss said. “And that’s the history and the sacredness of our Constitution and what our founding fathers meant.” She then said: “We are a constitutional republic. We are not a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution does it use the word ‘democracy.’ When I hear the word ‘democracy,’ I think of the democracy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s not us.”
It once would have been jarring to hear a candidate for state legislative office ignore the usual parochial issues — property taxes, water access, state funding for universities — and instead repudiate the very idea of democracy in America. But Bliss’s view was hardly out of place here. [Rose] Sperry, the activist sitting in the audience, had posted on Facebook a few months before: “Please strike the word democracy from your vocabulary! WE ARE A REPUBLIC!!!”

I’ll have more to say about this in the months ahead ⁠— and in the book ⁠— but I think conservatives who make this argument are more right than wrong, really. We’re clearly a constitutional republic of some kind. But not a democratic one. That’s the problem. We ought to fix it. I’d end with “before it’s too late,” but I do expect, frankly, that the Republicans are going to sweep back into control in Washington. The movement to build a democratic America will have to follow whatever’s coming. I hope I’m wrong, though.

A Song

"Welcome to Hell" – black midi (2022)