Last week’s polls and election results reminded Americans that politics rarely moves in straight lines. As in physics, action produces reaction. Overreach invites backlash.
For a long time, former President Trump and his cronies seemed to be immune of this rule of political life and of the consequences of even the most outrageous conduct. Like Trump himself once famously said“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
And so it seemed. He escaped conviction in not one but two political trials and bullied Republican leaders into falling in line after the January 6 uprising. Hears remains the leading contender for the Republican party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
Today, Republicans still struggle to prove their loyalty to him by outdoing each other in extremism.
On August 19, a Republican candidate for the Florida state assembly even took to Twitter to call to violence against federal law enforcement officers. “According to my plan,” Luis Miguel tweeted, “all Floridians will be allowed to shoot the FBI, IRS, ATF and everyone else.” [federal agents] IN SIGHT! Let freedom ring!”
In Washington, the United States Supreme Court threw out nearly 50 years of established precedent for nullify Roe vs. Wade. Republican-dominated state legislatures hastened to enact Draconian restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
This kind of extremism can be unpleasant for undecided voters. There are signs that most Americans are not ready to trade their rights and freedoms for a strongman and his allies who deny elections, violate rights and threaten violence. Like Amy Walters from the Cook Report wrote on August 26: “The more Trump appears in the news, the more dangerous the political climate for the Republican Party.”
But let’s start with the Dobbs decision of the Supreme Court.
Dobbs sent shock waves across the political spectrum and has shaken Democratic turnout. On August 25, Axios reported that immediately after Dobbs, “turnout in Democratic primaries for gubernatorial races increased…in five of the eight states that had contested primaries.”
Similarly, a TargetSmart report suggests that in states like Michigan and Wisconsin “where reproductive rights are at stake,” women “are outnumbering men by significant margins.”
This pattern portends apink wave” in November, as women mobilize to defeat pro-life candidates. We saw evidence of this in the August 23 congressional special election in New York, where Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro, 52% to 48% in a landmark swing neighborhood.
Ryan’s campaign message focused largely on protecting the right to abortion. His victory follows the surprising August 2 referendum in Kansaswhere voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to ban abortion.
Are Republicans being taught a lesson they should have learned from history?
When the Supreme Court Gets Too Far Ahead of, or Lags Too Far Behind, the American Public by ignoring American sentiment, political reaction results. That happened in the 1850s in the run up to the Civil War and in the 1930s when the Conservative court that Franklin Roosevelt inherited struck down a new minimum wage law.
it’s it happened again after Roe v Wade, when the enemies of abortion reacted and organized for a 50-year battle that resulted in a reactionary majority on the court.
Republicans may now be reaping what those reactionaries on the court sowed.
And it’s not just that many Americans have been alarmed and woken up by what the court did last June. They are also becoming aware of the threats posed by Trump’s “big lie” and the electoral denial he has inspired.
The Democratic messages that have exposed the “big lie,” along with the meticulously presented hearings from the January 6 congressional hearings, appear to be taking root.
Americans are realizing that, as President Biden said has warned, “A poison is running through our democracy… with disinformation massively on the rise. But the truth is buried by the lies, and the lies live on as truth.”
At the start of hearings on January 6 this summer, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney repeated that feeling: “People need to pay attention. People need to watch and understand how easily our democratic system can fall apart if we don’t defend it.”
An NBC News poll last week suggests that the American people are now actually paying attention. He found that more respondents ranked “threats to democracy” as the most important problem facing the country, more important than inflation or employment.
Other polls suggest that candidates running as election deniers or opponents of women’s right to choose will pay a price in November.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. A Franklin & Marshall survey published on August 25 found that the Democratic candidate for the Senate, John Fetterman, leads election denier Mehmet Oz, 43% to 30%. Fetterman is also a supporter of abortion rights, while Oz supported overturning Roe.
The same poll also shows Democratic Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro leading Trump’s favorite and anti-abortion Republican Doug Mastriano by 44% to 33%.
According to the Washington Post, “In 2020, Mastriano attempted to block Pennsylvania’s certification of Biden’s victory by introducing a resolution that incorrectly asserted that the Republican-dominated legislature had the right to choose which electors’ votes should be counted.” As the Post also notes, “He attended the January 6 riots…where was captured on video crossing the police line.
This is not to say that in Pennsylvania or elsewhere the Trump fever is completely over. And polls are not the same as an election. But they are signs of hope.
Democracy will not save itself. The right to abortion will not restore itself. The power of the American majority to defeat Trumpism is in the ballot box. If Trump candidates lose in the general election, Republicans may eventually get the message that they have bet the wrong way on extremism.
Americans committed to preserving our republic and saying “no” to Trump have a lot to do. Like former President Obama put it in his 2017 farewell address: “It is up to each of us to be… zealous guardians of democracy.” Across America, most voters are ready to do just that.
Austin Sarat is a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College and the author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently an attorney for Lawyers Defending American Democracy