(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Democratic Party now confronts a predicament familiar to democratic political parties in authoritarian states such as Hungary and Russia. As those parties have learned, there is no good answer to the problem.
The proximate cause of the difficulty for Democrats is that Republicans are suddenly fond of subpoenas again. They plan to issue them to “a wide variety of Obama administration officials” in connection with the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week: “The American people deserve answers about how such abuses could happen.”
This is a lie, of course. Not the part about subpoenas. The untruth is the notion that imagined past abuses by Obama officials, rather than present abuses by Republican senators, will drive these investigations.
Republicans famously defied subpoenas issued by the House during its attempts to investigate discrete aspects of President Donald Trump’s sprawling criminality. Indeed, even the most somber constitutional endeavor — impeachment — was met with a near-blanket stonewall from the White House, which refused to make documents or personnel available.
In the midst of the current national emergency, the executive branch has largely refused to acknowledge the House, disregarding dozens of letters sent by its committees seeking information on the coronavirus pandemic. At least nine requests to Cabinet officials to attend a hearing, briefing or videoconference have been rejected.
McConnell and his Republican colleagues have aggressively abetted Trump’s lawlessness, including the coverup of his shakedown of Ukraine and the subsequent purge of officials whose professionalism, patriotism or honesty enraged him. Attorney General William Barr is working diligently to supplant the facts of the Mueller investigation into Trump’s dalliance with Russia in 2016 with a wonderland of right-wing fantasy. Meanwhile, armed Trump allies don militia gear to intimidate political opponents.
So how do Democrats respond? The Republican subpoenas will be saturated in bad faith. Why should Democrats honor them? In politics, isn’t turnabout fair play?
Many Democrats will say so. But for a democratic party seeking to sustain rule of law against authoritarian attacks, turnabout also threatens to undermine the very values and norms that the party is fighting to preserve.
“In a democratic context, with two parties, when one party begins to violate or break the rules, the second party has no clear winning strategy,” Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” said in an email.
There are still traditional Republicans scattered about the states. But in Washington the party is organized around Trump’s white nationalism, corruption and contempt for rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz party has traveled a similar route, and the signposts are familiar: hyper-gerrymandered legislative districts, courts packed with loyalists and a party propaganda infrastructure owned by oligarchs aligned with the party. Even Fidesz scapegoats have a familiar ring: immigrants, Muslims, George Soros.
One hallmark of authoritarian politics, in addition to an adversarial relationship with the truth, is ignoring the law as it applies to party interests while deploying it as a weapon against political opponents. For example, party politicians might ignore lawful subpoenas intended to expose their corruption while subsequently using subpoenas of their own to construct a phony case of wrongdoing by opponents.
Such is the seedy exercise of “Obamagate.” Republicans needn’t attack Barack Obama directly. He has credibility, political skills and ready access to strong allies and national media. Instead, they will likely attack Obama administration figures largely unknown to the public, with far fewer resources, whose words and deeds can more easily be twisted for propaganda purposes.
Few knew the names of the Americans who died in Benghazi. But Republicans exploited their deaths for years with a fully manufactured “scandal” that, like the Obamagate fiction, does not withstand scrutiny. No matter. The extended Benghazi attack, the bull’s-eye for which eventually settled on the 2016 Democratic nominee for president, served its nefarious purpose. Obamagate will similarly find its target: the 2020 nominee.
Because neither the news media nor the nation’s larger political culture has reckoned with the GOP’s authoritarian evolution, the habitual response is to mislabel GOP authoritarianism as hypocrisy. Calling out hypocrisy is a pointless shaming mechanism for a party that has broken free of shame. Worse, it camouflages a war on democracy as democratic politics as usual.
With no counter-authoritarian playbook, Democrats will simply have to improvise. “Certainly there is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Levitsky. “Are there viable institutional solutions (e.g., courts, elections)? The existence of competitive elections in 6 months may suggest a different strategy from a case where elections are not free or fair.”
An authoritarian summer is coming. It will be followed by an election shaped by pandemic, demagogy and Russian sabotage. Democrats will have to be deft to prevent further destruction of democracy, or a long authoritarian winter awaits.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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