Polls and election results last week reminded Americans that politics rarely moves in a straight line. As in physics, action produces reaction. Overreach invites backlash.
For a long time, former President Trump and his cronies seemed to be immune to this rule of political life and the consequences of even the most outrageous conduct. As Trump himself once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
And so it seemed. He escaped conviction in not one but two impeachment trials and bullied Republican leaders into lining up after the Jan. 6 insurrection. He remains the leading candidate for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
Today, Republicans are still raging to prove their loyalty to him by outdoing themselves in extremism.
On August 19, a Republican candidate for Florida State Assembly even took to Twitter to call for violence against federal law enforcement officials. “According to my plan,” tweeted Luis Miguel, “all Floridians will be allowed to shoot the FBI, IRS, ATF and everyone else. [federal agents] ON SIGHT! Let freedom ring!”
In Washington, the United States Supreme Court set aside nearly 50 years of established precedent to overturn Roe v Wade. Republican-dominated state legislatures have rushed to pass draconian restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
This type of extremism can be off-putting to swing voters. There are signs that most Americans are unwilling to trade their rights and freedoms for a strongman and his allies who deny elections, violate rights and threaten violence. As Cook Report’s Amy Walters wrote on August 26, “The more Trump in the news, the more dangerous the political climate for the GOP.”
But let’s start with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
Dobbs sent shockwaves across the political spectrum and rattled 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 with contested primaries.”
Similarly, a report by TargetSmart suggests that in states like Michigan and Wisconsin “where reproductive rights are at stake,” women “exceed men by significant margins.”
This pattern portends a “pink wave” in November as women rally to defeat pro-life candidates. We saw proof of that in the August 23 congressional special election in New York, where Democrat Pat Ryan beat Republican Marc Molinaro 52% to 48% in a flagship district.
Ryan’s campaign message was largely focused on protecting abortion rights. His victory follows a resounding August 2 referendum in Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to ban abortion.
Are Republicans learning a lesson they should have learned from history?
When the Supreme Court puts itself too far ahead of – or too far behind – the American public by ignoring American sentiment, the result is political backlash. This happened in the 1850s on the eve of the Civil War and in the 1930s when the conservative court Franklin Roosevelt inherited struck down a new minimum wage law.
It happened again after Roe vs. Wade, when abortion haters retaliated and organized for a 50-year battle that resulted in a reactionary majority on the court.
Republicans can now reap what these reactionaries on the ground have sown.
And it’s not just that many Americans were alarmed and excited 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 it inspired.
The Democratic messages that exposed the “big lie,” as well as the meticulously presented hearings of the Jan. 6 congressional hearings, seem to be taking hold.
Americans have just seen that, as President Biden warned, “a poison is running through our democracy… with massively rising misinformation. But truth is buried by lies, and lies endure as truth.
At the start of the January 6 hearings this summer, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney echoed that sentiment: “People need to be careful. People need to watch, and they need to understand how easily our democratic system can crumble if we don’t stand up for it.
An NBC News poll last week suggests that the American people are indeed paying attention. It found that more respondents ranked “threats to democracy” as the most important issue facing the country, more important than inflation or jobs.
Other polls suggest that candidates who present themselves as deniers or opponents of the right to choose women will pay the price in November.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. A Franklin & Marshall poll released Aug. 25 found Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman ahead of Holocaust denier Mehmet Oz, 43% to 30%. Fetterman is also a strong supporter of abortion rights, while Oz supported overthrowing Roe.
The same poll also shows Democratic Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro ahead of Trump favorite and abortion foe, Republican Doug Mastriano, 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 falsely asserting that the Republican-dominated legislature had the right to choose voters’ votes to count.” As the Post also notes, “He attended the Jan. 6 riot…where he was filmed walking through the police line.”
That’s not to say that in Pennsylvania or anywhere else, Trump fever has fully erupted. And polls are not the same as an election. But these are signs of hope.
Democracy will not save itself. Abortion rights will not fix themselves. The power of the American majority to defeat Trumpism lies at the ballot box. If the Trumpist candidates lose in the general election, over time Republicans might realize that they have placed a losing bet on extremism.
There’s a lot to do for Americans who pledge to preserve our republic and say “no” to Trump. As former President Obama said in his 2017 farewell address, “It behooves each of us to be…jealous guardians of democracy. Across America, a majority of voters are ready to do just that.
Austin Sarat is a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College and 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