Republicans caught off guard by the left's ferocious backlash

The GOP is an authoritarian, extremist political party that is out of the mainstream of American life

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 7, 2023 9:05AM (EDT)

Protesting students make their way through the state Capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 3, 2023. (JOHN AMIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesting students make their way through the state Capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 3, 2023. (JOHN AMIS/AFP via Getty Images)

For as long as I can remember, Democrats have been on the defensive about enacting their agenda because it was assumed that it would engender a backlash among "the silent majority," as former president Richard Nixon called it, or what modern Republicans call "Real America." Reacting to the counter-culture of the 1960s and the massive social changes it engendered, the left wing of the Democratic Party was always admonished by the centrist and conservative wings not to go too far or too fast. The media even blithely asserted that "America is a conservative country" as if it were an act of God. This article of faith hobbled progress for a very long time and empowered the Reagan Revolution through the Tea Party and Donald Trump's MAGA movement.

Nobody ever seemed to consider that enabling the right wing to become more and more extreme over the course of many years might engender a backlash of its own. It appears as if that time may have finally come — and it's clear the Republican establishment doesn't know what to do about it. The question is whether the Democratic establishment does either.

We started out with former president and current GOP presidential frontrunner being indicted in New York over the payments of hush money to conceal information that might have damaged his chances in the 2016 election. It's a huge story but it's not unanticipated nor is it the last prosecution Donald Trump is likely to face in the coming months. The most interesting aspect of it remains the fact that the Republican establishment is circling the wagons around him once again while Republican voters seem determined to push him to the nomination. This is despite the fact that he will be under indictment on felony charges in at least one case and probably more, proving once again that no amount of norm-busting, corruption or criminal behavior is a deal breaker with his cult. Trump has trained them to believe that it's all an elaborate conspiracy against him.

But this week also showed that something else is afoot. Yes, Trump is a galvanizing force in Democratic politics going all the way back to the massive, global Women's March in 2017. His grotesque behavior motivated millions of people, especially women, to organize and it paid off in every election since then. Donald Trump has been dragging the GOP down for years but they just can't quit him. However, the party's rapid descent into extremism is bigger than Trump and the backlash is continuing to show itself in ways that are shattering the status quo.

The swing state of Wisconsin has been a battleground for years with a polarized electorate that has had power swinging back and forth between the two parties with razor-thin margins. It was assumed that the high-stakes election this week for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would be similarly tight. The future of the outrageous gerrymander that makes Republicans massively over-represented in the state legislature was at issue but, most importantly, abortion rights were front and center. Abortion has been illegal in the state since last June when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and an archaic law banning abortion that had been on the books since 1849 was no longer moot. The hard right legislature and the conservative state Supreme Court wasn't going to fix that.

The election turned on those two intersecting issues. Abortion rights and democracy were on the ballot with the first being denied as a result of the Republicans manipulating the map to un-democratically seize more power than the people voted for. The anti-abortion candidate (a Trumper, by the way) lost by 10 points, a miracle in that polarized electorate. With good organization by the state Democratic Party — which saw a huge uptick in 18-29-year-old voters, a big gender gap and even, surprisingly, inroads among white, non-college-educated voters — abortion rights and democracy advocacy carried the day.

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Meanwhile in Chicago, just as in Los Angeles earlier, the progressive mayoral candidate won despite widespread expectations that the centrist "law and order" candidate would prevail as a result of right-wing fear-mongering about crime. (The head of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police, a Trumper, threatened that 1,000 police officers would walk off the job if Brandon Johnson, the eventual winner, was elected.) The stale "law and order" handwringing didn't work in 2022 and it didn't work this week — and it's yet another sign that the extremism of right-wing rhetoric and policies is turning off voters. Backlash.

The GOP is an authoritarian, extremist political party that is out of the mainstream of American life.

And then there was the grotesque display we witnessed in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday when the Republicans expelled two Black lawmakers, Justin Pierson and Justin Jones, for staging a protest for gun safety legislation on the floor of the House. Here's an illustration of what took place: an odious, condescending comment delivered by a Republican House member who is clearly hard-pressed not to go full Bull Connor and address his colleague as "boy":

Jones said it plainly:

A third member, Rep. Gloria Johnson was also subject to expulsion but they came up short by one vote. Johnson knows exactly why this happened:

After six people, including three little children, were shot down in a Nashville school, citizens protested the state's insanely loose gun laws that allowed the shooter to legally obtain firearms despite a history of mental illness. The anti-democratic Republicans (yes, Tennessee is ridiculously gerrymandered as well) essentially scoffed at their concerns, attacked their colleagues' First Amendment rights and then showed the entire country in living color that they are unreconstructed racists on top of it by instituting the political death penalty against two Black legislators for a minor rules violation.

In this instance, we are seeing the burning issue of gun violence converge with the issue of democracy and systemic racism and while it hasn't yet been fully demonstrated, the fact that the two ousted legislators are also quite young, as are most of the protesters, makes me think we are on the verge of seeing another backlash developing. Look at the age of the protesters:

This dispatch from a local Tennessee journalist suggests that some Republicans sense that too:

The GOP is an authoritarian, extremist political party that is out of the mainstream of American life. As NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted after the events in Nashville on Thursday:

Republicans may think they won today in Tennessee, but their fascism is only further radicalizing and awakening an earthquake of young people, both in the South and across the nation. If you thought youth organizing was strong, just wait for what's coming,

Backlashes go both ways and this one is coming from the left. It's about time. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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