As the conventional wisdom about the 2018 midterms has re-congealed into the correct view that Republicans lost in a rout, the party’s outgoing leaders have processed their defeat with maximal contempt for the majority of voters.
Paul Ryan is bringing his speakership to a close by casting doubt on the election returns in California, where all vulnerable Republicans lost, calling the results “bizarre” and the vote-counting “loosey goose.”
The Republican legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan are endeavoring, in a fundamentally illegitimate way, to strip their states’ executive offices of power, before Democratic governors, lieutenant governors, and attorneys general take office next year.
And in the House, the Republican-led Judiciary Committee’s last significant act will be to harass former FBI Director James Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch in closed session about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey, at least, negotiated a compromise with chairman Bob Goodlatte, that will allow him to discuss the interview publicly and require the committee to release a transcript of the interview within 24 hours. Yet even with the smoke of election night cleared, these Republicans remain committed to protecting the current administration from legislative oversight, and using their official powers to feed President Trump’s supporters misinformation, propaganda, and distraction, so that they take notice of something other than his crimes.
It’s tempting to treat the Republicans’ response to their midterm drubbing as an open question, but they have already answered the question, and provided clear and frustrating clues about how they will grapple with a Democratic majority intent on conducting proper oversight.
The new strategy, same as the old strategy, is an unambiguous political failure, but it remains a challenge for mainstream media outlets, which for two years allowed Trump and GOP committee chairmen to lead their reporters around by the nose. Republicans are counting on that same dynamic—driven by a mixture of gullibility and cynical economics—to repeat itself in the new year.
Trump is not a bystander to these abuses of power, but an active participant and in many ways the ringleader.
The morning after Election Day, having lost the House, Trump tweeted defiantly that, “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level.”
Last week, he promised to abuse his own powers to declassify “devastating” documents if Democrats subject him to oversight.
Trump threatens to declassify 'devastating' documents if House Democrats launch probes https://t.co/52isY75Zjv
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) December 1, 2018
This highlights the inherent danger of buying your own bullshit when you’re both powerful and corrupt. Republicans in Congress spent the better part of two years trying to shake classified and sensitive information about both the Clinton-email and Trump-Russia investigations loose from the Justice Department, to actively mislead as many people as possible about why Trump confederates keep getting charged with federal crimes. Republicans are desperate for their voters to believe that Trump is the victim of a hidden political conspiracy organized inside the Justice Department, because the alternative is a broad but accurate consensus that the Trump campaign engaged in a genuine criminal conspiracy to cheat in the 2016 election, and that congressional Republicans are complicit in those crimes.
In the end, none of that information was even slightly “devastating” to Democrats. Its real purpose was to flood the zone with ephemera, and potentially harm national security, to obscure the fruits of news reporting and the Russia investigation, and provide Trump with some illusory sense of revenge.
Come January, Republicans won’t control the House anymore, but their ability to produce reams of bullshit will be barely diminished.
There has likely never been a greater mismatch between a president’s corruption and the Congress’s indifference than we’ve witnessed the past two years. In many instances, Republicans have enabled and partaken in the corruption. It is as if Republicans controlled Congress during Watergate, and worked hand in glove with a vast propaganda apparatus not to investigate President Nixon but to smear Archibald Cox.
The GOP response to the puncturing of that impunity will be to characterize any level of oversight beyond what Republicans provided in 2017 and 2018 as “presidential harassment,” and seek to neutralize it with genuine harassment of current and former civil servants. The coming House Judiciary Committee showdown with Comey is best understood less as a parting shot than as the teeing up of diversionary nonsense for Senate Republicans. For instance, the terms of Comey’s agreement with Republicans seem not to preclude Republicans from redacting the transcript, declaring the redacted information classified, and saying it contains evidence that Comey stonewalled or misled the committee. Senate Republicans would then be able to begin the new Congress with yet more counter investigations, designed to muddy the waters whenever the House’s genuine oversight embarrasses the president. We should expect two more years of Nunes memos, because that is what Republicans have promised.
And why wouldn’t they? The Nunes memo is rightly mocked in hindsight, and the House Intelligence Committee’s “report” on Russian election interference laundered illegal false statements, but these efforts also helped social media trolls spread disinformation, and, at least for a time, benefited from credulous coverage in the mainstream press. If the goal is not to win elections, but to protect Trump from the kind of collapse in public opinion that would make him vulnerable to impeachment, they already have proof of concept that the strategy is effective.
The disempowering of newly elected Democrats, and the sowing doubt about the legitimacy of elections Republicans lost aren’t distinct cases of Republicans thumbing their noses at voters, but part of the same overarching plan. The notions that the president should be immune from accountability, and that harassing his political opponents is a proper means of protecting him politically, are close cousins to the idea that he can not be defeated legitimately. Republicans will hobble through 2020 as best they can with whataboutist propaganda and voter suppression, and if those tactics aren’t enough to deliver Trump re-election, they can still claim the results of the election are invalid.