Watching democracy die isn’t like watching a movie, where (at least in a well-constructed movie) the plot points are made clear to us, to make us sit up in our seats at the crucial points and help us follow along. It’s more like driving (in the pre-GPS world) along an unfamiliar road at night in the rain: You see things that appear to be landmarks, but you’re not sure of their significance and you’re always a little unsure that you’re going to arrive at your destination.
So let’s be clear about two things going on this week that are direct attacks on democracy. Jim Jordan’s attempt to interfere with Fani Willis’s prosecution of Donald Trump and Wisconsin Republicans’ threat to impeach recently elected state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz represent blatant efforts to crush law and custom and exert anti-democratic power over duly elected officeholders who happen to be doing things they don’t like.
We start with Jordan, who has repeatedly made clear that all he cares about is power. He recently wrote to Willis demanding that she turn over certain documents relating to her decision to prosecute Trump. His ridiculous letter asserted a federal interest in overseeing local prosecutions. She replied this week with an incendiary letter of her own laying out all the ways in which he’s wrong.
Willis writes that it is “clear that you lack a basic understanding of the law, its practice, and the ethical obligations of attorneys generally and prosecutors specifically.” That may be true. But Jordan is a lawyer. I’d say it’s far more likely that Jordan knows the law and doesn’t care. He’s the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and he has the power to subvert or change the law if he wants to.
Willis enumerates the many reasons why the federal government in all its forms has refrained from interfering in local prosecutions. Again, I would guess that Jordan knows all this. This is the point. He and his staff understand federalism. They just wish to trample it. In this case, that is. If and when defending Donald Trump requires howling about the precious importance of federalism, they’ll do that.
Now, to Wisconsin. The GOP argument there with respect to Protasiewicz is that during her campaign, she accepted around $10 million in donations from the Democratic Party and therefore can’t rule honestly on gerrymandering cases that come before her.
That’s a lot of money, and it surely helped her win—a victory that put liberals in charge of the state’s highest court for the first time in years. But what really helped her win—by double digits—was Republican extremism, especially on abortion rights. And here’s the thing. There is nothing illegal in Wisconsin law about accepting such donations. And judicial candidates of both parties have done so. Not to the tune of $10 million, to be sure, but they’ve taken the money (her Republican opponent took $1.2 million in party money). Wisconsin Republicans have not, of course, complained when conservative justices have heard cases involving their donors.
On what basis can the GOP impeach a judge who hasn’t violated any law and hasn’t done anything wrong? And remember, Republicans aren’t accusing her of having done anything wrong. They’re just saying she might make a ruling that might appear to be corrupt. And the reason they’re saying that is that Wisconsin is arguably the most corruptly gerrymandered state in the country. In last year’s midterms, Democratic Assembly candidates won about 200,000 more votes overall, but the Republicans maintained their two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.
In sum: Wisconsin is functionally not a real democracy in which each vote counts equally. The voters elected a judge who campaigned according to the existing laws and whose presence threatens to make the state a functioning democracy (there’s a lawsuit about gerrymandering that’s moving up toward the high court). The Republican response? Remove her from the bench.
That these two events are happening in the same week allows us to reflect on what has become of so-called conservatism. A conservative is someone who, well, conserves. As liberals see social problems and press for change to address them, conservatives say, Hey, wait a minute; let’s stop and think about the consequences of overreaction here, and about what we might be losing if we make the changes liberals want. I don’t agree with that stance and never have. But I acknowledge that it’s a legitimate way to look at the world, and I even acknowledge that sometimes, the conservative impulse can contribute to a decent, balanced outcome (or could, back in the days when there was actual compromise).
But these radicals don’t want to “conserve” anything, except for white people’s political power. They want to destroy. They aren’t just willing to trample law and custom. They are eager to do so. This must be understood. They seek opportunities to hack away at the pillars and foundations of democracy. They used to try to be sneaky and at least a little bit subtle about it. But since Trump, that’s out the window. In late 2018, it was this same Wisconsin Legislature, you may recall, that used its lame-duck session to move, after the election win of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, to limit the incoming governor’s powers.
We may be driving down an unfamiliar road here. But now we have GPS, and we know the destination. We need to take note of the landmarks along the way. And we—and by “we” in this case, I mean mainly the mainstream press and the swing voters who still think both parties are equally corrupt—need to stop pretending that this is a normal American political party. It’s an authoritarian army of thugs in suits.
This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.