There may be no sharper observer of American politics than the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole. He’s taken a particular interest in Joe Biden, perhaps due to their shared passion for Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Although I think O’Toole has whiffed occasionally (exaggerating Biden’s identification with John and Robert Kennedy, for instance), in his most recent New York Review of Books piece he summarizes the present moment better than any American I’ve read — and suggests a way Biden can quell the authoritarian hordes (I’m still on the lookout for that kind of thing.)
According to O’Toole, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell made a mistake. After acknowledging Trump’s culpability for the January 6 Capitol riot, and knowing Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package polled well with Republicans, McConnell could have said to Biden, “You want bipartisanship? Okay. I’ll get Trump convicted at the impeachment trial and help pass the stimulus package if you drop the Green New Deal and infrastructure spending.” That would have put Biden in a bind. Had he said no, the Republicans could have legitimately claimed he lied about governing as a uniter. Had he said yes, progressive Democrats could have legitimately claimed he betrayed his own voters.
Instead, McConnell voluntarily slunk into Obama-era obstruction, “not loyal enough to avoid Trump’s rage at his betrayal, not honorable enough to act on his own convictions.” And where he’s gone one, Congressional Republicans have gone all, sparing Biden the political cost of bipartisanship — while giving him an opportunity to attack their supposed strength: security.
Right-wing authoritarians proclaim liberty their highest value, a self-flattery Erich Fromm demolished decades ago with his landmark work Escape from Freedom. You can’t blame them, though, because who wants to admit they’re motivated by fear, anger, and resentment, and crave security above all else? As O’Toole notes, security has been a Republican selling point since the end of World War II: a strong military against threats from abroad; unhindered law enforcement against threats at home; religious and cultural conservatism to stave off inner doubt; an economic safety net to ward off poverty; and federal regulation to reduce market quackery and environmental damage.
I can hear you saying, “Wait, those last two points don’t sound like the Republicans I know!” But Nixon did more for the social safety net and the environment than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. The Republicans didn’t renounce those types of security until Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan also doubled down on the first three types of security (strong military, strong law enforcement, religious and cultural conservatism). But the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan have even Trump repudiating the traditional Republican approach to national security, and the cost of incarceration, not to mention last summer’s police excesses, have many Republicans, especially those eager to prove their non-racist bona fides, questioning their approach to domestic security. Meanwhile, Trump’s quack cures for Covid-19 and golf outings while millions teetered on bankruptcy showed that Republicans can’t even be trusted to care for the health and wealth of their own base.
All the Republicans have left is religious and cultural security, which is why owning the libs has become more important to them than anything else. (That said, O’Toole advocates a sixth form of security, voting rights, that Republicans are eager to contest.)
O’Toole believes Joe Biden has an opportunity to neutralize authoritarianism by casting the Democrats as the party of security. That will require re-definitions authoritarians may not accept — for example, characterizing climate change as a national security threat and equal respect for people of color as better fulfillment of law enforcement’s mission to serve and protect. But if Biden frames his presidency as a quest to make Americans secure again, he could bring over enough authoritarians (even as they grumble about the nanny state in their Facebook posts) to keep control of Congress in 2022.
O’Toole’s advice? Play the fear card yourself, Joe. “Democrats like to think that they win when they shift public discourse from darkness to light. History suggests, though, that much more often, they win when every sentence they speak has an implicit ‘or else’ at the end.” After half a million dead from the pandemic, the January 6 riot, and the presidency responsible for both, we have a vivid sense of what that “or else” means.