Columns » Gene Lyons

The mob

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To hear some people tell it, America stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice. No less an authority than Donald J. Trump, the nation's leading exponent of racial grievance theory, fears for the safety of the republic.

Marauding bands of women in silly pink hats have the commander in chief spooked. "You don't hand matches to an arsonist," he told his fans at a Kansas rally the other day, "and you don't give power to an angry left-wing mob — and that's what they've become."

Democrats, he means.

Two years ago, Trump supporters who once called themselves the "Tea Party" turned up at polling places toting AR-15s. The candidate urged crowds to punch protestors who showed up at his campaign events. Some took his advice. Now the threat of majority rule has Trumpists up a tree.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed horror at the "mob-like tactics" of sexual assault victims who confronted GOP senators over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination — a pivotal event in which senators representing 44 percent of the American people pushed through a U.S. Supreme Court justice nominated by an unpopular, president who failed to win the popular vote and who is mistrusted by majorities in opinion polls. Nothing quite like that has happened before.

It may also have finalized the evolution of the Supreme Court into a wholly partisan institution — dangerous to the rule of law.

GOP Senate stalwarts Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah) have also resorted to the "mob" trope in recent days. Deep thinkers at the Heritage Foundation are quoting one Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian political scientist who feared "the tyranny of the majority" and viewed monarchy as the ideal form of government.

King Donald the First. How does that grab you? I prefer Donald the Unready.

Either way, the glories of the Electoral College are suddenly all the rage in Republican circles. Originally invented to protect the slave states, it's being repurposed by GOP thinkers, writes Joel Mathis in The Week — less to prevent the majority from trampling minority rights than to rationalize minority rule.

If they were wide receivers instead of senators, you might think these boys were hearing footsteps. Older and whiter than the rest of the country, Republicans either need to broaden their demographic appeal or lose power. Hence the attempt to depict the opposition as illegitimate.

Even if it makes their president sound like a big crybaby.

Hence too their attempts to restrict minority voting rights from sea to shining sea — another timeless GOP stratagem.

But I digress. Having already persuaded much of the Fox News/Republican base of an absurd conspiracy theory in which the FBI conspired against Trump by probing his 2016 campaign's ties to kindly Uncle Vladimir (only to have then-FBI Director James Comey drop the hammer on Hillary), the president and his minions have now discovered a shadowy Chinese threat.

During a radio interview National Security Adviser John Bolton made ominous noises about an alleged Chinese plot against the integrity of U.S. elections. A veteran alarmist, Bolton pronounced himself "very worried about Chinese interference" in U.S. elections and vowed vigilance.

"I think the United States needs to stand up, frankly, to any foreign government that thinks it's going to interfere in our politics," he said. "We are a self-governing people. We will govern ourselves. We don't need international institutions to tell us how to do it. And we particularly don't need foreigners trying to exert undue influence over us."

Noble, if tardy sentiments. My man Charles P. Pierce of Esquire, however, suspects that mischief is afoot. More than campaign rhetoric, he writes, statements like Bolton's may be "part of a national mechanism that is being created to delegitimize a Democratic sweep should it happen next month. It will be Chinese meddling, or sneaky "Illegals." And they will sell it hard to those people most likely to believe it. And the country likely will catch on fire."

I tend to be more sanguine. Two reasons: First, the principle of majority rule is too firmly established in the national mind to be dislodged by Heritage Foundation apologetics.

Second, while there's little doubt that Trump would prove the sorest of losers, I also suspect that his hardcore cultists are more a phenomenon of social media than the three-dimensional world.

In my experience, the angriest curses and threats invariably come via email — where anonymity can be assured. To most GOP voters, the Trump administration is basically a reality TV show. Otherwise, they'd be forced to take their hero's endless lies seriously, which they do not. His endless rallies are like pro-wrestling shows: exciting, but not quite real.

Should Democrats prevail as polls suggest in November, the aging GOP minority won't be happy, but the violence will be largely rhetorical.

Besides, Salon contributor Digby's got it right: "The 'angry left-wing mob' isn't running wild in the streets — it's running for office. That's really what's got these Republicans shaking in their boots."

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