The right has been working toward this moment for half a century, since well before Nixon.
They got here through meticulous planning and superhuman patience. They bought hundreds of media outlets, so they could indoctrinate their followers. They targeted state legislatures when no one was paying attention, and won more than half of them. They took over local school boards all over the country, so they could indoctrinate the next generation.
In recent years, they’ve demonized Democrats, first as socialists, now as pedophiles. They’ve packed the judiciary with ideologues. They've stolen the Supreme Court. They’ve gerrymandered their way to what looks, a lot, like minority rule.
And now they’ve become complicit in the so-called Big Lie, their Trump-addled pretext for sabotaging the election system. They’ve gone all in on suppressing the electorate, on “frauditing” votes, on gumming up the electoral works wherever they can.
They have, in short, put in place most of the elements of authoritarian rule. A fascist takeover of the country has never looked more feasible.
So why does it all look so half-assed? Why is the Republican party coming across as so chaotic, so feckless? Why do they look like this isn’t what they had in mind?
Yes, they’ve lost the executive branch and both houses of Congress. But even so, they’re accustomed to playing the long game, and I’m sure they see this as a mere speed bump — something they can reverse even as early as 2022. They’re hard at work stealing the next election, and they might just do it. But then what?
The Republican party has, with shocking speed, devolved into two mutually hostile factions — let’s call them the “hacks” and the “crazies” — and it’s wreaking no end of havoc.
The hacks are the “establishment” Republicans. Their figurehead is Mitch McConnell, and thanks to the filibuster they still hold tenuous sway in Congress.
The crazies are the fabled Trump base, people with more guns than brains. They listen only to Trump, which is tricky because Trump isn’t saying much these days.
McConnell and the hacks seem lost. Fascism is advancing all around them, but they’re reluctant to embrace it. They don’t seem to have thought through the consequences of getting what they wished for. They’re the dog that caught the car.
I don’t think they ever meant to bring down the system, which has worked just fine, to be sure, both for themselves and their billionaire donors. While they’ve been happy to tamper with the voting process — to put as many thumbs on as many scales as possible — they’ve remained nonetheless invested in that process. The plan wasn’t to lose it, just exploit it.
While they seem hesitant to dismantle too many democratic institutions — lest they get swallowed up themselves — they're being rattled by the crazies. When a mob calls for Mike Pence to be hanged, that has to make them wonder what sort of monster they’ve created.
This isn’t what their brand of fascism was supposed to look like. It was supposed to be more subtle, more subversive, more quietly biased toward rich white men getting richer, and toward keeping the insufficiently moneyed classes safely outside the gates.
Undermining the system was supposed to be more understated, and they were happy to bide their time, even if it meant putting their goals on hold. But now those goals are being rubbed in their faces by the crazies. They’re being forced to live with, depend on, and suck up to an armed, ornery mob they don’t understand and can’t control. They’re afraid — and for good reason — of being thrown off the stage by people who prefer to do their subversion out in the open.
The crazies don’t deny their racism, they revel in it. They flaunt their misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism, and their hostility to the rule of law. They don’t care what the McConnell hacks think about anything, and they especially don’t care about tax cuts for billionaires or tax breaks for corporations.
What they do seem to care about is a leader — a fuhrer — someone they can follow into the bowels of hell. Someone they can give their lives for, or at least talk about giving their lives for. They’re more motivated than the hacks, but they’re counting on Trump to provide direction. Which is both ironic and pathetic.
Trump is simultaneously the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to the Republican party. On one hand, he has, through sheer grift and chutzpah, brought their wildest dreams within reach. On the other hand, he has dragged them down— hacks and crazies alike — to depths of depravity they never knew themselves capable of.
Trump showed Republicans what they’ve been doing wrong all this time. They were pretending to give a shit.
Trump taught them to embrace their basest instincts and their worst impulses. He taught them that it was okay to hate. That honesty, competence, and compassion are for chumps. That there’s no problem that relentless lying can’t solve.
But the hacks apparently don’t have the stomach for that. Not that lying bothers them — they remain prodigious gaslighters — but their lies seem toothless and pathetic next to the Trumpish whoppers now dominating the discourse.
Meanwhile, the crazies are acting like they have their marching orders. With the Big Lie as the big pretext, red state legislatures are embarked on a takedown of our entire election system. This is not something the hacks are comfortable with, especially if it means getting primaried from their right.
So the hacks are being backed into a half-assed fascism by the crazies, and both sides are making it up as they go along. It would be bad comedy if it weren’t so toxic.
Which is not to make light of it. Even half-assed fascism is still fascism. The danger to American democracy has never been more acute, and it’s not clear how much more battering the system can take.
But they are no more assured of winning than Democrats are of thwarting them. Their ambivalence could work in our favor.
Do they really want to tear it all down? Are they really ready for what that might mean? Do they really think of themselves as fascists? Is democracy just something they pay lip-service to?
These are questions the hacks don’t want to answer and the crazies don’t want to question. So for now, the crazies will escalate the craziness, while the hacks will use the power they still have to do what they do best: obstruct.
The problem is that they now have to obstruct on two fronts. Democrats on the left, crazies on the right.