Knives Out For America First

What the mid-terms tell us about the state of the Right and the Republican Party

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
— John Adams

Last Tuesday millions of Americans went to the polls to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. With President Biden’s approval rating underwater and inflation at a 40-year high, a decisive Republican victory seemed all but certain. Except for a few faint voices in the wilderness, political commentators of every stripe predicted an impending “red wave” that would serve as a referendum on the sitting president and his party and quite possibly end democracy as we know it.

But less than 24 hours after the polls closed, a series of defeats would dash Republican hopes for a red wave and leave more than a few candidates fighting for their lives against a powerful tide of mail-in ballots. As fortunes turned and the horror set in, a once unified coalition found itself rapidly disintegrating. Old grudges and festering resentment among politicos, party loyalists, and the rank-and-file converged with a media-driven narrative blaming Donald Trump for the midterm debacle. And while Republican Party leaders also faced public censure, it was ‘knives out’ for America First from all sides in what now looks like an ambush.

We are at a perilous crossroads. Even as the counting drags on in close races across Arizona, California, and Washington, a sharp intraparty divide is growing between supporters of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and those of former President Donald Trump — a divide that not only threatens to permanently fracture the political opposition and divide the electorate but sabotage what democratic mechanisms remain. Moreover, just as in 2020, there are few obstacles preventing the establishment from reinforcing the same methods used to “fortify” past elections. In this way, decisions made over the next few days and weeks will dramatically shape the future of the opposition party, and quite possibly the nation itself. With so much at stake, therefore, it makes little sense to force a confrontation between the above camps now. Failing here could have disastrous consequences, and nothing would be more catastrophic than alienating the rank-and-file and losing their support — the lifeblood of America First.

The temptation now is to retreat from the wilderness and return to civilization. The lackluster midterms and ensuing intraparty knife fight have inspired old turncoats, exiles, and opportunists to rejoin the fold in hopes of wielding influence once more. This faction is largely responsible for the ongoing debate over party messaging and “candidate quality” — a laughable position given our current president and successful midterm candidates like John Fetterman. Furthermore, Republican leaders and gold-standard political consultants accountable for the party’s electoral strategy and fundraising are eager to identify scapegoats and eschew responsibility. Buoyed by the corporate press and a sympathetic Washington establishment, these individuals may have Beltway leverage and influence with donors and political insiders, but they are fundamentally opposed to the America First agenda and will deepen divisions by seeking to jettison the party’s populist element. Most importantly, they will not seek to preserve those democratic mechanisms still available to the opposition.

While the divide between our nation’s elites and the political opposition’s rank-and-file is riven with many fault lines, “free and fair” elections are now the epicenter of the conflict; defeat here will mean defeat everywhere. For decades — and especially in recent years — Americans have experienced a profound loss of liberty. While their common culture continues to lag behind our elites’ aggressive consolidation of economic and political power, everyday Americans feel this loss of freedom acutely and continue to cling to the stated rights and privileges afforded them by the old order. At the heart of these expectations is consent — that the state’s power and authority are derived from the consent of the governed. Arguably, this is also the essence of America First: a people’s simple desire for greater sovereignty in the presence of sweeping economic changes and invasive social tinkering by a state that neither respects nor consults them. Your average American does not accept that We the People is merely rhetorical or that the old order’s system of representative government is a ceremonial farce. Even as he obeys the infinite diktats of faceless bureaucrats, he believes the source of their power fundamentally resides with him; he has moral authority and can exercise some influence over his political system.

But that is beginning to change. The abuses inflicted on everyday Americans during the Global War on Terror, the financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 riots, and the countless outrages in between, have left our social fabric in tatters and exposed the state’s utter disregard for popular consent. For many, these injustices were reluctantly endured with an expectation that democratic mechanisms could provide some relief or a change of direction. But the 2020 election changed that for millions of Americans. The Democratic National Committee’s lawfare campaign leading up to the election and its cynical use of pandemic restrictions to establish election centers and expand ballot harvesting and mail-in voting greatly undermined confidence in US elections. And later revelations about the open collusion between the US Intelligence Community, the Democratic National Committee, universities, think tanks, and NGOs to censor speech and shape public opinion further eroded that trust. With these methods virtually unchanged for the 2022 midterms, millions of everyday Americans have lost faith in one of the last vestiges of the old order — the democratic mechanism by which they can exercise their consent.

To attack this problem, the Republican Party should begin where they have a natural advantage and the constitutional authority to shape the “times, places and manner” of their elections. Prior to the midterms, Republicans controlled more than half of all the nation’s state legislatures, with majorities in 62 chambers. And while Democrats managed to flip the Michigan state Senate and hold onto every state legislative chamber controlled prior, Republicans emerged from the midterms with 23 state Republican trifectas (party controls executive branch and both legislative branches) and 23 Republican triplexes (party controls governor, attorney general, and secretary of state), with 21 states with both a Republican trifecta and triplex. It is here that Republicans have to work with their rank-and-file to seize their elections and create a bulwark against Democrat election lawfare. Even where election irregularities are not reported, the 2020 and 2022 elections have shown the importance of preempting efforts by the party in power to capture state and local elections and place them under a protective layer of managerial administrativa — far outside local control. This will require Republicans to wisely divert their focus from highly visible national offices and races where the media attention is strongest and fundraising most lucrative, and play to their advantages while empowering the rank-and-file, which will have a strategic and tactical benefit of both locking down the process and galvanizing crucial local support. This year’s midterms clearly showed that the vulnerabilities identified in 2020 have not been adequately addressed in most parts of the country. In our discussions of the Florida model, this aspect of winning “free and fair” elections must feature front and center.

If the Republican Party refuses to take up this critical issue now, not only will it face greater electoral defeats in the future and see the America First movement collapse, but it will lose its most valuable asset: the consent of an impassioned electorate. “Quality candidates” and better messaging will not suffice. The political opposition must retain the confidence and above all the consent of its rank-and-file. Tedious debates trying to proving election fraud tend to obscure the obvious: that most regular Americans expect their elections to be as timely and transparent as any other public or private transaction. That future elections ought to meet these commonsense expectations is a winning message that will resonate with voters, energize local and state lawmakers, and ultimately restore the trust and confidence of the party rank-and-file upon whom America First depends. Only then can the opposition hope to dismantle this nascent one-party state and present a viable alternative.

Now is not the time for a schism or a retreat from the wilderness. In spite of its poor leadership and countless failures over the years, the Republican Party has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redeem itself and for once fight to restore the liberty and consent of everyday Americans. At the end of the day, this country’s political opposition is far more than ideology, economics, or electoral politics. It’s a powerful social movement. And while it ferments far outside the elite sightline, this movement has all the right ingredients to dominate. It’s high time the Republican Party recognized that.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and veteran.

Cover photo by Benjamin Braddock

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