As the morgues and ICUs in Idaho overflow with COVID patients, Republican Governor Brad Little said he was “exploring legal action to protect the rights of business owners and their employees" from “President Joe Biden’s plan to fine private employers with 100 or more employees that do not mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or routine testing.”
That’s an insane stance rooted in his desire not to give his challenger, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, any cause to attack him as she guns for his job.
Dying people be damned, as Republicans turn against each other in contests up and down the ballot and across the country to see who can get farthest to the right to claim the Trumpian mantle.
The Idaho governor has reason to be on guard. McGeachin pulled a power play when he was out of the state briefly in May, using her temporary status as acting governor to enact a mandate against mask mandates. Little overturned it as soon as he got back—not that he’s a big fan of mask mandates, but he was leaving it up to individual localities and that didn’t go far enough for the Trump base, so now he’ll be punishing companies for trying to keep their employees safe in a pandemic.
“She does seem to be channeling Trump here and angling for Trump’s endorsement,” says Jessica Taylor, who follows governors’ races for The Cook Political Report.
That dynamic is hardly confined to Idaho. In another red state, Alabama, where COVID cases have overwhelmed the health system, Governor Kay Ivey blamed the unvaccinated for the surge, a rare moment of truth-telling that has gotten her three primary challengers, with two more mulling the race.
Even in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott isn’t facing a super-serious challenge, says Taylor, he’s not taking any chances, ordering a recount at Trump’s request of four vote-rich counties that Trump won in 2020, adding to the craziness. At his rally in Georgia on Saturday, Trump bizarrely claimed that the months-long audit of the Arizona election found that he had won even though Cyber Ninjas, the company selected by the GOP that conducted the audit, found Biden had won—and by more votes than the original count.
The Republican primaries are shaping up like the Hunger Games, dystopian battles among the Trumpian faithful. “What you’re seeing are incredible races to the bottom as they one up each other to be the craziest and the Trumpiest in whatever context presents itself,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. The fights and the lies can be over mask mandates, or vaccines, or how we teach children about slavery, with all of them tying into the Big Lie that Trump somehow won the election and was cheated out of his supposedly rightful victory.
Tomorrow the lies could be about Afghanistan refugees or what’s happening on the southern border or calls to defund the police, “the things that generate heat,” says Bennett, “and these politicians are fanning the flames as aggressively as possible.”
That’s politics, you say, but this is different, says Robert Kagan, a neo-conservative foreign policy scholar whose essay in the Washington Post this weekend laid out loud and clear what many across the political spectrum have worried about for some time, namely the fascist tendencies of Trump and his followers as they put in place policies that could allow Republican legislatures to overturn elections when they don’t like the results. Kagan argues that we have never seen a U.S. political movement tied so passionately to one man and his lies as it is to Trump.
The term fascist is associated with murderous genocide, and appropriately so because of its dark history. What we’re seeing on the populist right is rhetoric that leans into fascism and fuels primary challenges to see who can be the purest, the harshest, and the most extreme voice on the Trumpian right to win the Dear Leader’s endorsement.
Another early test of whether this Trumpian, dystopian approach will work is Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe, once considered a shoo-in, is in a tight race with Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political neophyte who over the weekend refused to say whether he would have voted to confirm the 2020 election if he were a member of Congress. He’s running on “election integrity,” code for the Big Lie, and of course he’s skeptical of mask mandates even for nurses who treat immuno-compromised cancer patients.
“The environment overall for Democrats is bad right now,” says Jessica Taylor with Cook Political, “and a lot hinges on what Congress is able to do” on infrastructure and the debt limit and the Biden agenda on transformational change now that the Democrats have unified power. “The fundamentals still favor McAuliffe,” she says, but it’s put-up or shut-up time for Democrats and the party’s disunity could cost him dearly if it’s not resolved.
Before the 2020 election, says Matt Bennett, you could argue that the Republicans were simply trying to keep people from voting who weren’t their voters, odious behavior in a democracy but within bounds. “Since the election, it’s become super-clear that if they don’t like the outcome, they’ll change it.” Trump allies are pushing laws in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that would allow Republican legislatures to overturn the vote if it doesn’t go their way. “When we’re talking about abrogating or nullifying people’s votes, that is the end of the American experiment,” says Bennett, who is not otherwise an alarmist. “Our democracy, at least for now, will be over.”
What’s happening in Idaho won’t change the national picture or power dynamics, but people will die unnecessarily because politicians who see a path to power are playing games with their lives. In Virginia, where early voting is underway for the gubernatorial election on Nov. 3, McAuliffe’s biggest enemy is lack of enthusiasm, but how can that be given all that’s at stake?
“When democracies die, they no longer die in a coup, or with tanks rolling in,” says Bennett. “They die because people give over power or they aren’t paying attention.”
Or they fade away when politicians act solely to preserve and extend their power, as Idaho’s governor and lieutenant governor are doing in a political slugfest that treats a population suffering from COVID as collateral damage in an undeclared and unnecessary war.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Little had said he would fine businesses with over 100 employees if they enacted a mask mandate.