Trickle down Trumpism: How Pennsylvania's Republican Party radicalized against democracy
It was very, very chilly in my corner of Pennsylvania the morning of last fall's election. I live in Northampton County, a swing county in this very large swing state, a county so reflective of America as a whole that it has picked the president on all but three occasions since 1920. It was one of 206 counties out of America's 3,141 that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping to Donald Trump in 2016. In 2020 it would once again pick the winner by backing Joe Biden — but I didn't know that at the time, nor did Trump and many of his supporters, who would go on to act like sore losers on a historic scale — and betray our state's core values in the process.
At least one Trump supporter seemed to be trying to intimidate the waiting voters at my precinct, passing our polling place multiple times in a large truck covered in pro-Trump paraphernalia and blaring music. As it turned out, my precinct went to Biden by a very narrow margin, but more than two-thirds of those who voted in-person supported Trump. In a way, that moment encapsulates Pennsylvania politics. People in this county, part of an eastern region of the commonwealth known as the Lehigh Valley, are generally kind and laid-back folk regardless of their political views. As with the rest of America, however, there is a poisonous undercurrent emanating from the right-wing that is both tragic and dangerous. Sometimes it merely manifests itself in obnoxious boosterism, such as the macho posturing displayed by the driver of that pro-Trump truck. On other occasions, it becomes literally dangerous to democracy, as Americans saw earlier this month when a mob of Trump supporters (some of them Pennsylvanians) was egged on by the president to swarm the Capitol so they could overturn Biden's victory.
Unfortunately, that toxicity has trickled up, transforming the Pennsylvania Republican Party in the process.
As a recent Politico article noted, a state GOP that only a few decades ago was renowned for producing independent-minded moderates like Sens. Arlen Specter and John Heinz and Govs. William Scranton and Dick Thornburgh has now bent the knee to Trumpism. All but one of the House Republicans in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation voted to invalidate the commonwealth's electoral votes, which were won by Biden. They did this even though Trump lost all of the voter fraud-related cases he brought to court (many presided over by Republican judges), lost all but one of the overall legal cases he pursued and was told by his own attorney general, William Barr, that the Department of Justice's investigation into the election had found Biden's win to be legitimate. They did this even though Trump had incited a riot on the Capitol — making him the first of America's 11 incumbent presidents to lose a bid for another term and respond by attempting to stay in power through force — and despite the fact that Trump has undermined his own credibility for years by communicating as far back as 2016 that he only accepts an election's results if he is declared the winner. They did this even though Trump has not provided a shred of evidence of widespread fraud, much less on a scale necessary to give him a victory, and even though Trump was caught on tape threatening Georgia election officials to "find" the votes he needed to win there.
The Pennsylvania GOP's cravenness did not begin with their electoral certification vote. In the preceding weeks, Republican state legislative leaders urged Congress to object to Biden's victory in the Electoral College or somehow "delay" the certification of his votes. One Pennsylvania GOP congressman, Scott Perry, has even aroused controversy for working behind the scenes to help Trump overturn Biden's victory in Georgia.
"I'm shocked at Scott," Rich Grucela, a former Democratic state representative who served from 1999 to 2011 — and thus worked with Perry after the latter joined that body in 2007 — told Salon, recalling that he remembers when Perry first came into the General Assembly. "The Scott Perry that I'm listening to and seeing today is not the Scott Perry that I knew. I don't understand what happened to Scott, but he's a totally different person from what I see on the news or what I've read in articles." Although Perry was always conservative, Grucela noted that "he wasn't — I hate to use the term 'off the wall,' but he wasn't..." He trailed off, sounding deeply disappointed. "I can't believe he would be one of these guys that is enamored with Trump. I mean, he is a very intelligent guy."
Grucela, whose daughter was one of my high school classmates, recalled fondly how he used to have close friendships with Republicans as well as Democrats, citing as an example that one of the Republican governors with whom he worked, Mark Schweiker, was "one of the nicest governors I served under." He told Salon that for roughly the first eight years that he served, the ethos in the state's Republican Party was very "collegial," creating an environment in which people could work with each other and keep partisan differences at the office.
"Several Republican friends of mine, I might debate on the House and then afterwards in the evening, have dinner with them and talk about our families," Grucela told Salon. He noticed a change in Pennsylvania Republican behavior when the Tea Party rose up during Obama's presidency and began scaring more moderate Republicans with the threat of primary challenges, leading to increasingly intransigent ideological behavior and a reduced willingness to work with Democrats. Grucela drew a direct line between that development and the eventual rise of Trumpism.
Another local Pennsylvania politician, Northampton County Democratic Committee chair Matthew Munsey, told Salon that he noticed people are starting to lose a sense of shared reality since the rise of Trump. (I briefly served as a committee person under Munsey from 2014, two years before Trump's election, until I was hired as a staff writer at Salon.)
"In general, we've really lost a sense of a common belief system," Munsey explained when contrasting what he has witnessed prior to and after Trump's rise to power. "It's almost like people are living in an alternate reality, specifically with Trump supporters." He said that this phenomenon has not only driven Republicans farther to the right, but also caused some to leave the party.
"We've seen some Republicans or former Republicans who have said, 'I'm voting for the Democrats or I'm switching my party and I'm voting for Democrats from now on,'" Munsey told Salon. "It seems like they have not bought into that alternate reality and that's probably the big overall shift and difference in things. It's almost impossible to have coherent discussions with people who don't even agree with the same basis of reality."
I encountered this problem when I spoke with Dean Browning, a former Republican congressional candidate and former commissioner in Lehigh County (which is adjacent to Northampton County) whose Twitter account has in the past been the focus of controversy. More than once during our conversation, Browning admitted that there was no evidence that Biden had won Pennsylvania through fraud but insisted that it was still valid for Trump supporters to question the election's legitimacy because Biden supporters could not prove that ballot harvesting had not occurred, an argument that I repeatedly pointed out is a logical fallacy.
"They're questioning the legitimacy of this election because of mail-in ballots," Browning told Salon, repeating the debunked claim that mail-in balloting is unusually susceptible to fraud. (Trump himself praised mail-in balloting in 2000 and cast an absentee ballot in 2020.) "I will absolutely concede that you're correct that there has there has been no widespread proof of fraud and the reason there is not, or the difficulty with that, I will freely admit it is all but impossible to prove fraud with a mail-in voting system." He ultimately acknowledged that Biden "is the president of the United States. I fully accept that he was sworn in, and that he is the president of the United States. He's my president. He is the president for every American citizen."
The tragic irony is that, if the Pennsylvania Trumpists were willing to look at the state's history, they would see that it helped create modern democracy itself.
When William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, he designed its government to be one of the modern world's first authentic democracies, particularly emphasizing the importance of religious freedom. He used his Quaker beliefs to create a peaceful colony that stressed individual dignity. Forty years later, a Bostonian named Benjamin Franklin fled to Pennsylvania and declared the colony to be his home after falling in love with its intellectually, socially and culturally liberating atmosphere. Franklin would later go on to become one of America's most important founding fathers as well as a prolific writer, inventor, activist, scientist and advocate of Enlightenment ideals. Thanks to the legacies of people like Penn and Franklin, historian Henry Adams would later write that "had New England, New York and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania."
Subsequent centuries would prove him correct, as both the Democratic and Republican parties produced Pennsylvanians who distinguished themselves by being on the right side of history. Among the Republicans, you had Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most eloquent and passionate abolitionists to serve both prior to and after the Civil War, and Gov. Gifford Pinchot, an influential early 20th-century conservationist and close friend to one of America's most iconic presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. On the Democratic side, you had Rep. David Wilmot, who famously proposed banning slavery from the western lands America conquered during the Mexican-American War and ultimately became a Republican (and a senator) as a result of his opposition to slavery. More than a century later one Democratic governor, Milton Shapp, implemented the nation's most comprehensive Sunshine Law up to that time in response to the Watergate scandal, and later became the first practicing Jew to run for president in a major party. Roughly a decade later another Democratic governor, Bob Casey, created the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which covered uninsured children throughout the state and would later be used as a model for a federal program.
That isn't to say there isn't also a less savory side to Pennsylvania's history. The noble spirit embodied by the likes of Penn, Franklin, Stevens, Pinchot, Wilmot, Shapp and Casey stands in stark contrast to that of James Buchanan, who until Biden's victory last year was the only Pennsylvanian ever elected to the presidency. Like Trump, Buchanan's presidency was dogged by scandals (he narrowly avoided impeachment) and notoriously put itself on the wrong side of history when it came to matters of racial justice, with Buchanan adamantly supporting slavery. (Trump, let us not forget, was elected in no small part due to racist dog-whistling against African Americans and Mexican immigrants, and as the president refused to denounce white supremacists, pushed for bigoted immigration policies and opposed the Black Lives Matter movement.)
Just as notably, Buchanan reacted to his disappointment with an election outcome in a manner not dissimilar from Trump. Although Buchanan was not on the ballot as his first and only term came to a close in 1860, he had made it clear to voters that he did not want to be replaced by the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, because of Lincoln's opposition to expanding slavery. When Lincoln won anyway, Buchanan refused to work with the incoming Lincoln administration and even tacitly encouraged the South to start the Civil War, saying in his State of the Union message that "the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union." Although Buchanan never threatened to forcibly keep Lincoln from taking office, which is what Trump did to Biden, his willingness to support a Civil War because he didn't like it that Lincoln won is analogous to Trump trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election because he didn't like it that he lost.
So how does one address these issues? How does one reach out to a party that has become less about ideology than about a cult-like worship of a single politician?
First, it is important to remember that the people supporting Trump — while they are extremely wrong for doing so — are not monsters. They are human beings. I was reminded of this not only from my experience on Election Day but from the words of Pennsylvania State Sen. John Yudichak, who was initially elected as a Democrat but switched to being an Independent in 2019 and began caucusing with Republicans. Despite his decision to leave the Democratic Party, however, Yudichak endorsed Biden in the 2020 election — and told Salon that his GOP colleagues' response to this was "has been as professional and as generous as I could have ever hoped for."
In a similar vein Munsey also observed that in his experiences trying to reach Trump supporters, he has found it's often more effective to find common ground on an emotional level than to overwhelm them with facts.
"We need to recognize that facts very rarely persuade people, because if they were open to hearing the facts, they already would have heard them," Munsey explained. "So me telling the facts that are already out there in what I would describe as unbiased sources is not going to change anybody's mind. We have to connect on a personal level. We have to talk about our shared values because as humans, we have shared values. We care about our families. We want to make sure that our families and the people that we love are taken care of."
He added that it is also helpful to respectfully ask questions that "allow other people to examine whether the things they say they value match with what they are supporting politically, and whether the things they're supporting politically are actually supporting the things that they value." Munsey pointed out that the key here is to not try to directly persuade people but "by asking the questions and letting them realize in the answers."
These may not seem like the most promising options, but they are the best ones we have — and they are in keeping with the spirit of Pennsylvania.
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