Rick Perlstein

The Republican Plan for a One-Party State

In September 2015, two months after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, I asked in these pages if he could accurately be described as a fascist. I decided against the designation. The true fascist states, I concluded—Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile—“suffered weakness in their institutions that are just about unimaginable in the United States. For instance, it is hard to imagine a President Trump turning America into a one-party state.”

I was looking in the wrong place. Donald Trump’s insults to democracy compound daily. But he’s far too incompetent to accomplish the big prize—a single-party state, I mean. The Republican Party that elevated and abetted him, however: They’re on that path with a vengeance.

David Daley, the former editor of Salon, nails part of the case with excruciating clarity in a book released last year, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, now out in paperback with an epilogue for the era of Trump. In 2008, a Republican operative named Chris Jankowski had an idea. Others, including Republicans, in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential victory, concluded demography might soon afford Democrats a realignment to rival Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Jankowski instead saw an Icarus flying too close to the sun. The important election, he realized, would come two years later, for seats in state legislatures across the United States. He began making a presentation to corporate and conservative donors: Fund my new “Republican State Leadership Committee” (a title he had intentionally chosen to be nondescript, as befitted a stealth guerilla campaign), and I will give you the world.

He called his plan “Project REDMAP.” It would work like this. Through assiduous research, his group would pinpoint a handful of vulnerable Democratic seats in states where control of state legislatures was close—Pennsylvania, for example, where Democrats controlled the lower chamber by a single vote—identifying the tipping points that could flip those bodies for the Republicans. They would then control the drawing of U.S. congressional maps after the 2010 census. At the time there were an estimated 25 true “swing” congressional districts. By deploying state-of-the-art software to devise maps to capture the greatest number of U.S. House seats with the fewest number of votes, the party could move every one of them safely into Republican hands for at least the next 10 years. All, he promised, for the low, low price of $30 million—about a tenth of what people are estimating the candidates will spend in the upcoming 2018 Illinois governor’s race alone. Karl Rove ducked in on one of the pitch meetings: “People call us a vast right-wing conspiracy, but we’re really a half-assed right-wing conspiracy. Now it’s time to get serious.”

The United States Chamber of Commerce was convinced; they chipped in $4 million. A group aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council gave $2.5 million. Rounding out the list of top donors: Walmart, Anthem Health Insurance, two tobacco companies, AT&T, and an Indian tribe that an internal Republican memo suggests served as a money-laundering conduit for gambling interests in the state of Alabama.

REDMAP’s targets were politicians such as David Levdansky, the dedicated and principled chairman of the Pennsylvania House’s Finance Committee. Via focus groups, they’d divined a made-up issue by which to smear him: a $10 million appropriation out of the state’s $600 million capital budget to build a new wing at a college library to house Arlen Specter’s papers. Like the troops pounding Omaha Beach after D-Day, new, breathtakingly deceptive full-color flyers flooded the mailboxes of the Keystone State’s 39th district in the last three weeks of the campaign. One depicted Levdansky as the mastermind of a “$600 million” Arlen Specter “Taj Mahal”; another as a maniac gun-grabber because, back when he had been a township supervisor, he had supported a police chief’s recommendation to ban the carrying of concealed weapons in the police station.

Levdansky lost by 151 votes. As a result, the Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature. And along with states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, they followed a plan laid out by Republican redistricting guru Tom Hofeller to steal Americans’ democratic birthright via gerrymander—and to do it in secret. Advice included: Never communicate by email, the better to cover your tracks. (“Emails are the tool of the devil.” “Make sure your computer is in a private location.” Thus the Ohio Republican Party’s command post, in a hotel across from the statehouse, was labeled “the Bunker.”) In Wisconsin, Republican legislators were only allowed to look at maps for their own districts, and then only after signing nondisclosure agreements, and they were advised, “Public comments on this map may be different from what you hear in this room. Ignore the public comments.” Democrats were only allowed to look at them when it was time to approve the maps in the legislature. The corporate law firm that ran the show claimed the deliberations that produced them were protected from public scrutiny by attorney-client privilege.

The basics of Hofeller’s advice, in short, was to follow the law to the letter and pulverize its spirit. “Never travel without counsel,” he advised. A judge might call this “mens rea”: a guilty mind, proof of an intent to deceive. We know how it worked in practice because some conspirators honored Hofeller’s advice about email in the breach. In one of Ratf**ked’s most astonishing revelations, after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved two “Fair District” constitutional amendments banning partisan attempts to gerrymander, Republican consultants still drew maps to disenfranchise Democrats—only they introduced them through fake email accounts to make it look as if they were submitted by disinterested members of the general public. Unwitting young party activists, the sort who might wish to court favor with their elders, were then instructed to recite, verbatim, testimony written for them in support of the maps. (One such script: “Senate District 20 is an excellently drawn State Senate district. . . . Very smart work from the committee on this district. I approve!”) In Wisconsin, the hard drives belonging to two key operatives “failed”; even more suspiciously, both operatives produced identical 24-word explanations for their computers’ convenient memory lapse in court depositions.

The upshot of the national campaign? In Pennsylvania, after the 2012 election, Republicans ended up controlling 13 of 18 U.S. House seats. In a democracy, a party should occupy 72 percent of a given state’s House seats if it wins something like 72 percent of votes in an election. But in Pennsylvania, it only won about 49 percent. The diabolical computers, however, were programmed to pack the Democrats’ 51 percent of the votes into the smallest number of districts statistically possible. (What’s that old computer programmers’ saying? Garbage in, garbage out.) And Ohio, American electoral history’s most famous swing state, swings no more: “The mapmaker did such a good job that it’s hard to imagine anyone in Ohio politics who thinks it can be reversed for perhaps two decades to come.” All told, Daley concludes, Democrats might not take back Congress in 2018 even if they receive a vote bonanza that, in an actual democracy, would constitute a landslide.

Then there were the consequences in the 2016 cycle. In states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, legislatures that REDMAP turned Republican immediately responded with radical voter suppression bills. In the Badger State, the one signed by Governor Scott Walker helped ensure the lowest voter turnout in two decades. In Milwaukee, home to more than two-thirds of the state’s African Americans, some 52,000 fewer blacks cast a ballot than in 2012. Hillary Clinton received 43,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee than Barack Obama did in 2012. Donald Trump won the state by 27,000 votes.

Right-wing political organizing often centers upon strategizing around an awkward fact: A majority of Americans don’t want what they’re selling. That goes back as far as the antebellum period, when Southern slaveholders knew they could not control enough votes in Congress to preserve the peculiar institution without creating new slave states in the West. (Some also wanted to expand farther south, annexing Cuba and parts of Mexico and Central America.) Or, in the next century, consider the insurgents who conspired to defeat the moderates who made up the vast majority of the Republican base in order to nominate Barry Goldwater. A decade earlier, calling themselves “the Syndicate,” they had conspired to take over the Young Republican National Federation via a “rotten borough” strategy, setting up dummy conventions in places where there were few Republicans, to elect delegates to take over national conventions.

A cadre of 28 Syndicate veterans, including a lobbyist for Standard Oil of Indiana, met secretly in a Chicago hotel room to parcel out the tasks to pack the precinct and county meetings that began two years before the presidential year. It was “nothing less than a long-term political guerrilla operation,” their leader, Clifton White, wrote in a memoir; but one as easy, he also noted, as “pushing on an open door.”

Much easier, that is to say, than actually winning the loyalty of voters. This was how Goldwater was able to win the Republican nomination with 67.5 percent of the delegates despite a Harris Poll that showed the public disagreed with him on eight out of 10 issues. And the general election? To win that, a memo advised Republicans to “shake off the fiction of the idea that they are engaged in a national plebiscite.” It was the theory, in other words, that George W. Bush and Donald Trump later carried out in practice: no shame in claiming a mandate for radical-right governance, even if you don’t win the most votes.

Among libertarians, meanwhile, Milton Friedman infamously observed that since “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change,” the intellectual’s task is to keep policies “alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Edmund Meese, then of the Heritage Foundation, made a secret 2005 presentation to the House Republican Study Committee to bring what then-Rep. Mike Pence called “conservative free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast” to exploit the panic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (The proposals included cutting funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.) PayPal founder and Donald Trump campaign surrogate Peter Thiel argued in 2009 that developments like “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women . . . have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”

Operation REDMAP midwifed diabolical plans to end the Democratic Party on the national level once and for all. On the level of the presidency, post–Operation REDMAP, there came state legislative proposals such as the one introduced in Pennsylvania in 2011 to apportion the state’s electoral college votes by congressional district. (It failed, and, via the traditional means, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes went to Barack Obama, because he beat Mitt Romney by 51.95 to 46.57 percent. If it had succeeded, Obama would have only won six of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, despite his decisive margin of victory.)

Then there is the lively movement to gerrymander the Senate. Republicans never put the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment quite in those terms. Before the amendment was added to the Constitution in 1913, members of the U.S. Senate were elected by state legislatures, not by citizens’ votes. You first began hearing calls to return the election of senators to the backrooms of state capitols during the Tea Party election of 2010. In 2013, prominent conservatives including Justice Antonin Scalia, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Ted Cruz joined the call. So did the very important right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who pours out his anti-democracy preachments to some 7.75 million listeners a week. His 2003 book The Liberty Amendments argued that the 17th “serves not the public’s interest but the interests of governing masterminds and their disciples.”

Then this July, after the Republicans’ crusade to toss tens of millions of their fellow Americans off health insurance failed the Senate, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, evangelical hero, and father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new White House press secretary, took to Twitter: “Time to repeal the 17th Amendment. Founders had it right—Senators chosen by state legislatures. . . . Direct election of Senate is major cause of #swamp.”

“Draining the swamp,” apparently, now means turning America into a single-party state. Thanks to Project REDMAP, Republicans control both chambers of 32 state legislatures. If they came to control six more, they could indeed repeal the 17th Amendment—and would automatically control 72 senate seats, adding automatic control of the Senate to REDMAP’s automatic control of the House of Representatives.

Can it happen? At its annual convention in Denver in July, ALEC’s Federalism and International Relations Task Force held a debate on whether to recommend a model bill to state legislatures to repeal the 17th, thereby starting the process of single-party rule. It would be interesting to know how that debate went. But we’ll never know. ALEC meetings are secret. Sinclair Lewis supposedly said when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. But maybe we won’t know how it came. It will happen in secret debates at conferences closed to the press, and in “bunkers” across the street from state capitols, guarded by two-factor encryption and attorney-client privilege, abetted by computer programs with the power to turn citizens into subjects.

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Pry Your Eyes Away From Sean Spicer for a Moment and Look Hard at Some of His Supporting Buffoons

With so many garish spectacles to feast your eyes on at the 33-ring Trump circus, some clowns are easy to miss. Especially the ones performing in proximity to Sean Spicer. Pry your eyes away from the Pagliacci of the Pressroom for a moment, however, and look hard at some of his supporting buffoons. They may not have attracted the notice of Saturday Night Live yet. But now that the White House is blocking outlets like The New York Times, BBC, and Politico from some press briefings, the ones who are still there are becoming an increasingly important part of the story.

Meet “Trey,” for instance—Trey Yingst, Washington correspondent of the “One America News Network,” a cable channel begun in partnership with the Unification Church’s Washington Times, which has since gone independent. One America owner Charles Herring explained why he started the venture: “There’s nothing wrong with Fox. The problem is that if you take the [standard cable] channel lineup, the sources of national news tend to lean to the left . . . and all we have is Fox.” One America’s Foxier-than-Fox programming includes “Jihad: The Grand Deception,” “Escape from Iran,” “Target America,” and an interview show, “On Point,” once hosted by Sarah Palin. One America was included in the press briefing from which The New York Times and BBC were banned.

And Spicer sure likes One America’s man in Washington. During Trump’s first month in the White House, Spicer called on Trey four times. The third time, after he answered Trey’s stumper—“What is the President willing to do to investigate further to determine where these leaks are coming from?”— and the press gaggle started shouting out their own questions, Spicer sounded for all the world like a wounded first-grader. “Hold On! Trey gets a follow up! Everyone else got one!”

Lars Larson is a better-known figure. He’s the top conservative talk radio host in Portland, Oregon, and an occasional fill-in for Rush Limbaugh. Larson was the second person called upon via webcam the day the White House Press Room’s “Skype seat” was inaugurated. Lars first thanked “Commander Spicer” for taking his questions (Spicer has never served in the active-duty military, but he has a commander rank in the Navy reserves), then said, “Thanks for your service to America.” Next came the probing questions. “Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people? … Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the Treasury, and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?” These stinging queries surely came as welcome relief for Spicer, who had just got through dodging dagger thrusts from Kristen Welker of NBC, about what the White House meant when it claimed to have put Iran “on notice.”

And on February 14—Valentine’s Day—when Spicer found himself in a sweat keeping his stories straight about the firing of General Flynn, he went to the Skype seat for a save from “Jason Stevens of the Federalist Paper in Ashland, Ohio.” It turns out to be nearly impossible to identify this particular media juggernaut via Google, but your humble correspondent’s embarrassingly boundless knowledge of right-wing institutions is helpful. I recalled that there is a small right-wing college in Ashland, Ohio, which is how I learned that Professor Stevens’ “Federalist Papers Project” fulfills its mission of purveying “The History & Civics Schools Don’t Teach”—not only by giving away free e-books about the Founding Fathers but via articles like “WATCH: Maxine Waters UNHINGED; Goes Insane on Live TV” and “BREAKING: Feds Stop Nightmare Scenario ISIS Style Attack,” all underwritten by pop-up ads for survivalist meal plans with “25-Year Shelf Life, ‘Disaster-Proof’ Packaging.”

Another Spicer favorite is Katie Pavlich. Don’t know Katie? She’s the extremely blond Fox News regular and Townhall.com correspondent who authored such timeless classics as Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and Its Shameless Cover-Up and Assault and Flattery: The Truth About the Left and Their War on Women. Pavlich was called on three times within a fortnight to confront Spicer with riddles like: “Is President Trump planning to ask the Senate to expedite legislation allowing for the swift firing of bad VA employees?” And, concerning “a declared genocide by ISIS against Christians and other minority and religious groups . . . what specifically is the administration planning to do to comply with the legal obligations of protecting these groups under the U.N. 1948 treaty?”

Returned Spicer: “That’s a great question!” They always are, when Sean’s valentines are doing the asking.

When a former male escort named Jeff Gannon (né James Dale Guckert) began popping up in George W. Bush’s White House press room during the Iraq War, representing a not-quite-legitimate news organization called “Talon News,” which turned out to be operated by the Republican National Committee, and asking questions that sounded suspiciously like plants —“How are you going to work with [Senate Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”—it was a minor scandal. Regarding most matters Republican and scandalous, our concerns from a dozen years ago almost seem quaint.

Now the ones routinely asking the questions are “news organizations” like The Daily Signal, published by the Heritage Foundation; Breitbart News, which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon used to run; and the London Daily Mail, which was banned as a source by Wikipedia for its “reputation for poor fact-checking and sensationalism.” Now, we have a Gannon-league loon as press secretary.

When Sean Spicer’s college newspaper printed his letter to the editor complaining about campus smoking regulations over the name “Sean Sphincter,” he complained, “The First Amendment does uphold the right to free speech, however, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.” Then he more or less sued the paper, attempting to bring it up on charges before college authorities.

Today, Spicer has opened the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to “journalists” who have made their reputations “beyond the bounds of free speech.” The now-disgraced alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, whose defense of pedophilia cost him a book contract and a speaking gig at CPAC, once got credentials to attend a White House press briefing. The aggressively incorrect hate site Gateway Pundit has a permanent seat, which is occupied by serial doxxer Lucian Wintrich. He has no previous journalistic experience, though he curated a “Twinks4Trump” art exhibit that included homoerotic photos of shirtless men wearing “Make America Great” caps. The Twinks exhibit included works by Yiannopoulos, James O’Keefe, and indicted “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, I kid you not.

But we should focus on more than just the personalities, because there is method behind this madness. The “Skype seat,” for example. The people representing major news organizations in the White House press room, whatever their faults, are at least seasoned media veterans whose professional amour propre depends on their willingness to follow up when the answer is evasive. Spicer often finds the questions asked by these White House reporters challenging.

On February 2, for example, in the wake of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, Spicer was asked what Trump would do to make sure “homegrown violence doesn’t happen within our country.” His loopy response began, “Well, there’s a lot of things. Number one, he’s talked cyber — I mean, he’s looking at it from every angle. I think the first thing is to make sure that we look at our borders.”

He continued, “I mean, so there is a holistic approach to both immigration and there’s a direct nexus between immigration and national security and personal security that he has to look at.” Then he promised the administration would be “working with the NSA and FBI to be ahead of the curve”—either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the National Security Agency is (for now) legally enjoined from spying on Americans.

“If I may,” came the follow-up, “these are homegrown—Oklahoma was an American kid.”

Non-sequitured Spicer, “That’s what I’m saying…”

Quicksand like that is why it’s handy to have on tap the cream of the nation’s crop of blow-dried Ron Burgundies. The Skype seat opens White House press briefings to representatives of local network affiliate news organizations, whose business model is fundamentally compromised and corrupt. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney document in Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, the rapidly dwindling number of conglomerates that own network affiliates earn staggering windfall profits selling ads to political campaigns, as much as 35 percent of their revenue in election years. Senator Bill Bradley once described election campaigns as “collections agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.” In 2012, for example, Fox’s Washington, D.C., affiliate added a half hour to its newscast—not to report more campaign news, but to accommodate more campaign advertising.

It’s worth noting, too, that local broadcast outlets receive their licenses to use the public airwaves (and to print money) from the Federal Communications Commission. If they fall too far afoul of the Trump administration, they may be putting their licenses at risk.

So the Skype seat is not exactly a formula for hard-hitting accountability journalism. It’s more likely a clever ruse to crowd it out.

To be fair, some of the local folks have given it the old college try. Kim Kalunian of WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island, and Courtis Fuller of WLWT in Cincinnati asked tough questions about what Trump’s promise to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” will mean for their cities. John Huck, of what Spicer called “WKVVU,” asked how rolling back financial regulations would not expose Las Vegas homeowners once screwed by lending practices that led to the 2007 crash “to the risky behaviors that tanked our economy last time.” Joyce Kaufman of WFTL-West Palm Beach (home to Mar-a-Lago) zeroed in on Trump’s lax security at dinner there with the Japanese prime minister.

And if the outlet is a station like WMUR of Manchester, New Hampshire, well, no worries there. Can you imagine what a license to blast campaign commercials day and night in election years is worth to its owner, the Hearst Corporation? “Hey, Sean, thanks for taking the question,” opened a friendly February 3rd colloquy with WMUR’s Josh McElveen. “I know you’re looking forward to the Patriots coming down in a couple of months. . .”

And don’t expect Skype seaters from Sinclair Media regional outlets to challenge Spicer. The second largest owner of television stations in the United States, Sinclair’s consistent history of attempts to sabotage Democratic (and democratic) campaigns goes back at least to October 2004, when it was announced that all 62 Sinclair stations (it now owns 154) would preempt primetime programming to air Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-John Kerry propaganda documentary Stolen Honor. The Democratic National Committee sued, and the show never ran. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith, in an article on how his company was tripling investor expectations in 2012, gushed, “the political business . . . is an ever-expanding business . . . I don’t see any evidence that it’s ever going to go away.”

Not, certainly, with Smith laundering influence directly through the president. As I wrote here in January, a fact not reported anywhere else, Smith’s yeoman work on behalf of the Trump campaign was rewarded with a guest of honor slot in the inaugural parade, which the network CEO used to promote a new Sinclair-financed cable station. Less than a month later, Trump called Scott Thuman, of Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate by name for the first question in his press briefing with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. That was the one where Trump suspiciously did not entertain a single question regarding the resignation General Mike Flynn. (Jonathan Karl of ABC shouted one out. “He sure seemed to hear the question but did not answer,” he tweeted later.) Reported AdWeek’s “TVSpy” column, “It’s rare that a local TV news reporter would be called on during such an event. In fact, other White House reporters wanted to know if Thuman had been told he was going to be called on. He says he wasn’t, but that he was advised to attend.”

Next it was Kaitlan Collins, of the right-wing site the Daily Caller, who brought the heat: “What do you see as the most important national security matter facing us?” Kaitlan’s been another Spicer valentine, though possibly not for long. After the White House blocked the New York Times, CNN, and Politico from a press gaggle in Sean Spicer’s office, but allowed in Breitbart News, she publicly posted everything Spicer had said in the closed-door briefing.

Love sours sometimes, Mr. Spicer. Nobody loves a lying sad clown. When you’ve lost Kaitlan Collins, Mr. Spicer, what’s next: Breitbart News?

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