When Authoritarianism is not enough: Why bullies claim to be the victims in defense of their brutality
That Republicans appear to be on the cusp of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion seems to have thrown them into confusion.
Since Nixon first raised the issue of abortion as a political wedge in 1972, the year before Roe, they have used the issue to raise money and turn out voters. But now, with the prize seemingly within reach, they are ratcheting up their demands, at least in part to continue to raise money and to turn out voters. They also need to re-create their sense of grievance against the “libs” they have just “owned.”
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade seemingly on the horizon, right-wing lawmakers are now escalating their attacks on national policies their base voters oppose. This means, for example, that Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and Mississippi governor Tate Reeves are standing behind the “trigger laws” they have signed to take effect as soon as the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, laws that outlaw abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. Other lawmakers are suggesting they are willing to outlaw contraception, and pharmacists in Texas are already refusing to fill prescriptions for medications commonly prescribed for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
And for all that ending Roe was supposed to turn the issue of abortion over to the states to decide as they wished, there is now talk of advancing a national ban on abortion so that states could not, in fact, choose to protect abortion rights.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is backing federal legislation to punish corporations who pay to fly their employees to different states for abortion care and gender-affirming care for their children. “Our tax code should be pro-family and promote a culture of life,” Rubio said. “Instead, too often our corporations find loopholes to subsidize the murder of unborn babies or horrific ‘medical’ treatments on kids. My bill would make sure this does not happen.”
In Michigan, Republican Ryan Kelley, who is running for governor, has openly attacked the idea of democracy. “Socialism—it starts with democracy,” he said. “That’s the ticket for the left. They want to push this idea of democracy, which turns into socialism, which turns into communism in every instance.” Kelley’s distinction between “democracy” and a “constitutional republic” is drawn from the John Birch Society in the 1960s, which used that distinction to oppose the idea of one person, one vote, that supported Black voting.
In turn, the Birchers drew from the arguments of white supremacists during Reconstruction after the Civil War, who warned that Black voters would elect leaders who promised them roads, and schools, and hospitals. These benefits would cost tax dollars that in the postwar South would have to be paid largely by white landowners. Thus, white voters insisted, Black voting would lead to a redistribution of wealth; by 1871, they insisted it was essentially “socialism.”
That context explains Kelley’s insistence that “we truly are losing our country to the radical left.” But the argument is not only racial and economic. American evangelicals are converting to the Russian Orthodox Church out of support for its nativism, white nationalism, rejection of LGBTQ rights and abortion, and support for authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin. Like him, they object to the diversity inherent in democracy.
Journalists for Business Insider ran the numbers and found that 84% of the state lawmakers who have sponsored trigger laws are men, five states had no women sponsors for trigger laws, all but one of the 13 governors who have signed trigger laws are men, and 91% of the senators who confirmed the antiabortion majority on the Supreme Court are men. These men are overwhelmingly Republican: 86% of the trigger law sponsors were Republican, all of the antiabortion justices were nominated by Republicans, and 94% of the senators who voted to confirm the antiabortion justices were Republicans.
At the same time that a small minority is imposing its will on the majority of Americans, Republicans are insisting they, not those who are losing their rights, are the victims.
When the draft first leaked, there was outrage across the right as people jumped to the conclusion that the draft had leaked from the office of a liberal justice. A Newsmax host even claimed that newly confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson had leaked the draft, although she will not take a place on the court until Justice Stephen Breyer steps down.
There are almost none of those accusations now, since leaks have continued, and they are clearly coming not from the offices of the liberal justices, but from the right-wing justices. On May 7, a Washington Post story had several comments about ongoing deliberations reported by “conservatives close to the court.” Law professor and legal analyst Steve Vladeck called such sievelike behavior “stunning.”
Now the argument that Republicans are victims centers around the protests over the draft decision, some of which have taken place in front of the homes of the Supreme Court justices. The protests have been peaceful in reality, but the right wing has portrayed them as violent—so violent, in fact, that Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) compared them unfavorably with the events of January 6, which, in his rewriting of history, he claimed were peaceful. The rumor—unsourced, and later proved false—that Justice Samuel Alito, the author of the draft decision, had to be moved to an undisclosed location swept right-wing media.
Portraying the Republicans as victims of a mob reached ridiculous proportions when Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) called the police Saturday night because someone had written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of her home in Bangor: “Susie, please, Mainers want WHPA→ vote yes, clean up your mess.” WHPA, the Women’s Health Protection Act, is a bill that would protect abortion rights and block medically unnecessary restrictions and bans on the procedure.
Collins cast a deciding vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, stating she was confident he would not overturn Roe v. Wade. Collins says she will vote against WHPA because she believes it goes too far.
The apparent outrage over protests in the wake of the leaked draft decision seems disingenuous considering the violence of antiabortion activists, who have burned down clinics, murdered abortion providers, and continue to accost patients at clinics. Indeed, the Supreme Court struck down a law creating a buffer zone around clinics to stop harassment of patients on the grounds that such protest was free speech covered by the First Amendment. More generally, there has been little concern from Republicans about the armed protests that have taken place over vaccine and mask mandates and over the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory during the past two years.
When a reporter asked Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) if he was “comfortable with the protests that we saw outside the homes of Supreme Court justices,” Schumer answered that he is, so long as they are peaceful. “Yes. My house, there’s protests three, four times a week outside. That’s the American way to peacefully protest… [his phone rings]…that’s my wife. Maybe there’s a protest outside.”
With all this going on, Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court has collapsed since Trump packed it with a 6–3 right-wing majority. Half of U.S. voters and 53% of Americans in general now have little to no confidence in the court.
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics