Politics

Why Centrist Democrats Love Promoting Right-Wing Extremists

Having nothing of substance to offer, the party establishment thinks supporting Trumpists is a clever move. But they are playing with fire.
Laughing all the way to the governor’s mansion? Doug Mastriano, the Trump-endorsed GOP nominee for governor of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

By Jeet Heer / The Nation

It’s hardly news that Donald Trump is tightening his grip on the Republican Party by endorsing hard-right candidates in primary races across the United States. Nor is it unexpected that even in races where Trump hasn’t offered an endorsement, the passions of the MAGA movement are helping extremist candidates surge in these primaries. What is more notable is that some of these candidates have been buoyed by an unusual source: Democratic Party strategists who are spending millions to raise the profile of the most rabid Trumpists.

Writing in The New York Times, Jonathan Weisman reports, “Even as national Democrats set off alarms over the threats posed by far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing an enormously risky strategy: promoting some of those same far-right candidates in G.O.P. primaries in hopes that extremists will be easier for Democrats to beat in November.”

Weisman cites the Democratic Party’s bolstering of Doug Mastriano (who took part in the January 6 riot and is now the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania), as well as the party’s intervention other races in California, Colorado, and Michigan.

As Weisman documents, “in Colorado, a shadowy new group called Democratic Colorado is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the state’s June 28 primary to broadcast the conservative views of State Representative Ron Hanks, who hopes to challenge Senator Michael Bennet, an incumbent Democrat. Mr. Hanks’s views would be widely shared by Republican primary voters. Left unmentioned—for now—were Mr. Hanks’s bragging about marching to the Capitol on January 6, his false claim that those who attacked the Capitol were left-wing ‘antifa’ and his baseless insistence that the 2020 election was stolen by President Biden.”

This game of bolstering the far right in order to get easier-to-defeat opponents is all the more cynical since it often involves kneecapping Republicans who accepted the 2020 election results—and in some cases voted to impeach Trump. Given that the January 6 hearings are trying, with admittedly only partial success, to craft a bipartisan consensus against Trump’s attempted coup, this boost-the-radicals strategy undermines the larger message the Democrats are pushing. It’s easy for outside observers to conclude that Democratic talk about January 6 and the dangers of Trumpist authoritarianism is just so much political hot air.

This cheap Machiavellian ploy is being criticized by both Democrats and moderate Republicans. Even on its own terms of amoral pragmatism, the strategy makes little sense. Since the upcoming midterms are widely predicted to be a Republican wave and many of the elections take place in relatively close districts and states, the Democrats could be helping extremists not just to win primaries but also to enter elected office. Recent polls in Pennsylvania show only a narrow lead for Josh Shapiro (49 percent) over Doug Mastriano (46 percent). A Governor Mastriano is easily imaginable—and he could then use his power in 2024 to support a Trumpist coup.

The Democrats, in part thanks to their own adventurism, might well face a much larger, more energized, and more authoritarian Republican Party after the midterms. As Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, “If Democrats—and perhaps Nancy Pelosi, in particular—really believe that American democracy is under siege and that Trump and his disciples are an existential threat to the republic, then this is obviously not the fate they should be tempting.”

Elevating the far right isn’t just a partisan maneuver. It’s been the preferred tactic of centrist Democrats since the early 1990s, going back to the ascendency of Clintonism in the 1990s. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the odious Dick Morris—at the time President Clinton’s beloved consigliere—wrote an influential memo on how to use a “ricochet” against the Republicans. Morris advocated passing laws targeting right-wing militias, which Republican lawmakers would then rush to attack in order to hold on to their base. The goal, Morris wrote, was to mimic earlier political moments when a mainstream party was linked to extremism. The examples he provided included McCarthyism and the right-wing backlash to the “ghetto rioters/student demonstrators in ’68.” In other words, Democrats should use the same demagoguery against Republicans that Republicans have used against them. (Morris’s memo can be found in the second edition of his book Behind the Oval Office.)

In 2012, Claire McCaskill, facing a tough reelection campaign in Missouri, successfully used this strategy by running ads elevating the rabid Republican congressman Todd Akin. This paid off when Akin became the GOP nominee and promptly imploded after making deranged comments about rape and abortion, clearing the path for McCaskill. Tellingly, though, when interviewed recently by The New York Times, McCaskill emphasized that 2022 is very different than 2012, warning that a similar strategy could help elect extremists now.

Trump himself offers the best example of how Democratic attempts to play 11-dimensional chess can go badly awry. In 2015, strategists for the Hillary Clinton campaign issued a memo (which was also shared with the Democratic National Committee) about the Republican primaries. “The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right,” the memo reflected. “In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party.” One of the Pied Pipers who deserved elevation, the memo argued, was Trump, seen as someone who could be easily defeated in the unlikely event he got the nomination.

Clinton’s Pied Piper strategy was too clever by half, a prime example of crackpot opportunism. It also illustrates the intellectual and political vacuity of centrist Democrats. They have no real substantive program they can sell, so they need the threat of an extreme right to keep the Democratic base in line.

It’s revealing that Republicans who intervene in Democratic contests do the opposite: They try to tamp down insurgent left-wing candidates and support centrist Democrats. As Liza Featherstone reports in Jacobin, “Several rich Donald Trump supporters have been doing a curious thing this election cycle: sending thousands of dollars to New York Democrats running for state assembly.” The Democrats receiving support are all establishment figures fending off candidates backed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America. The Republican donors are mimicking the broader policy of the Democratic Party establishment, which has been spending big bucks to swat down progressive insurgents in congressional races across the country.

In other words, both the Democratic establishment and Republican donors are pulling in the same direction—tugging away at the political spectrum to shift it to the right. In both cases, the desire is for a political spectrum that runs from the far right to the centrist Democrats, with the left excluded. Given the seesaw nature of American politics, this means that centrist Democrats are working to ensure that at some point in the future, perhaps as early as 2024, the radical right will control both Congress and the presidency. Before that happens, it’s worth asking whether this triumph of the radical right would be the result of a failed strategy—or the fulfillment of a secret desire?

Jeet Heer
Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column Morbid Symptoms. The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe American ProspectThe GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

15 comments

  1. Yup! It seems to me that the best indication that these hearings about Jan 6, well produced and orchestrated though they are, are a big waste of time in terms of “changing folks minds about Trump”, is the testimony of the fellow (don’t remember his name) who refused to support, actually opposed, Trump’s efforts to overturn the ’20 election results – who said that he voted for Trump AND , most importantly, he would do so again! He reflects a lot, if not most, of the feelings of Trump voters …

    Considering the fact that the “strategy” described is precisely what got us Trump in the first place, as described in the post – and that anybody with more than 2 gray cells in their cranium could perceive this, either the Dems are dumber than a rock, or, as Glenn Ford said, the “more effective evil”. Either way they are truly unfit to be the bearers of anything close to a “progressive”, let alone a “left”, program.

    You can be sure that if Manchin decides to run again, the D party will not only actively “discourage” any prog. challenger, but will support him, in a primary, as they have done so often in other cases, e.g. their support of Cuellar in Tex. Of course, this is not to mention their active denigration (“can’t win”, “spoiler”, etc.) of any 3rd party candidate that dares to run. Sanders, the “hero” of too many progs, got the message loud and clear – run as a Dem, in which case you will have to tow the party line, or you will “wind up like Nader”

    Frankly, after a “good” 30 years, at least, of this nonsense, I fail to understand how anybody with a prog bone in their body would not choose a good, ind non corp 3rd party over ANY Dem – its rather simple, it seems to me – is it important that Ds retain control or that a prog agenda is in control, whoever advances it – those choices are, at this point, it seems, mutually exclusive …

    1. No Dem toes the party line. And that’s not why Bernie ran as a Dem.

      1. @Beverly Cowling
        “No Dem toes the party line”? Wow, you obviously know nothing about politics.

  2. A) It’s well said that Democrats would rather lose to a conservative than win with a progressive.

    B) Since the two major parties have combined to destroy the real Left, the voters have only one direction in which to go: further to the right.

    C) The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We’re controlled by psychopaths.

    1. @
      Susan Mercurio
      That is not at all the definition of insanity, nor did Einstein ever say it, despite the fact that this idiocy is constantly repeated. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result CAN be a symptom of a type of insanity, but that’s as close as it gets.

  3. I think there’s more to this strategy. The further to the right the Republican candidate is, the further to the right the Democratic one can be while still claiming to not be as bad, which is really the only thing that Democrats have been running on for decades.

    This continual move to the right is bipartisan. These parties are all owned by the same donors, with only slight variations. Donors are super rich and ruling class people, so by definition they are right wing and therefore want the government to be as right wing as possible.

    1. Yes! And since the Clinton right wing took over the party in the 1990s, they have pulled middle class liberals along on a leash behind them.

  4. “Given the seesaw nature of American politics, this means that centrist Democrats are working to ensure that at some point in the future, perhaps as early as 2024, the radical right will control both Congress and the presidency.”

    I believe this will happen much sooner (by this time next year!), but in any case what makes anybody think that the radical right/Repub party will ever again give up power? With a radical reactionary supreme court on board, any and all means taken to entrench and make permanent the coming “Republican dictatorship” will be routinely approved by the court and made the law of the land. I foresee the end of the right to vote by minorities, and even the takeback of the right to vote of Women!! Ultimately a return to the 18th century practice of allowing only affluent white men to vote. Abortion outlawed, contraception outlawed, capital punishment enshrined in all states, and ANY criticism of any government institution or individual treated as treason.

    And we can thank the GD Democrats who made it all possible!

    1. Women and people of color maintain their rights to vote. All the talk about “voter suppression” is a routine election year Dem marketing strategy to “get out the vote” (a.k.a., scare tactics). All qualified voters have maintained their rights to vote. As we’ve told liberals for years, our crisis is in the fact that for millions, there is no one to vote FOR. The Ds and the Rs own the political system, and since as far back as the Clinton admin., we have had a “bipartisan” ruling duopoly — different target audiences, different marketing spiels, same agenda.

      1. @D.H. Fabian
        I don’t agree. Voter suppression is quite real, that’s why Republicans do it. As you point out, the much bigger issue is that there’s no one worth voting for, but that doesn’t negate the reality of voter suppression. Just ask all the people in prison who can’t vote, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, for example.

  5. since trump was not as fascist as Obama, Biden Clinton, emperor gates installed a senile vegetable prez…..only a moron believes there is any important distinction between the most fascist libs and the less fascist conservatives in USA…..”the difference between the lib and the conservative in USA is that the lib is more deceptive”. Malcolm X—-US “progressives” fake and worse
    “the US lib wants to preserve the essence of the past, the conservative wants more progress; the European radical wants to hasten the transformation of the future; the European conservative wants to preserve the essence of the past”. G Gorer

  6. In such intense times as these, there are no centrists. Democrats have gone to extraordinary lengths, from wiping out our former “safety net” in the 1990s, splitting apart the former base, to working hard to provoke a nuclear world war today, to establish that they a solid right wing party. Just what is it, the middle class libs can’t seem to “get?” Do they even know the difference between the political left and right?

    1. @D.H. Fabian
      I find the term “centrist” to be dishonest. At best, it’s a euphemism for a moderate right winger.

      Whether one is left or right is relative unless you’re talking about global politics. In most ways, the Democratic Party would be considered far right in western European countries (at least before the current war, western Europe has lost its mind and I don’t know where they’re at now). But in the U.S., people all that party the left (which it’s not by definition, but you get the point).

  7. Out of all these comments by presumably intelligent well informed people I cannot get a handle on what’s said. Terms are bandied about as if they mean something–right; far right; the left; democrat and republican; progressive, etc. All of these terms have been watered down over the years. The only thing that makes any sense is concreteness–war/relative peace; the ills of capitalism; the effects of and the solution of racism in society. In short, discussions of solutions. Politics have no solution. As George Orwell once said, “All issues are political issues and politics is filled with lies, hatred, folly and schizophrenia.”

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