This article first appeared in The Washington Spectator.
By Rick Perlstein
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 the governorship. 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.
By these fruits, ye shall know REDMAP.
This isn’t democracy, where the party with the most votes is supposed to win. “This,” a state legislator in Wisconsin explains, “is an episode of The Sopranos.”
Or just another typical episode in the history of American conservatism. 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.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.