Authoritarians Still At the Gate 

Not much surprises us anymore. After years of watching the Republican Party increasingly embrace authoritarianism, nothing the GOP does is particularly shocking. So when Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine earlier this year, it made perfect sense that many Republicans and far-right commentators defended Vladimir Putin rather than Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainians defending against an invasion. To be fair, the few establishment Republicans with any remaining public clout, such as Mitt Romney and Rob Portman, expressed solidarity with our Eastern European ally. But they were in the minority.

For one, many Republicans turned their abject hatred of President Biden into baseless opposition to any cause he supports, including that of a fledgling democracy fighting off a bloodthirsty ex-KGB dictator. Many of those same Republicans are part of the so-called “America First” caucus/movement led by such GOP “luminaries” as J.D. Vance, Matt Gaetz and Majorie Taylor Greene. With the exception of Yale Law graduate Vance, it’s doubtful some of those members know that “America First” harkens back to a 1930s version, which touted, among other things, non-intervention. As we know, the aim of the 1930s’ America First isolationists was to keep the United States out of World War II. (By the by, that movement was also accused of being pro-fascist, pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic.) While the America First caucus might not make up the majority of GOP congressional members, its influence looms large, making a push for no intervention in Ukraine predictable.   

It’s been obvious for a while that the GOP is no longer the Party of Lincoln. Heck, it’s not even the party of Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon. And forget about Ronald Reagan, who would have gladly told Putin exactly where to stick it. Blaming Donald Trump is too easy. He didn’t just stumble along, snap his stubby fingers, and turn the country into a dystopian nightmare, even if he has played an outsized role in expediting the process. The truth is, the so-called “national conservative” movement was building for decades, as far-right politicians and media set the table for him.

Beyond the blatant racists, the larger GOP base felt ignored by establishment Republicans and endlessly mocked by the left, not just in politics, but pop culture, too. Through those cracks of disenfranchised feelings slipped talk radio hosts, cable news pundits and manipulative politicians, who gradually radicalized the right through years of reckless rhetoric and obstructionism – by “owning the libs,” as it were. With that radicalization came something that was once the province of the left and libertarians – rejection of George W. Bush (a “liberal RINO”) and his “endless wars” – and ultimately, evolution into isolationism and nationalism. Conservatives who rightly opposed dictators like Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez now admire autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orban.

Now, instead of rooting for the Ukrainians who are fighting and dying to defend their sovereign nation, too many Americans are cheering for the autocrat trying to take their freedom away. Far worse, some are clamoring for a Putinesque brand of authoritarianism in the U.S. Obviously, we’re way past good-faith foreign policy disagreements here. Instead, we’re dealing with a fundamental misunderstanding—or outright rejection—of what American democracy was built to protect.

Let’s be clear: turning this tide will not be easy. The midterm election was, for all intents and purposes, a mirage. Don’t get us wrong—for the most part, we were as relieved as anyone when the results rolled in. Center Street saw outright wins for some of the pro-democracy candidates we supported, like Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona, and we saw promising overperformance by others, like Colorado’s Adam Frisch, whom no one gave a snowball’s chance in hell. We also saw our brand of internal polling beat some of the top pollsters in the business, who crashed and burned yet again. We made important progress, and that matters. 

But don’t forget this: One of America’s two major political parties still doesn’t care about truth. For every egregious election denier who lost their race this month, another won. One of America’s two major political parties still scoffs at political violence. Dozens of candidates who planned, participated in, whitewashed, or defended the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol won or kept their seats in our federal and state governments. County election boards in Pennsylvania and Arizona refuse to certify midterm election results. And one of America’s two major political parties still embraces authoritarianism. Promising Election Day results do not change these disturbing facts. 

There remains no more pressing mission than to stop the rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. and restore a shared commitment to democratic ideals. It’s why Center Street supported Rep. Tim Ryan over J.D. Vance in Ohio, for example. At its core, this wasn’t a race about a Democrat vs. a Republican; it was about democracy vs. authoritarianism. Ryan is a solid guy who fought a hard fight, but he lost to Vance, who shamelessly aids and abets authoritarianism. That’s why we’re not going anywhere.

The 2024 presidential picture is already coming into focus. Barring any legal obstacles, Trump is back. (Shoutout to the Republicans who claimed impeachment and conviction were unnecessary because Trump was out of office and wouldn’t run again. You nailed it!) Whether Trump can generate the same momentum after his pathetic showings in 2020 and 2022 remains to be seen. But his competition may not be much better. Unlike Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t a criminal or insurrectionist. He’s also smarter and more disciplined than Trump, but it doesn’t make him any less of a threat. In fact, he might be even more dangerous, as demonstrated by his executive overreach and the number of laws he’s pushed that have been found unconstitutional by various judges, including those appointed by Trump. DeSantis represents the next-gen breed of GOP authoritarians. That’s another reason why Center Street is in this for the long haul.

No single election will end the far right’s dangerous dance with authoritarianism; the movement is too pervasive. But every victory, no matter how small, counts because it opens people’s eyes to the dead-end road they’re walking. There are no half measures though. We cannot afford to give up the fight now, just because we scored some unexpected gains. So Center Street will still be out there, along with an alliance of pro-democracy groups fighting the good fight through continued voter advocacy, citizen education, and financial and promotional backing for tough, competent candidates who can win. See you on the front lines.