A Role Model for the Midterms

“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” The famous line is from Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” and it’s often trotted out in reference to repressive regimes and their dissident truthtellers: Václav Havel, in Czechoslovakia; Nelson Mandela, in South Africa; and now Alexei Navalny, in Russia. Just how unhappy political life has been in the United States was demonstrated recently in Lansing, Michigan, when Lana Theis, a Republican state senator, delivered an invocation in the legislature that melded the cadences of prayer with the lexicon of QAnon paranoia: “Dear Lord, across the country we’re seeing in the news that our children are under attack. That there are forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know.”

State Senator Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat who represents Mitt Romney’s home town, understood that Theis was exploiting the occasion to call for a crackdown on teachers making any mention in the classroom of slavery, racism, or homosexuality. Michigan Republicans, like so many Republican lawmakers across the country, have been trying to foment moral panic in their constituents; in Lansing, they are eager to draft their own version of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. McMorrow and two other Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest and expressed their dismay on social media. Not long afterward, Theis sent out a fund-raising e-mail that attacked her by name: “These are the people we are up against. Progressive social media trolls like Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Snowflake) who are outraged they can’t teach can’t groom and sexualize kindergarteners or that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.”

It was hard to know if Theis was speaking out of genuine conviction, careerist desperation, or both. She is facing a primary challenge from a Trump-endorsed candidate named Mike Detmer, who has said that voters should “be prepared to lock and load” at the polls. McMorrow, responding to Theis, gave a fierce and eloquent speech in the Senate chamber that made the case for decency and integrity in politics better than anything heard of late from a lectern in the District of Columbia. She denounced Theis’s “hollow” rhetoric as an attack on “marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights,’ ” and the phony culture-war tactics in Michigan––and, by inference, on the national scene––as a diversion:

People who are different are not the reason that our roads are in bad shape after decades of disinvestment or that health-care costs are too high or that teachers are leaving the profession. I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white, and Christian. We cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise, to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives. And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.

McMorrow’s speech comes at a time when many are convinced that the Democrats are doomed in this year’s midterm elections and beyond. The foreboding is general, the prognostication stark: A Republican, Trumpian majority in Congress will stymie all substantive legislation coming from the White House and, out of a sense of vengeance, establish sham committees to harass Joe Biden. The House may even contrive a reason to impeach the President, if only for the fun of it. Biden has been polling badly since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the spike in inflation. In 2024, Trump, or one of his epigones (Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, is the comer of the moment), will crush the incumbent––legitimately or otherwise, whatever is required. At that point, the hideous scenario concludes, we shall be entirely in the hands of a more experienced, more vindictive version of Trump 1.0. American democracy will not be imperilled. It will be erased.

The anxiety is not to be dismissed. As McMorrow put it in an interview, “If Democrats don’t stand up and fight back, the Republicans are going to put forward people who may not support our having free and fair elections ever again.” In fact, they’re already doing that. A resumption of Trumpism is an invitation to an increasingly authoritarian America, a nation contemptuous of the rule of law, the disadvantaged, and the planet itself. The effect on national security is a misery to contemplate. Imagine if Trump had won in 2020. Imagine his inevitable indulgence of Vladimir Putin, his expressions of disdain for NATO, for Ukraine, for Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he once tried to extort for political gain. At a moment of wanton killing in Ukraine, Trump has shown scant concern. His only interest in the region seems to be whether he can cajole Putin to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden.

But, while alarm is appropriate, paralyzing despair is not. After fifteen months in office, Biden is polling at around forty per cent. At the same point, so was Ronald Reagan—then, as inflation receded, he ran for reëlection against Walter Mondale and won forty-nine states. Trump is making a tremendous noise as he travels the country, endorsing J. D. Vance and other obedient candidates, but his popularity has declined. His miserable handling of the pandemic and his starring role in the January 6th insurrection have eroded his standing among at least some Republican voters. His near future is hardly promising. The select committee investigating the insurrection will hold hearings in June, and Representative Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, predicts that the revelations will “blow the roof off the House.” The former President also faces ongoing legal scrutiny in cases in New York and Georgia, and from journalists everywhere.

The analysts who keep flogging Biden for his inability to pass more ambitious legislation through Rooseveltian persuasion and Johnsonian party discipline tend to ignore the fact that F.D.R. and L.B.J. enjoyed immense congressional majorities. Biden has Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. His stimulus bill, a significant achievement, attracted zero Republican support. The members of the political class of the G.O.P., with rare exceptions, have determined that their voters are with Trump, and so they must be, too. These men and women have all the political independence and moral courage of the trembling members of Putin’s national-security council. They have traded the principles of a liberal democracy for a job. Does the future belong to them?

“We have to let go of the idea that this is politics as usual,” Mallory McMorrow said. She did a heroic thing in the Michigan State Senate. The country is in real need of many such acts, many such heroes. ♦