People in both major political parties like to label their rivals as “extremists.” A time-honored way to do that is to seize on something controversial a small group, or even an individual, in the other party says or does and attribute it to the entire tribe. Journalists sometimes contribute to the problem by cherry-picking the lurid remarks of random state legislators; it’s a recurring temptation on slow news days. But more generally, though “everybody does it,” it is Republicans who have raised the practice to a central principle lately, as seen in their willingness to treat Democrats as “anti-American” by conflating them with, say, antifa and branding the very conventional Joe Biden as some sort of revolutionary socialist. The successful Trump-campaign effort to convince South Florida voters that Biden was the stooge of totalitarian leftists shows why doing this is not only effective but also an indirect way to neutralize the effect of the GOP’s extremism. If you cannot occupy “the center,” then the next best thing is to claim your opponents are further from it than you are.
But occasionally this tactic runs into countervailing reality in a graphic way. That happened on April 15 when Mitch McConnell seized on a new Supreme Court–expansion bill to illustrate the power-mad nature of the socialist Democrat Party:
Other Republicans shrieked just as loudly, as Fox News reported:
“Democrats are launching a full assault on the independence of the federal judiciary. Republicans will stop them,” Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said in a tweet.
“This is such a fantastic gift to the NRSC,” added Matt Whitlock, a former staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). “And making it a bill instead of a Senate rules process means we get to get moderate House D’s on the record on it too. Just a fantastic turn of events.”
But even as Republicans celebrated the opportunity to depict Democrats as nihilists, the Democrat who would actually determine whether a “court-packing” bill went anywhere rained on the parade, succinctly saying “no” when questioned about whether (a) she supported such legislation or (b) would even let the House Supreme Court–expansion bill come to the floor for the vote Matt Whitlock is anticipating so joyously:
So will this keep Republicans from claiming the entire Democrat Party is deeply committed to court-packing, even though the extremely remote possibility of it happening just got lowered to zero by the Speaker of the House? No, of course not. Part of the game is to suggest the enemy is secretly plotting to do terrible things it cannot publicly confess. It’s unclear why Democrats’ nefarious plans are simultaneously too shameful to admit and right on the brink of realization unless horrified voters eject the radicals from power and reinstall patriotic moderates like McConnell. This tactic doesn’t rely on logic but simply the cynical belief that shouting something often enough will make it true.