In the iconic scene from Casablanca when the casino at Rick’s café is being raided, the character Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, famously declares, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” At the same moment, of course, the croupier is delivering his winnings to him.
This classic moment offers the perfect analogy to the current righteousness and indignation of anti-Trump Republicans who have rallied behind and indeed lionized Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) for taking a supposedly principled stand against those who former RNC chair and now Lincoln Project Republican Michael Steele has termed the “GOP apostates.”
Cheney, of course, has positioned herself as the great defender of democracy and the U.S. Constitution by refusing to validate the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Obviously, as we saw last week when Senate Republicans voted down a proposal simply to commission an investigation of the insurrectionary assault on the Capitol last January 6, Cheney’s fellow congressional Republicans are shamelessly overt in defending efforts to destroy democracy in America.
Yet, let’s not be fooled and retreat into ignorance of even the most recent political history.
The Republicans now so vociferously distancing themselves from Trump have long, like Captain Renault, been happy to be collect the spoils of what has been—and continues to be—their own war on American democracy.
Indeed, while Cheney, Steele, and other self-proclaimed “principled” Republicans continue to decry those promulgating the current “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate, it must be recognized how historically these Republican leaders have engaged as a party in their own widespread stealing of elections and are continuing to do so.
Of course, these Republicans, strenuously posing as “principled,” remain quiet about their own election-stealing strategy, even as it sits ponderously front and center as the proverbial elephant in the American political arena—or what Ryan Grim, writing in The Intercept, has called “the elephant’s weapon in the room.”
That elephant is the long-standing Republican practice of gerrymandering, which those great defenders of democracy like Cheney and Steele really don’t talk much about, obscuring these machinations behind their noisy and distracting, though also important, denunciations of the wave of outrageous and extreme voter suppression legislation in addition to the “Big Lie.”
As Grim writes, “The decisive impact of gerrymandering is well understood by campaign operatives and party leaders but is barely acknowledged in national political conversations — the elephant’s weapon in the room, so to speak — even as analytic focus narrows to the details of particular voter suppression bills.”
This silence, this lack of vigorous acknowledgment of the “elephant’s weapon,” has forestalled, Grim propounds, serious confrontation with the political disaster that lies ahead:
“If Democrats manage to escape the traditional midterm curse and don’t drop a single vote from 2020 to 2022, they would still lose control of the House of Representatives simply as a consequence of Republican gerrymandering following the census. Unless, that is, there’s a change to current laws or an overwhelming Democratic wave on par with 2006 or 2018.”
That is, once again the American electorate may very well have their voices nullified by a Republican Party doing all it can, as it historically has, to enforce minority rule in America.
We don’t have to look far back into history to capture this trend.
After the 2018 mid-terms, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow explained just how severely Republican districting efforts—or gerrymandering—skewed the electoral map in favor of a Republican minority.
In that mid-term in Wisconsin, 53 percent of the votes for positions in the state legislature went for Democratic candidates, with Republican candidates receiving 45 percent of the votes. Yet—check this out—Republicans were elected into 64 percent of the seats!
Maddow asked and answered her own question: “Why is that? Because they tilted the playing field.”
In that same report, she identified a similar dynamic in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, all key swing states playing major factors in national elections.
But Cheney, Steele, and others of their ilk remain decidedly reticent about this political dynamic, this Republican behavior, that is its own form of stealing elections and is equally deleterious to democracy, perhaps even more so because it so much less discussed.
Not only, as Grim noted, is it “barely acknowledged in national political conversations,” the gang of so-called principled Republicans actively sweep it under the rug, deny its reality.
Take Steele’s recent opinion piece on MSNBC.com, in which he again upholds this false distinction between principled Republicans who don’t believe in stealing elections and those “GOP apostates.” He writes,
“The fracture within the Republican Party is not the biggest issue in American politics today. But it is significant in highlighting what is: the battle to preserve, protect and defend American democracy. From voting rights, the Constitution and the rule of law to the once-lauded choice of principle over partisanship, character over corruption and country over party, we have witnessed the Republican Party — my party — quietly approve of or outright participate in the systematic deconstruction of the legitimacy of our republic.”
As we can see from a cursory look at the recent history of gerrymandering, Steele himself here tells a whopper of a big lie in insisting the Republican party has a history of defending democracy and prioritizing principle over partisanship.
Trump is simply a convenient foil on to whom the GOP can project its own corrupt practice. He’s their scapegoat, as Steele continues,
“Since his exile to the modern-day Elba of Mar-a-Lago, the disgraced former president’s mantle of lies and divisiveness has been trumpeted by elected GOP apostates of Republicanism and the conservative ideals that animate its principles. Willing to speak truth only in whispers and behind closed doors, they have taken a jackhammer to the very foundation of our democracy as they persist in promoting the ‘big lie.’”
We can’t, of course, believe Steele’s sanctimonious hype.
The “principled” GOP had already done a pretty good of taking a jackhammer to American democracy.
Let’s not be shocked.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.