If your outrage meter was overloaded last week, you might have missed news of the letter signed by 60-some Pennsylvania House Republicans that went to Pennsylvania’s U.S. congressional delegation. These profiles in political courage threw their lot in with President Trump’s petulant post-election delusions, urging Congress to disenfranchise you by disregarding the results of a free and fair election.
Now, we’re not going to relitigate that which needs no further litigation. Trump’s election fraud lies have not only been exposed by over 50 judges—both Democratic and Republican—but also his own sycophantic attorney general and Chris Krebs, his own appointee at the Department of Homeland Security whose job it was to ensure a free and fair election.
But one signatory on that letter from state House Republicans disappointed me, and got me thinking about how all the post-election drama spurred by Trump and his true believers can really be seen as a type of scorecard that chronicles who has stood up, and who has collaborated in attacking the fundamental tenets of Democracy. Sadly, Republican State Representative Martina White’s signature on that letter has exposed herself as one such collaborator. Et tu, Martina?
“We’ve never seen such cowardice and such faithlessness towards the American experiment as we do in this hour right now,” said Steve Schmidt of the Lincoln Project.
A year ago, I was excited when White was named the chairwoman of the Republican City Committee. My most progressive friends in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia get irate when I say this, but if we really want to reform our local corrupt and sclerotic political system, our best bet would be to cultivate a local Republican party that engages in the marketplace of ideas and goes all out to win local elections.
Instead, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 8 to 1 margin, the Republican party has long tacitly—and in some cases, explicitly—agreed not to compete in local elections and to settle instead for the crumbs of patronage.
White could change all that, I thought. She’s a 32-year-old Somerton native who has taken local politics by storm since her out-of-nowhere election in 2015. A novice candidate, she knocked on thousands of doors—and continues to do so today, even when we’re not in election season.
In a far Northeast district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, she has carved out a niche as Philadelphia’s premier populist, with all of the hot button implications the term provides. In some ways her rise presaged Trumpism; she intuited white working class resentment early on. In her six years in office, she has put together an impressive coalition of labor and cop support; last month, she cruised to another easy reelection.
White has been a lightning rod in office, slammed by Mayor Kenney for opposing the city’s sanctuary city policy and for opposing his regressive beverage tax. She’s been targeted by progressive activists for her alliance with the FOP and her support of all things cop.
But, in the state house, I’ve talked to Democrats who praise her bipartisanship and common sense approach to getting things done. (White did not respond to my request this week for an interview.) Many insiders have talked about White’s populist bona fides carrying her on to statewide office—one of the row offices, perhaps, or lieutenant governor—and she was elected last month to a leadership position in the House’s Republican caucus.
I may disagree with White on the issues, I told progressive friends a year ago, but the city could use a Republican with influence in Harrisburg. And White’s clout has been rising; it could be argued that she had a helluva election last month.
It is a stunning thing, this angry, sore-loser, fact-free rebellion, and it’s not hyperbolic to say that we are at an existential moment for American democracy.
Statewide, Republicans took two row offices, and her party fared better in Philly and throughout the commonwealth than it had four years ago. But now that she’s signed on to play Neville Chamberlain to Trump, White has jeopardized any contribution she could have made to widening the tent of local democracy.
It is a stunning thing, this angry, sore-loser, fact-free rebellion, and it’s not hyperbolic to say that we are at an existential moment for American democracy. In their book How Democracies Die, authors Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain that, at least since the end of the Cold War, democracy hasn’t perished by coup or revolution.
No, more often, the erosion of norms and the failure of institutions to rise to the moment chip away at democracy itself. Elected leaders manipulate democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy from within, so we end up with democracy in name only. (Like when autocrats get reelected with in excess of 90 percent of their country’s “vote.”)
It’s fascinating to take stock of who has risen up to face the assault, and who has faltered. As institutions go, the courts and the press, for all its faults, have stood up. Mitt Romney, everyday election workers, and Lisa Deeley, city commissioners’ chairwoman, have all spoken truth to deranged power.
“What these Republican lawmakers are asking Congress to do is un-American and desperate—it is something straight out of a third world dictatorship…,” Deeley, who is still receiving death threats simply for counting votes, said in a statement. “The voters of their districts elected them to lead, in the same election that they are alleging was somehow tainted…Any leader who feeds the lies and hate can save their thoughts and prayers, because they will be culpable when one of these zealots act on their words and does harm to someone.”
Deeley’s Republican colleague, City Commissioner Al Schmidt—who told CNN “one thing I can’t comprehend is how hungry people are to consume lies”—and Republican Georgia election worker Gabriel Sterling have similarly served as profiles in courage. The Justice Department and Republican leadership in Congress? Uh, not so much.
Now, sadly, add Martina White to those who are making a prophet of Walt Whitman, who once observed that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” By signing onto the congressional letter, White not only committed an act of moral malfeasance, but a type of political malpractice, as well.
The moral case is clear as day. You can’t be pro-cop and anti-Constitution. When a lawmaker sanctions the stealing of votes in a democracy, she forfeits the right to lecture us about law and order.
When a lawmaker sanctions the stealing of votes in a democracy, she forfeits the right to lecture us about law and order.
White’s political calculus is harder to discern. “You think she’d be celebrating the results of a strong Republican election,” says longtime political observer Larry Ceisler. “Instead, Republicans want to throw out the results of their own election, all to appease Donald Trump. Why go to the wall for this guy?”
One explanation could be political aspirations. If White really has statewide aspirations, as has been the conventional wisdom for some time, she could be lining up her Trumpism bona fides for a statewide primary.
Remember, we think of Philly as the land where Republicans go to disappear, but we actually have one of the state’s largest contingent of registered Republicans, just owing to our sheer size. White signing on to appeasing Trump might help her add to that by shoring up her populist base elsewhere in the state; it would be smart, if diabolical, coalition building.
And it also can fuel a Republican civil war, as is currently happening in Arizona, where the Trump loyalist governor hasn’t bought into the lies and is incurring the wrath of a state party led by a Trump apparatchik. “It’s a civil war over nothing,” Ceisler says. Here, what can that mean? Does White run a primary challenge to the heroic Schmidt, who she has amicably worked with in the past?
Make no mistake, as troubling as the last four years have been for those of us who believe in the American experiment, the last month puts those fears to shame. And don’t take my word for it.
Yesterday on MSNBC, longtime Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and who founded the Lincoln Project, let loose with a ferocious indictment of the turncoats to democracy in his own party. In a quiver of a voice laced with outrage, he may just as well have been lecturing Martina White directly:
We’re in a fight now between an autocratic movement and a democratic movement…This is what I would say to the deluded [Republicans]. They are in a party that has let out of the underworld a mixture of conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, white supremacists, militia groups, and all of those people are part of the Trump coalition.
Groups like the Lincoln Project, our view is very simple. There is no compromise with these people, they must be driven back into the underworld of American politics. They have no place at the table. And that any political party that wishes to associate with them has to become so toxic that they have no chance of winning elections… Everybody on the side of democracy believes in elections—from AOC to the Lincoln Project.
If we don’t hold together on the fundamental question, we can lose the country to an autocratic party in the next election. This is all out in the open now. You can’t put this back in the box, what happened this month. You now know exactly who is faithless to their constitutional oaths. And it’s not a big stretch to say this: If you won’t acknowledge the result of this election, if you’re pretending that Donald Trump had the election stolen from him, Mr. Senator, Mr. member of Congress, Mr. Mayor, Mr. state legislator, on no planet are you faithful to your oath. You’ve spoiled it, you’ve wrecked it, you’ve desecrated it.
Which is why this is such a tragic error, because we’ve never seen such cowardice and such faithlessness towards the American experiment as we do in this hour right now.
Are you listening, Rep. White? Maybe it’s not too late to strike your name from that letter and renounce the desecration of your oath, and to return to what attracted good government types like me to you in the first place, the promise of a perspective that contributes to the marketplace of ideas, that reforms rather than belittles, that values more democracy, not less.