It really is the best of times and worst of times for the Republican Party. Two years of Trumpism have given the GOP the huge tax cuts and solid Supreme Court majority its members so ardently desired, but those accomplishments have come at a cost: Most Americans disapprove of President Trump's job performance, most Americans disapproved of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, and most Americans outright despise the Republican-controlled Congress.
Things have gotten so bad that the conservatives have come up with a new nickname for this disapproving majority of the country: "the mob." This nickname is part of a broader conservative strategy to convince Americans that the Constitution's countermajoritarian features — meant to restrain the majority of the country from unduly oppressing minority factions — are actually antimajoritarian features meant to let those minority factions rule. In other words, they're trying to persuade Americans to stop believing in democracy.
The mob popped up Saturday in a speech Trump gave at a rally in Kansas. "You don't hand matches to an arsonist and you don't give power to an angry left-wing mob — and that's what they've become," Trump said of Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pitched in on Sunday morning, describing how anti-Kavanaugh protesters, many of them sexual assault survivors, confronted senators in the days and hours leading up to the confirmation vote.
"I'm really proud of my members for not knuckling under to those kind of mob-like tactics," he said.
This assertion has spread and gone mainstream: GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah) have all used the m-word to describe Democrats in recent days.
The GOP's effort to undermine democracy can be seen most clearly in conservative defenses of the Electoral College, which twice in 16 years has delivered the White House to a Republican candidate who lost the popular vote. To justify such undemocratic results, conservatives have taken to warning about "the tyranny of the majority." That's just a nicer term for "mob rule."
Republicans have two things going for them in their effort to convince the public that Democrats have become the mob. First is the fringe (but growing) belief on the left that civility is only an obstacle to political justice. Bothering a senator during supper might feel satisfying and powerful in the moment, but it's probably a turnoff to the median voter Democrats will need to win November's midterm elections. Still, most Americans who are critical of Trump and the GOP aren't harassing elected officials in restaurants — they're too busy getting dinner on the table for their own families.
Second is the fact that, while it's true the Founders meant to restrain democratic passions, they were serious about designing government that was responsive to its citizens. Conservatives who poo-poo the tyranny of the majority like to say that the United States is not a democracy, but a republic. They're half-right: Republics allow citizens to delegate governance to their representatives — those representatives are to act in the service of the people, not in spite of them. The Founders knew this very well.
"It must be acknowledged that the term 'republic' is of very vague application in every language," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816. "Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens."
Still, Republicans may have no other choice than to paint their critics as the mob. The party has long been in demographic decline; Republicans are older and whiter than the rest of the country. To hang on to power, they have to convince voters that Democrats aren't merely wrong, but wannabe tyrants who cannot legitimately run government.
This effort can be embarrassingly obvious at times. On Monday, for example, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) promoted a video suggesting his Democratic opponent, Abigail Spanberger, had been caught "with a mob" shouting Brat down at a town hall meeting. The video itself shows a seated Spanberger nodding almost vigorously in response to Brat's questions to the crowd.
Mobs are usually violent. They break things, and they break people. The protests we've seen in recent weeks and months and years have certainly been emotional and angry, but they've been mostly peaceful. Many Democrats and liberals consider Trumpism to be a national emergency, but they haven't gotten out of control — they've gotten louder. Sometimes they even nod vigorously.
To those Republicans who suggest otherwise, the proper response is this: That's no mob. That's a majority.