The Threats At Home And Abroad

Heather Cox Richardson

The last several days have seen a Republican stampede to distance the party from the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision of a week ago, when it ruled that embryos frozen for in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be considered children and that their injury can be treated like injury to a child. That decision has led major healthcare providers in Alabama to stop IVF procedures out of fear of prosecution. 

IVF is very popular—about 2% of babies born in the U.S. are the product of IVF—and Republicans recognize that endangering the procedure has the potential to be a dealbreaker in the upcoming election.

The fury at the Alabama decision of those who have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars in their quest to be parents was articulated yesterday in a conversation between Abbey Crain and Stephanie McNeal of Glamour, in which Crain recounted her five-year IVF journey and noted that the Alabama justice who wrote the decision, Jay Mitchell, “who,” as she said, “lives five miles down the road from me, goes to a church that people in my circle go to, and has children in schools in my community, has more of a say in whether and when I get to be a mom than me.” 

The Alabama decision is a direct result of the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, decided thanks to the three religious extremists former president Trump nominated to the Supreme Court. That decision referred to fetuses as “unborn human being[s]” when it overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion. The Alabama decision cited the Dobbs case 15 times, relying on it to establish that “the unborn” are “living persons with rights and interests.”

Republicans are now denying they intended to halt IVF with their antiabortion stance and their appointment of religious extremists to the courts. But that position doesn’t square with the fact that since the Dobbs decision, they have pressed for so-called personhood laws, laws that give the full rights of a person to an embryo from the time of conception. Since Dobbs, sixteen state legislatures have introduced personhood laws, and four Republican-dominated states—Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona, although Arizona’s has been blocked—have passed them. 

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans introduced a national personhood bill as soon as they took control in January 2023. The bill, titled “Life at Conception Act,” currently has 124 co-sponsors, including House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). On Friday, Johnson claimed to support IVF, raising the question of what exactly that support for IVF means, considering the process requires discarding certain embryos.

In the U.S. Senate, Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a “Life at Conception Act” on January 28, 2021. It currently has 18 co-sponsors, including Steve Daines (R-MT), who is the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the official campaign organization to elect Republican senators. On Friday the NRSC distributed a memo to candidates telling them to “align with the public’s overwhelming support for IVF and fertility treatments.” 

While it is the IVF story that has garnered the most attention this weekend—likely because it has obvious implications for the 2024 election and Republicans have tried to rush away from it—it is simply a different facet of a larger story: the leaders of the Republican Party are working to overthrow democracy.

On February 15, news broke that Alexander Smirnov, the informant who had provided the “evidence” that then–vice president Joe Biden and his son had each taken a $5 million bribe from the Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma, had been indicted by a federal grand jury for lying and “creating a false and fictitious record.” On February 20, Trump-appointed Special Counsel David Weiss of the Justice Department filed a document concluding that Smirnov has “extensive and extremely recent” ties with “Russian intelligence agencies.” 

The use of Russian disinformation to destabilize democracy in the U.S. looks much like the information warfare Russia has used to establish Ukrainian leaders that worked for the Kremlin. It was the ouster of one of those leaders, Viktor Yanukovych, in the 2014 Maidan Revolution ten years ago that prompted Russian president Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine later that year. Yanukovych won office with the help of American political consultant Paul Manafort, who advised and, briefly, chaired the Trump campaign in 2016, when it weakened the Republican party’s platform plank that supported arming Ukraine against Putin after his 2014 invasion.

Seeding lies about corruption that came from Russian-linked Ukrainians was central to Trump’s 2019 impeachment: his phone call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky demanding Zelensky announce an investigation into Burisma and Joe Biden’s son Hunter was part of an attempt to create dirt on the Bidens. That call happened after Trump’s advisor Rudy Giuliani went to Ukraine, where he talked to “an active Russian agent,” according to the FBI. FBI agents warned Giuliani that he was a target of Russian disinformation.  

That poison has now spread from Trump’s rogue team in the White House to the Republican Party itself, which has apparently been carrying water for Putin at the very center of our government. 

Meanwhile, under pressure from Trump loyalists in the House, Speaker Johnson is refusing to take up a measure to aid Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s 2022 invasion. Such a measure is popular in the U.S., both among the population in general and among lawmakers. While other countries can provide funds, only the U.S. has enough of the required war matériel Ukraine so desperately needs. Already, Russia has managed to retake the key city of Avdiivka because Ukraine’s troops don’t have enough ammunition, and today Jimmy Rushton, a Kyiv-based foreign policy analyst, quoted a Ukrainian officer’s report that they can’t “medivac our guys from the contact line anymore because we don’t have any artillery ammunition to suppress the Russians. We have to leave them to die.”

The reluctance of House Republicans to support Ukraine has global implications. Putin is trying to tear up the rules-based international order that has protected international boundaries since World War II, while Trump has threatened to destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that holds back Russian aggression. In the Wall Street Journal on Friday, chief foreign affairs correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov noted that European countries are worried that the U.S. will not defend its allies, while Putin has made “a de facto military alliance with the rogue regimes of North Korea and Iran while growing closer and closer to authoritarian China.”

European nations have expanded their own military production and support for Ukraine; Poland and the Baltic states have invested far more in their militaries than NATO’s threshold of 2% of a nation’s gross domestic product. In the Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum reported Friday that some of the nations that border Russia are looking again at land mines, concertina wire, and trenches—the technology of last century’s wars—to protect themselves from a Russian invasion. 

Putin and allies like Viktor Orbán of Hungary have been clear they believe democracy is obsolete. Far-right extremists in the United States agree, insisting that democracy’s demand for equal rights before the law undermines society as immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and women’s rights challenge “traditional” values. That ideological justification has led many white evangelical Christians to flock to Trump’s strongman persona.

How religion and authoritarianism have come together in modern America was on display Thursday, when right-wing activist Jack Posobiec opened this weekend’s conference of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., with the words: “Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.” He held up a cross necklace and continued: “After we burn that swamp to the ground, we will establish the new American republic on its ashes, and our first order of business will be righteous retribution for those who betrayed America.”

But Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary suggested that the drive to lay waste to American democracy is not popular. Trump won the state, as expected, by about 60%—lower  than predicted. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley won 40% of the vote. This means that Trump will have to continue spending money he doesn’t currently have on his campaign.   

More important than that, even, is that it shows that even in a strongly Republican state, 40% of primary voters—the party’s most loyal voters—prefer someone else. As Mike Allen of Axios wrote today: “If America were dominated by old, white, election-denying Christians who didn’t go to college, former President Trump would win the general election in…a landslide.” But, Allen added, “It’s not.”  

Which may be precisely why Trump loyalists intend to overthrow democracy. 

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