For Republicans, Chaos Is the Strategy

They know how to turn their weakness into strength.

1. Chaos Reigns

Over the weekend Shay Khatiri put out an excellent issue of his Russia-Iran file newsletter. If you’re one of the 20 people in America who cares about foreign policy, you should subscribe to it.

I want to focus on a piece he linked to from 2018, which looks at how Vladimir Putin views chaos as a strategy:

For all of Russia’s weaknesses as a great power, the Kremlin thinks it possesses one key advantage in long-term competition with America and the democratic West: Russia is more cohesive internally and will thus be able to outlast its technologically superior but culturally and politically pluralistic opponents. In recent years, Putin, his chief military strategist Valery Gerasimov, and other Russian leaders have employed disinformation to spread chaos for strategic effect. The Kremlin’s goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos (that is, which is less susceptible to societal disruption) wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems while consolidating its own population, resources, and cultural base. Such a strategy avoids competition in those areas where the Kremlin is weak in hopes of ensuring that, when confrontation does come, it will enjoy a more level playing field.


This is observation is so penetrating that once you see it, the entire world looks different. Of course it’s correct.

But reading it, I was also struck by how this exact same strategic embrace of chaos has been embraced by Trump’s Republican party.

On the surface, the Democrats appear to have a number of strategic advantages. They’ve won the popular vote in every election but one since 1992. (A string of dominance not seen since the aftermath of the Civil War.) They command a clear national majority. Their electoral base is strongest in the states which have the most dynamic economies. They are strongest in the urban and suburban centers—which is where we see America’s population growth. Their support is dispersed widely among different racial and ethnic groups. They hold an overwhelming advantage with young voters.

Compared with Democrats, the Republican party is closer to a rump. A minoritarian party composed of the old and the lesser-educated and concentrated in parts of the country whose populations are shrinking.

Whether by accident or design, Donald Trump intuited the same lesson that Vladimir Putin hit upon as he looked to leverage Russia’s strengths against the West’s weaknesses.

What Trump showed Republicans is that:

  • While the GOP coalition is smaller, it’s much more internally cohesive than the Democrats’. It is the party of rural, white Christians.

  • While Democrats have specific legislative goals their coalition wants to achieve through governing, the Republican coalition has no governing agenda (aside from appointing judges).

  • The geographic dispersion of voters means that Republicans do not need to create a majority in order to hold power, while Democrats require not just a majority, but a sizable majority.

And the obvious lesson for Republicans, then, is that chaos is their friend.

Disruption is more likely to help Republicans. Their coalition is more resistant to adverse outcomes. They need fewer votes to hold power.

Democrats require a large coalition in order to attain power. Their coalition is broad and therefore diverse, which makes it both harder to manage and more easily splintered. They need to both (a) achieve tangible legislative goals and (b) keep the ship of state moving steadily and without turbulence. In short: They need to govern effectively and with a minimum of drama.

That’s hard to do in the best of times.

It may be impossible when the former president, the other political party, and 40 percent of the country are strategically committed to stoking chaos.

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2. Anti-Vaxx Is Pro-Chaos

If the percentage of vaccinated Americans continues to lag, then cases of COVID will continue to be large, the burden and expense of treating the infected will continue to stress the system, and the return to a completely normal life (and economy) will continue to keep slipping just over the horizon. Anti-vaxx is pro-chaos.

So how are we doing in America?

Cambodia. The U.S. is behind Cambodia, which has a per capita GDP of less than $2,000.

How are things going toward the top of that list?

Pretty cool. Sounds nice.

But of course, in Denmark, you do not have one of the two major political parties committed to undermining vaccination as a matter of politics and policy.

The pandemic creates chaos. For Republicans, that’s part of the strategy.

3. Chaos and Public Health

Here’s a pretty interesting longread about how right-wingers out west are waging war against public health officials:

Tamalee St. James Robinson was working late again. It was fall 2020, and in Flathead County, Montana, where Robinson was serving as interim public health officer, COVID-19 cases had jumped tenfold from the summer. The schools were still open, and new cases meant Robinson routinely worked 10-hour days, even on weekends. Around 9 p.m., a truck pulled into the empty Health Department parking lot, in clear view of Robinson’s office window. Something about it felt wrong; the truck’s engine was idling and its running lights were on. Robinson decided to move away from the window and take cover behind the two monitors at her workstation. That way, she thought, they can’t get a clear shot at me.

Eventually, the truck left. Robinson wondered if she’d overreacted. She thought about the previous week and realized that she’d been on edge ever since the county sheriff had called her. “Do you know how to shoot a gun?” he’d asked. He told Robinson that a man had threatened her, saying that he wanted to challenge her to a public duel. The sheriff told Robinson that such threats would not be tolerated, but he thought she should know about it, just in case.

This is not what Robinson expected when she moved here. Her original plan was retirement; after two decades working in public health in Billings, Robinson wanted to enjoy the mountains and lakes and relax with her husband. But in 2019, when she was asked to help chair the Flathead County Board of Health, she agreed. Then the pandemic hit, and the health officer, who had been offered another job, asked her to act as the county’s interim health officer while the Flathead City-County Health Department hired a replacement. “You could probably do it part time, maybe three days a week,” Robinson recalls being told. At the time, cases in the area were mercifully low; the pandemic had yet to hit Montana the way it had places like New York and Seattle. Robinson agreed to serve.

But shortly after Robinson took office in July, local COVID-19 cases spiked. The state of Montana issued a mask mandate for businesses, but enforcement was left to local and regional officials. At the same time, the state’s department of education deferred all decisions about masking in schools to local officials, as did the Montana High School Association, which manages school sports throughout the state. “Everything was thrown at local health officers,” Robinson said. “We had to make those decisions. And then when we made those decisions, based on our best information, (other leaders) came out against them.” . . .

As COVID cases increased in Montana, discussion swirled around what precautions to take, and Robinson became an easily recognizable public figure — and a convenient scapegoat for local citizens’ fears and frustrations. Every day, hateful emails and phone calls accused her of threatening people’s constitutional freedoms and destroying businesses. Protesters lurked outside her office, holding signs that proclaimed “Tamalee is a tyrant” and “Got dictatorial powers? Tamalee does.” . . .

The day after Thanksgiving, Robinson resigned. In her letter, she detailed the “lack of support” for public health personnel and the “toxic environment” in which she worked. “It’s clear that the underlying motivation by several members of your groups is more closely aligned with ideological biases than the simple desire to do what’s best for the health of the community,” she wrote.

Robinson is just one of dozens of public health officers and board members in the Western U.S. — and at least 250 across the nation — who have left their positions over the course of the pandemic. Many, like Robinson, resigned, including the entire four-member staff of Montana’s Pondera County, who quit en masse in November, citing a lack of support from the county. Lori Drumm, the health officer in Montana’s Powell County, described her resignation in a Washington Post article: “I am part of a larger wave of public health officials resigning across the country, threatened with violence, facing political pressure to change guidelines or just burned out from the stress.”

It’s of a piece with the idea that a good portion of the country is committed to chaos. Read the whole thing.