Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to media during the weekly Senate Republican Leadership press conference, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Eager to revive the flagging fortunes of Democrats in advance of the midterms, President Joe Biden has gone on offense, attacking, in particular, the “ultra-MAGA” policies proposed by Florida Senator Rick Scott.

Scott’s “11 point plan to rescue America,” released in his role as the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is a smorgasbord of bad ideas, such as finishing the border wall and naming it after Donald Trump, and requiring all federal programs to expire after just five years—including, presumably, Medicare and Social Security. Scott’s plan also demands that “all Americans should pay some income tax,” in an echo of Mitt Romney’s complaint in 2012 about the “47 percent” of Americans who “pay no income tax” and are “dependent on government.” In fact, every working American pays Social Security and Medicare taxes, not to mention state and local taxes, a point that Biden underscored. “The Republican plan is to increase taxes on the middle-class families,” he said recently.

Scott’s plan is so unpopular that even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repudiated the Floridian’s ideas. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people,” McConnell said, “and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.” Biden, though, is still right to go after Scott as a GOP totem. “Americans have a choice right now between two paths reflecting two very different sets of values,” Biden said.

Scott’s plan—which he describes as “not for the faint of heart”—shows how thoroughly the GOP has internalized Trumpism. And it’s an alarming preview of the conservative assault to come if they ascend to power: waging war on cultural issues, escalating right-wing hostility toward government, and advancing a terrifying vision of America as an isolationist, white nationalist theocracy.

Democrats, unfortunately, aren’t ready with a compelling counterattack.

To be sure, Scott’s ideas should rouse the Democratic base. He proposes, for instance, to end teacher tenure at public schools (in violation of local control) and close the Department of Education (while still demanding that America “be number one in the world in math and science by 2030”).

He is especially hostile to immigrants, whom he would ban from unemployment and other benefits for seven years; transgender athletes, whom he’d bar from competitions; and the poor, to whom he’d deny welfare benefits unless they “are disabled or aggressively seeking work.” Scott also panders to the alt-right: “Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant” (whatever that means), “public schools will teach our children to love America,” the “nuclear family … is God’s design for humanity,” and “no tax dollars will be used to pay for any diversity training or other woke indoctrination that is hostile to faith.” (Yet, the former Florida governor notes without irony, “we must foster national unity.”)

At the same time, Scott’s plan doubles down on Tea Party–style conservatism that was once considered radical but is now establishment thinking within the GOP. This is intentional. By juxtaposing “ultra-MAGA” ideas with “traditional” conservatism, Scott is shifting the Overton window for what’s acceptable within mainstream Republicanism.

Much of Scott’s 60-page screed seems tailor-made for GOP talking points—which Democrats should not underestimate. The Republican invention of “death panels” nearly derailed Obamacare, while conservative rebranding of estate taxes as “the death tax” helped the GOP stymie estate tax reform for years. Marriage defined as between “one man, one woman” was the successful battle cry of marriage equality opponents in many states before the Supreme Court settled the issue.

Scott’s document is likewise chock full of disingenuous aphorisms and doublespeak. He argues, for instance, that his proposal to forbid government collection of racial data—literally erasing the existence of minorities—would “eliminate racial politics in America” and make it “colorblind.” He even has the audacity to label this effort “ban the box”—a reference to progressive efforts to forbid employers from asking prospective workers about prior convictions. In this case, he implies, the “crime” is being white. His prejudices are of the velvet hammer variety compared to Trump’s blunt racism—and potentially more dangerous as a result.

Like many conservatives before him, Scott uses the language of accountability as a pretext for undermining the government. “We will require ‘truth in governing,’” Scott declares. “If government passes a law that does not achieve what it promised, the program will be shut down.” And in an echo of President Ronald Reagan’s privatization fetish, Scott revives the trope of business as better and more efficient than government. “Government should not be doing anything that the private sector can do better and cheaper,” he argues. At the same time, he proposes to “sell off all non-essential government assets, building and land”—including, presumably, wildlife refuges, national parks, and the Smithsonian.

Democrats, however, have been caught off guard by today’s culture wars that Scott’s plan will likely exacerbate. Perhaps lulled by the galvanic racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, liberals were unprepared for the backlash. They lack a pointed rejoinder to historical revisionists like Scott, who argues that “no child will be taught … that some Americans are oppressors and others are oppressed.”

Liberals need an antidote to critical race theory hysteria, pronto, especially since a recent CBS poll finds that 87 percent of Americans oppose banning books about race and that 68 percent believe that teaching about race “makes students understand what others went through.” Democrats should deride right-wing whitewashing without teetering into self-righteous “wokeness.”

Democrats also need to defend government instead of assuming that government can sell itself. This failure to make the case for government is why so many liberals are mystified by the public’s lack of enthusiasm for Build Back Better, Democrats’ signature economic and social spending proposal. They do not understand that while “big and bold” programs thrill liberals’ hearts, they cause ulcers for others. President Bill Clinton’s efforts in the 1990s to “reinvent government” are the closest that Democrats have come to an effective defense of government—but even that was a rearguard action against the anti-government sentiment Reagan unleashed.

Democrats should trumpet the good that government does rather than how much more it should spend. And they should elevate the everyday heroes of the federal workforce—such as park rangers and FBI agents—to defang conservative caricatures of bureaucrats. (A great example of this approach is the Partnership for Public Service’s annual Service to America Medals, whose past honorees have included the creators of the “do not call” list and federal Ebola researchers). Democrats should clarify that Scott’s proposals to gut the federal government would deprive Americans of Yellowstone and NASA, SEAL Team Six, and Grandma’s Social Security check.

Dark in tone and absolutist in its language (“We will protect, defend and promote the American Family at all costs”), Scott’s manifesto aims to mobilize an embittered minority. Democrats should not be surprised if he succeeds. The multimillionaire is no neophyte crank like Representative Marjorie Taylor Green (she of “gazpacho-gate” and “Jewish space lasers”). In 2014, he defeated former Governor and now Democratic Representative Charlie Crist to win reelection as Florida’s governor. In 2018, he narrowly ousted longtime Senator Bill Nelson, and the 69-year-old has never lost a race. His MAGA star is rising, although he insists—for now—that a 2024 presidential run is off the table.

Democrats need a strategy to keep Scott and his ideas on the fringe, where they belong.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.