Republican leaders have to decide: Donald Trump or Democracy

For a day or so over the weekend, Donald Trump was off Twitter, but for notes of thanks here and there. What a relief it was. The relentless pressure that Trump applied to Joe Biden and Chris Wallace at the first presidential debate last week mirrored the daily pounding the country has had to endure months on end from a President who is determined to dominate every news cycle.

His surrogates on the Sunday talk shows were subdued. Sparring with Chris Wallace on Fox News, Steve Cortes went so far as to suggest “the MAGA movement is bigger than just President Trump.” It seemed to be a ludicrous proposition, but Trump’s COVID hiatus has clearly left many of his minions reflecting on where things go from here, with the election less than a month away.

The future of the Republican Party hangs in the balance. Not just because of the notion that the nightmare of Trumpism might well outlast the President’s term in office, but because in a very short time, Republican leaders may be forced to make a choice. Donald Trump has made very real threats that he is prepared to undermine the results of the coming election if it does not go his way, and those leaders are going to have to decide where they stand.

It was barely six weeks ago, on the last night of the Republican National Convention, that the final capitulation of the Republican Party to Donald Trump’s will was complete. Few Republican luminaries from the pre-Trump era chose to participate in the quadrennial meeting. Not a single former Republican president, vice president, or nominee chose to attend. There were no Bushes, no Bakers and no Cheneys, no former cabinet officials of any note. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — the 2012 standard bearers — stayed away, each now widely reviled across TrumpWorld.

As its first order of business when the conventions convened, the RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel announced that the party had decided to dispense with having a party platform. The fundamental debates that have animated the GOP for decades — between small government conservatives and what Pete Peterson famously called the unholy alliance of big-spenders and tax-cutters — have been set aside. After decades of embracing its identity as the Party of Ideas — from its legion of supply side gurus, to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, to Ryan’s myriad plans — any pretense of innovative ideas of diversity of thought was extinguished. In its place, the GOP told the world that it now officially stands for nothing more than whatever Donald Trump might happen to tweet in the moment.

The fourth night of the convention marked the apex of Donald Trump’s triumph. His choice of the White House as the venue for delivering his acceptance speech violated historical and ethical norms, and, as such, encapsulated the raised middle finger to the political establishment that has been central to his political movement. The South Portico was festooned with American flags — the type of over-the-top patriotic imagery that we have come to expect from authoritarians across the globe — and the carefully choreographed entrance was everything the President could have hoped for.

As he and Melania slowly and deliberately descended the steps from the White House to the south lawn, and he moved to the podium, the imagery was unmistakable. The strongman, wife on his arm, graciously making an appearance before his gathered political retainers. Juan and Eva Perón could not have done it better. As he concluded his hour-long speech, fireworks appeared in the sky above the People’s House, spelling out the name “TRUMP.” The debasement of the GOP — and the country — was complete.

The weeks that ensued have been dismal for the Republican Party. In one story after another, in his own words and in the words of others, Donald Trump was revealed for who he is. He was quoted trashing people in the military as losers and suckers, and evangelical pastors as hustlers. His taped interviews with Bob Woodward revealed the depth of his public lies regarding the pandemic and his disregard for the well-being of those who attend his rallies — and foreshadowed his similar disregard for major donors gathered at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club just hours before his positive COVID test was announced this week. Then came the release of tax information by the New York Times, and the disastrous first presidential debate.

Even before the RNC gathering in late August, Senate Republicans were showing signs of preparing for life post-Trump. Fully a third of Senate Republicans made it clear to Mitch McConnell that they would no longer rubber stamp Trump’s request for additional coronavirus stimulus funding. This weekend, no doubt with a flagging economy and declining poll numbers in mind, Trump tweeted from his hospital bed for McConnell to get a deal done with Nancy Pelosi. Whether McConnell can deliver looms to be a significant test of whether Trump has fully lost his grip over Senate Republicans who are returning to the anti-debt rhetoric of their pre-Trump years.

The greater challenge facing the Republican Party, however, is not the survival of its members in November — Mitch McConnell’s singular concern in the moment — but whether it is prepared, in the face of a contested presidential election, to affirm the primacy of its commitment to the democratic order. The most revealing moment over the past several weeks came during a regular White House press briefing, when the President declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the 2020 election. It was a softball question — similar to “Do you disavow white supremacist groups?” — that the Donald Trump took instead as one more opportunity to amp up his core supporters.

Should Donald Trump contest the election results as he appears prepared to do, Republican Party leaders will be forced to take a stand. The plans that the Trump campaign appears to have in the works, as described by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic, are not about recounts of close state races, circa 2000, but the wholesale overturning of state results under the fabricated pretext of fraudulent mail-in ballots. The President has been nothing if not transparent in laying the groundwork for such an effort, and has worked assiduously to instigate distrust among his supporters for any election result other than his winning, and winning big.

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The challenge for the GOP is that it the loyalty of the Republican Party base to Donald Trump may well be stronger than to the country itself. Forget the American flags they fly from their pickup trucks and boat flotillas, their love for the President’s trolling, tweets and cruelty may well outstrip their affection for American democracy itself. According to Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels, a large share of Republicans have only a tenuous commitment to the basic principles of democracy.

In his study released this summer, entitled Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy, Bartels observes that that while large majorities have, over time, endorsed core democratic values in the abstract, that support breaks down when put to the test in specific circumstances. Unsurprisingly — but certainly dispiriting — Bartels concludes that “the strongest predictor by far of these antidemocratic attitudes is ethnic antagonism — especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The strong tendency of ethnocentric Republicans to countenance violence and lawlessness, even prospectively and hypothetically, underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.”

In Bartels’ peer-reviewed study, a majority of Republicans agreed with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” And significantly, more than 40% agreed with the statement:“A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” In both cases, Bartels noted that most of those who did not agree outright with those statements said they were unsure whether or not they agreed. Only 20–25% of the Republicans who participated in the study were clear that they disagreed with either of the propositions.

Against the backdrop of a significant share of Republicans supporting force or violence to preserve their view of “the traditional American way of life,” the Trump campaign pursuing anti-democratic, yet legal paths to circumvent the November vote should Trump lose is relatively mild stuff. Bartels’ data suggests that the President will be given wide latitude by a large share of Republicans to use whatever means he sees fit to stay in power.

If there has been any doubt among a large swath of Republicans that the Party of Lincoln has fallen under the sway of a man who has more affinity with autocrats than democrats, events over the past month should be forcing Republicans who care about the future of the party to face that reality. Yet, even in the wake of his straightforward no-peaceful-transfer-of-power threat, Republican apologists did their best to defend the President with their tried and true list of “What the President is saying….” reinterpretations of his words.

For their part, the Wall Street Journal editorial board began by lamely suggesting that the President “clarify his view” lest some voters find his comments reckless and irresponsible. Then they rambled on for hundreds of words explaining how Democrats were the real culprits, for being too easily triggered by a president whose primary political tactic for years now has been trolling Democrats. Finally, when they had exhausted all excuses, they came to rest where they should have started: “The legitimacy of election results is the bedrock of American democracy.

The notion that the MAGA movement is bigger than just President Trump, as Steve Cortes suggested, is mirrored in Larry Bartels’ data. Donald Trump has clarified his views and his intentions: he is willing to create havoc if need be to keep control over the White House and the country. The threat is very real, and there is little reason to believe that his MAGA movement will not support him in whatever he chooses to do. If the Wall Street Journal and Republican leaders — blinded by partisan hatreds as they might be — actually believe in the bedrock principles of Madisonian democracy, as they have long claimed, this would be the moment to stand up and defend it.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”

Financial advisor to city and state governments. Lifelong Red Sox fan (don't hold it against me).

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