We can have a Republic OR a Republican Party. But not both.
Today was the inevitable, enervating last day of the sham trial of Donald J. Trump. Today the man who became president on fewer votes than his opponent, the man who not only didn’t rise to the meet the standards of his office but diminished the office to meet his personal style, the man who blocked the testimony of witnesses and the release of all subpoenaed documents but had the nerve to assert that he should be acquitted of obstruction due to a “lack of evidence” was able to bully all but one member of his Party to vote to not remove him from office for his crimes.
The result was never in doubt. Although it is reported that Senators of all political positions will condemn Trump in private, and “off the record” describe him as a unique fusion of tyrant and buffoon, their public voices are muffled or silenced by their fear of what he might do to them with a tweet.
Profiles in cowardice.
There was much talk of the Founders today. There was talk of the brilliance of the Constitution, and the genius of men two hundred and thirty years ago who anticipated the potential of democracy to self-destruct, and who did their best to create institutions to play one power against another in a system of law that would channel ambitions to beneficial ends, or at a minimum use one against another to see to it that no single power — legislative, executive, or judicial — would be free to dominate the public. In order to keep the government in check, it would remain divided, and the whole would be subject to a system of elections and a Constitution that would guarantee the rights of each person against the whims of the whole.
It was something to be proud of. But it was not perfect. One problems the Founders anticipated but did not find an institutional answer for was the role of political factions, or parties, in government. In the Federalist Papers (numbers 9 and 10), Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote about the potential for danger came from institutionalized political factions. George Washington was not a member of any political party, and in his Farewell Address asserted that “Republican liberty” was threatened by sectionalism and political factions. Nevertheless, it was also clear by this time that some kind of political parties were necessary to collect and compromise and coordinate the differences of opinion that would naturally arise in any democracy, and the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans had already arisen to meet that need. Washington feared that a lesson of history was that political parties, and the swings in power and retribution associated with them, would produce “a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” Partisanship would result in a condition in which people would perceive politics not as mechanism for making collective decisions, but as nothing more than a war to impose rule. And the winner of the moment — an individual, dominating a Party — would be pushed to make their rule permanent as a Tyrant.
The Founders saw the threat, but no institutional solution. There is no mention of political parties in the US Constitution. Instead, the cycle of politics to parties to war to the tyrant was a human tendency that had to be resisted by each generation. And to the extent that the parties themselves were institutionalized, their preferences skewing to the extremes, the threat would grow over time.
Over the years, a cycle has repeated in American politics. Given the structure of the “winner-take-all” electoral system there is a natural tendency for two major parties, organized around varying issues and coalitions. There have been at least five such cycles already. Sometimes it led to renewal, as people witnessing the partisanship around them or feeling unrepresented by the existing powers dissolved one or more of the existing parties, creating something new. The Federalists fell, ending the first cycle, and the Democratic-Republicans divided into the Democrats and the Whigs. The
Whigs collapsed, in part over the issue of slavery, and the third cycle emerged between an anti-slavery Republican Party and the predominantly pro-slavery Democrats. The coalitions remained largely intact through the fourth cycle, but the issues revolved around the regulation of the emerging industrial trusts and labor unions.
The Great Depression shook national politics, prompting various parties and factions, and the fifth cycle emerged with the New Deal Democratic coalition of 1933. It ended with the divisions over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, but each major party remained divided between the moderates and the more extreme factions within each. The Reagan Revolution called for an end to the New Deal, but in practice there were still enough moderates on both sides to limit the extent to which that actually occurred. The Great Recession of 2008 helped bring Democrat Barrack Obama to the presidency on promises of “hope and change.” But while there was significant change, he was criticized, particularly by the “evangelical/conservative” faction of the Republicans, and “hope” for many turned to exhaustion. Party membership declined across the board, as independent voters grew, looking for a cause worth supporting. It was a classic moment for partisan restructuring. Moderate Republicans were increasingly described as “Republicans in name only” (RINOs) and the competition emerged to appeal to the evangelicals, the disaffected, and the shrinking “base” of each party. Democrats divided between the “establishment” Clinton and the “democratic socialist” Sanders, who for most of his life had never been a registered member of the Party. Over a dozen contenders worked for the Republican nomination, including Donald Trump, who had shifted his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to Reform to Independent, back to an “outsider” Republican in 2012.
Trump’s rise continued the fragmentation of the Republican Party. “Never-Trumpers,” often principled conservatives, either left the Party or sacrificed their principles to join him “in power.” But that power was limited by the need to conform to whatever “the facts” were that he promoted that day, backed by millions who saw him as the instrument to crush the regulatory and “secret” state of insiders and elites who were the enemy, whatever their Party affiliation, but especially the Democrats.
The Republican Party, as it was, is dead. All that remains is an instrument to strike down one’s enemies, win the war, and hold on to power. They may keep the old labels, but it is the Party of Trump, in some sense like the United Russia party is in fact the Party of Putin.
This does not mean that the Democrats are the “good guys,” or even united by much more than a hatred for Trump. The competition is ongoing between the progressives and the moderates, the liberals and the democratic socialists. It’s still as Will Rogers observed: the Democrats are not an organized political party. If you don’t believe that, take another look at the Iowa caucuses. They are flawed human beings: some are more corrupt, some are much less so. They have a wide range of views, and some personal animosity. It’s a miracle that they were able to stand united to convict and expel Donald Trump from the presidency. When he leaves office — IF he leaves office — they are very likely to fragment into at least two factions.
And that can be a very good thing. It can lead to two very different parties, with different visions of how to how to act and what to achieve. The never-Trumpers could join one or another of those groups, pulling at least one of them closer to the political “center” of independents and disaffected. These might compete with a conservative party, or the Libertarians. This could be the beginning of the partisan realignment this country is overdue for: new perspectives, new people, a reframing of issues and options. This could be invigorating for the American Republic.
But first, the Republican Party has to die as an organization, as it already has as a set of principles. Not just Trump, but all the people who have chosen to look the other way or justify his flouting of the Constitution and law. Not all registered Republicans are evil, or stupid. Some are, but others have been frightened into believing in some kind of monolithic “left” that is somehow the enemy of the Republic. Some are just afraid of change — that’s understandable, and something that needs to be addressed by whatever set of parties, most likely two, survives the current transition. Many want to Make an America Great Again that is more like the America of the Constitution, not an America based on fear or repression. They have needs and values that should be addressed. They need a political party, not a cult.
This can happen. The great weakness of a cult of personality is people die. There is no one to replace Trump. Not his children. Not the cowards who are on the record enabling him. When he dies, or is imprisoned (or both), or merely forced out of office the Trump Era will go down in history like the McCarthy Era, or the Know-Nothings, or Prohibition, or pre-war American Nazis. Nationalism and hysteria have deep roots in American culture, as do conspiracy theories and various forms of populism. Each generation has to learn that there is no progress other than what you can make. There is no law without responsible citizens. To the extent any of us is diminished, we all suffer. Politics is, or can be, more than partisanship or war.
For the good of the Republic, the Republican Party — the cult of Trump — has to die. Good can be salvaged from the wreckage. But first, it has to die.