Last week, President Trump railed against his attorney general, Bill Barr, for failing to issue criminal indictments against the president’s opponent, Joe Biden, and former president Barack Obama. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes,” the president said, “… then we’ll get little satisfaction, unless I win.”
Trump next ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from her tenure as secretary of state. Pompeo responded by making clear his willingness to do as the president had asked.
These threats to use the powers of the federal government to confront and even prosecute the president’s political enemies represent an unambiguous declaration of authoritarian intent and the dangers of unchecked executive power.
Yet even though the Republican Party has, at least rhetorically, devoted itself to preventing the husbanding of overweening power in the hands of the executive branch, there were no words of condemnation about the president’s latest outrage. No congressional Republican issued statements deploring Trump’s calls. None spoke up — and just a few have taken a stand as Trump has systematically chipped away at the rule of law over the past four years.
It’s yet one more reminder that while Trump is the most glaring symptom of national political disorder, the true disease is the modern Republican Party. That’s also why defeating Trump on Election Day is not enough to flush out the malignancy of Trumpism. It is the entire Republican Party that must be defeated.
This may sound like a partisan attack, but it’s actually the opposite. If the GOP continues on its current path of greater and more undemocratic extremism, it will likely provide political benefits to Democrats. But the two-party political system that has long defined American politics cannot be maintained if one party no longer takes democracy and the rule of law seriously. America needs political competition between two mature, responsible political parties devoted to the welfare of the American people and the safeguarding of our democratic institutions. Today, it has only one.
And there is little chance Republicans will turn away from the path of self-immolation if it is not forced to endure a crushing political defeat. Indeed, the worst possible outcome for the country is if Trump is defeated on Nov. 3 but the party avoids a comprehensive defeat. This outcome will almost certainly convince the powers that be that the electorate rejected Trump but not the party as a whole — and thus there is no need for larger systemic and institutional change.
But Trumpism is not some phantom presence in our national politics. It emerged out of a Republican Party that has become more openly racist and hostile toward broad swaths of Americans, less responsive to voters than it is to wealthy donors, and more willing to embrace extremist, anti-democratic, norm-shredding figures like Trump. As much as Republicans would like to present Trump as some sort of anomaly, the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, was more than happy to accept the endorsement of the nation’s most prominent proponent of birtherism. As a candidate in 2016, Trump called for a Muslim ban and pushed an openly xenophobic anti-immigration platform, but those positions were just slightly more radical the views of his fellow Republicans.
While Trump likes to brag about his stocking the federal judiciary with conservative judges, it was Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell who spent the Obama years blocking judicial nominees, including Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, which made Trump’s judicial remaking possible. It’s Republicans now who are engaged in the shredding of the court’s last vestiges of legitimacy by steamrolling through the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett weeks before the election.
For four years, Republicans have walked in lockstep with the worst elements of Trumpism. They have continually blocked efforts to hold the president accountable — including, but not limited to, his impeachment earlier this year. They have waved away his corruption, his indecency, and his poisonous attacks on his political opponents. The modern Republican Party is not merely a collection of cowards. It is complicit in Trump’s actions and our current state of national disorder.
It’s that willingness to encourage the evils of Trumpism that disqualifies the party, in its current form, from a position of continued national leadership. Only if the GOP is thoroughly and unambiguously defeated down the ballot in November — from president to dog catcher — can there be any real hope of it being rebuilt into a functional political party. For the good of the country, the modern Republican Party must be vanquished.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.