What are we to make of the dismissive silence of Republican senators and representatives in response to this past week’s stunning news — from the political weaponization of security clearances to multiple felony pleas and convictions — only the latest evidence of serious misbehavior by President Trump and the coterie of “the best people” he has attracted to serve in his private and public lives?
Trump’s assault on the values, institutions, and norms of American democracy is testing the adequacy of constitutional protections designed by the Founders to keep demagogues from occupying the White House and, when necessary, to frustrate would-be autocrats who manage to slip through the net. The rule of law, a free press, individual rights, civil society, and federalism have proven their essential worth and strength in the first 19 months of this trying presidency. Unfortunately, the central element of our constitutional design — separation of powers with checks and balances — has proven the weakest link. And that is a story of Congress and the bankruptcy of the modern Republican Party.
It began decades ago in the wake of the civil rights movement, the ’60s counterculture, the war in Vietnam, and Roe v. Wade, which over time sorted the parties into two distinct groups, with few cross-cutting cleavages and sharply defined identities based on race, ethnicity, religion, education, and geography. After decades of Democratic dominance in Congress, the parties became more electorally competitive for majority control as well as ideologically distinctive. The political stakes increased commensurately. The legislative process became more a platform for promoting differences than resolving them. A permanent campaign morphed into a permanent war. Members of Congress became partisans first, members of the first branch of government second. Institutional loyalty atrophied. Political ambitions were pursued in ways that diminished any sense of institutional responsibility.
Both parties were shaped by these forces, but in different ways. Losing their “Dixiecrats” (Southern racial conservatives), Democrats became unified around a progressive agenda and more responsive to the interests of racial minorities, women, and LGBT communities. Policy differences remained among Democrats in Congress, but the hard left never gained a foothold and compromises remained possible on bread-and-butter issues. Government was, in their view, more a solution than a problem.
Though born as the party of Lincoln, the Republican Party pursued a “Southern strategy” in the 1960s and 1970s based on reinforcing and extending racial resentment among working-class whites and championing the newly politicized concerns of white religious conservatives. They retained their business support with responsive policies on taxes, spending, and regulation. Cutting taxes became their central and non-negotiable demand.
Republican leaders in Congress embraced and encouraged the Tea Party movement in the depths of the global financial crisis and Great Recession, consolidating their position of near universal opposition to the Obama administration and host to the conspiracy theories and white supremacist sentiments of the far right. Initially led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans in Congress embraced a strategy of demonizing their Democratic adversaries and tagging them as responsible for an utterly corrupt Congress. Fostering distrust of government became an attractive means of gaining power for them.
In spite of the seeming hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump, the lineage is crystal clear. The ethno-nationalist populism of Trump is now the motivating force of Republican activists and cable, talk radio, and social media news. The timidity of Republicans in Congress in the face of unprecedented corruption and abuses of power by Trump and his associates flows from their fear of the party they helped create. They have ignored the obvious subjects of congressional oversight and throttled legislative efforts to protect the independence and integrity of the Mueller investigation. They are rushing the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as well as a host of appellate court nominees in hopes of solidifying a conservative judicial majority for decades to come.
Only defeat at the polls and decisive shifts against Trump among rank-and-file Republicans will create incentives strong enough for them to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. A Democratic House majority in the November midterm elections is the essential first step — to begin a public congressional examination of the alleged abuses of power and to ensure the completion of the special counsel’s investigation and report.
Impeachment hearings in the House would best begin only if and when these processes produce convincing evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors by the president. Some Republican support for articles of impeachment in the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor will be essential if the supermajority of senators required for conviction is to be achieved. Neither seem plausible now, given the tribal divisions that plague our democracy. But that could change, as it did in Watergate.
A legitimate and credible set of investigative processes by individuals committed to the rule of law and an aroused citizenry prepared to think and act on the evidence produced could help us meet this constitutional crisis and begin the slow and difficult process of renewing American democracy.
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a resident scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor, with E.J. Dionne Jr. and Norman Ornstein, of “One Nation After Trump.”