Editorial: GOP's fate hangs in the balance
As the nation watches the second impeachment trial of ex-president Donald Trump unfold, it is clear that what hangs in the balance is the integrity, and perhaps viability, of the Republican Party.
Of the party’s integrity, Trumpism has taken its toll these past four years. It’s not only that Trump’s big lie about the election being stolen was adopted and spread by party leaders for far too long — even as most knew it was not true — but that, over the past four years, the party’s platform has been supplanted by lies, conspiracy theories, and self-serving policies that Trump imposed.
Today, the party is largely bereft of principle and reliant on tactics that deny truth.
The first day of impeachment hearings was a good example. Constitutional scholars throughout the country have overwhelmingly accepted the legal theory and logic that such impeachment hearings were constitutional; the House prosecutors made a strong case; Trump’s defense was universally described as “embarrassingly weak,” “incoherent” and “frivolous.” And yet only six Republican senators voted with Democrats in agreement that the impeachment proceedings were constitutional.
Four leading Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rick Scott of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — didn’t even have the courage, as jurors, to watch the prosecutors’ video footage on which much of the impeachment trial will be based: that Trump set the groundwork for the Jan. 6 insurrection of the Capitol over the previous 6 weeks and that he willfully incited the mob to attack the Capitol that day. As jurors, those four senators didn’t have the guts to watch what they knew was damning evidence because it would make their denial of it that much harder for them.
Why are leading Republican senators, who castigated Trump in the presidential primary just 5 years ago as a fraud, scoundrel and worse, now his defenders? Because they are afraid of the political base Trump represents.
When asked to explain the gap between Republican members’ private opinions and their public stances, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, 42, of Illinois, who is one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach Trump, was clear: “Political pressure. It’s fear of Donald Trump. Because there’s no doubt you’re not going to get through a primary having voted for impeachment without some hard work and explaining… But I think you were elected to be out here with judgment and you had to swear an oath to protect against foreign and domestic enemies.”
Kinzinger went on to say that he didn’t think very many Republicans in Congress actually believed the election was stolen, but that they have gone along with Trump’s lie because it was the easiest path. “(For) A lot of them, it’s avoiding pain. The ones that kind of have kept their head down, it’s more a matter of: I’ll just do what I need to do to get through and hope that there’s an organic change to the party.”
It is clear, however, that change will not come organically to today’s Republican Party. Those who are holding out hope that reasonable leaders will emerge and bring the party back into the mainstream will most likely be disappointed. That’s largely because conservative media — the Rush Limbaughs of talk radio and the Tucker Carlsons of right-wing networks — has largely taken over the Republican Party’s message with outrageous conspiracy theories and purposeful misinformation. Furthermore, today’s Republican Party follows its base, rather than leading it to saner policies.
This is not the party that President George W. Bush led just two presidencies ago. Its base today is led by increasingly radicalized extremists who have an outsized voice. The party’s contorted message feeds the rage and grievances of mainly white, male blue-collar workers, many of whom have a prejudice to settle their differences with violence rather than reason.
Some Republican voters are beginning to understand this.
Many dyed-in-the-wool Republicans tell themselves that the mob that stormed the Capitol do not represent the GOP, but it’s not clear today they do not. It’s that nagging sense that Trump’s unruly mob — the one that killed a policeman and injured 140 other men-in-blue that day — are the real power behind the curtain, that they are the new face of the Republican Party; that the genteel party of old that embraced family values, championed education and free trade, and held responsible and pragmatic policies in high regard no longer has a prominent seat at the table.
That should shake the party to its core; it should give those mainstream GOP leaders an opening to split with Trumpism and rebuild a credible party with legitimate policy goals; it should allow them to ditch the Trump cult and once more become a party that believes in facts, truth and the rule of law.
And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence needed to impeach Trump, it appears unlikely.
If enough Republican Senators vote to acquit Trump — not because it is the right thing to do for the country, but because of their fear of Trump’s base — what future is there for an anti-democratic party in America’s democracy? One or the other will have to lose.