House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has spent the week dealing with a mess of his own making. Before and after Hurricane Irene slammed the East coast, the conservative Republican made clear demands when it came to emergency disaster assistance: if Democrats want to help communities hit by a natural disaster, Republicans will block the aid unless Democrats accept comparable spending cuts.

As we’ve discussed this week, there’s no shortage of problems here. For example, Cantor never felt the need to pay for wars, tax cuts, or bailouts, but suddenly storm-ravaged American communities are facing a new standard. For that matter, Republicans never even applied this standard to natural disaster victims before President Obama took office. It doesn’t help that Eric Cantor personally sought federal aid for his own district after previous storms without regard for offsets.

But today, Paul Krugman takes a look at the larger context, and argues that hypocrisy isn’t the most serious flaw in the GOP approach. Rather, the “primary issue should be the extraordinary nihilism now on display by Mr. Cantor and his colleagues — their willingness to flout all the usual conventions of fair play and, well, decency in order to get what they want.”

Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work.

But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met. That’s what happened with the debt-ceiling fight, and now it’s what’s happening over disaster aid. In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.

Of course, Mr. Cantor would have you believe that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. But that’s no more than a cover story.

I raised a similar argument in July, exploring “the normalization of extortion politics.”

To be sure, bargaining and horse-trading has been a staple of the American political process since its inception. But I think Krugman’s right that we’re now seeing something very different, and given the circumstances, far more nefarious.

Congressional Republicans are effectively telling the administration, over and over again, that the normal system of American governance can continue — disasters can be addressed, bills can be paid, vacancies can be filled — just as soon as Democrats agree to policy changes the GOP can’t otherwise pass.

Consider, for example, the Republican decision to reject any and all nominees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, regardless of merit, unless and until Democrats accept changes to the agency’s structure. Traditionally, if the GOP wanted to alter the powers of the CFPB, it would write legislation, send it to committee, bring it to the floor, send it to the other chamber, etc. But that takes time and effort, and in a divided government, this “old fashioned” approach to policymaking probably wouldn’t produce the desired result.

Instead, we see the latest in a series of extortion strategies: Republicans will force Democrats to accept changes to the agency, or Republicans won’t allow the agency to function.

The traditional American model would tell Republicans to win an election. If that doesn’t work, Republicans should work with rivals to pass legislation that moves them closer to their goal. In 2011, the GOP has decided these old-school norms are of no value. Why bother with them when Republicans can force through changes by way of a series of hostage strategies? Why should the legislative branch use its powers through legislative action when extortion is more effective?

Krugman concludes, “What will happen to America now that people like Mr. Cantor are calling the shots for one of its two major political parties?” That’s an awfully good question.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.