When Republicans Cease to be Conservative

Over the last eight years, we’ve watched Republicans break norms that had developed over decades in order to allow our political institutions to function. The most glaring of these is the overuse of the filibuster in the Senate. This was so effective that a new norm developed in which it is assumed that sixty votes are required for passage of almost any legislation.

Other norms, like showing respect to the President, have simply been eroded, as when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” to Obama during a speech before a joint session of Congress. The same happened when John Boehner invited the prime minister of Israel to speak to Congress without informing the White House. But a refusal to even hold hearings on a president’s nominee to the Supreme Court was absolutely unprecedented. We could also go back to the Bush/Cheney administration’s erosion of norms in many of the ways they prosecuted their “global war on terror” as well as their politicization of federal agencies like the DOJ and intelligence services.

All of this belies the idea that Republicans continue to call themselves “conservatives,” given that the term is usually used to describe people who value norms and traditions. As Anne Karni describes today, the incoming administration looks prepared to blow them all up.

In a series of decisions and comments since his election last month—from small and stylistic preferences to large and looming conflicts—Trump has signaled that he intends to run his White House much like he ran his campaign: with little regard for tradition. And in the process of writing his own rules, he is shining a light on how much of the American political system is encoded in custom, and how little is based in the law.

Karni focuses much of her attention on the norms Trump has already discarded during the campaign and transition. That includes musings about doing away with press briefings and daily intelligence reports, retaining his own private security, refusing to release his taxes, and dismissing his conflicts of interest. But if he actually listens to the counsel of someone like Newt Gingrich, all of that could actually get much worse.

Republicans close to Trump also appear to be egging him on in terms of how much freedom he has as president.

Trump can rely on “the power of the pardon” to organize his White House any way he pleases, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bragged in an NPR interview on Monday. “It’s a totally open power,” Gingrich said. “He could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.’ Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority.”

While it’s true that a lot of people voted for Trump to shake up the system in Washington, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about when we refer to “banana republics.” Karni is right to suggest that, in an actual democratic republic, this should spark a reaction from the other branches of government.

But how Trump chooses to flout custom or stretch the law, experts said, could end up reinvigorating checks and balances by other branches of government.

“It will expose how well other institutions function when one of them is operating outside the normal framework,” said attorney Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel to President Obama. “If you have a president who is going to push hard against standing limits and expectations, are other institutions, like the Congress, going to step into the breach? Are they going to take on a more muscular role than they otherwise would?”

The other two branches of government are Congress and the courts. While Trump could run into trouble in circuit courts, if he has a nominee approved to fill the current opening on the Supreme Court, a case would have to be seriously egregious to get past the conservative majority there. At least for the next two years, Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress and aren’t likely to take up a cause against a president from their own party. So it is difficult to imagine how these checks and balances will stand in the way of the Trump administration.

That leaves the American public. Lately I’ve been reminding myself how fickle this culture has become. We tend to raise up heroes only to eventually knock them down as villains when we grow tired of them. Will that eventually happen with Trump supporters? Even a lot of Republicans bailed out of supporting George W. Bush. He left office with a 22% approval rating. But that was before right wing media sealed up their epistemically closed bubble to the extent they’ve done more recently.

What I’m suggesting is that it is very possible that our institutions won’t be up to the task if and when our president-elect further erodes the norms and traditions that have allowed our democracy to function. I’m not saying that there is no hope. But it is important to be clear-eyed about the reality of where things stand right now: Republicans are no longer a “conservative” party.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.