How the Republican Party Became a Threat to Democracy

They abandoned policy in favor of identity politics and ethno-nationalism.

For years now we’ve known that Donald Trump lied and cheated in his business dealings. We know that—at minimum—he welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 election and that he obstructed justice to thwart the investigation of those efforts. We know that he extorted the Ukrainian president to get dirt on his political opponent and then covered it up by obstructing investigations in congress.

What wasn’t clear until last week is how far the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate, would go to enable the president’s abuse of power. It has now become clear that not only will they exonerate Trump, but they also refused to call witnesses who would document his guilt. That is why so many people are beginning to contemplate the demise of our democracy—and rightly so. Facing that possibility raises the question of how Republicans got to the point that they are willing to risk our democracy for the sake of Donald Trump.

Any attempt to explore the historical roots of current events is an endless process. That’s because there are no periods (as in punctuation) in history. Focusing on one point in history as the cause inevitably leads to an exploration of what led up to that moment, sending us back even further to find its antecedents.

But I believe there are two significant inflection points when Republicans made choices that led them to be willing to exonerate the most corrupt president in our country’s history. One of those moments came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater 486 to 52 in the electoral college. That led Republicans to complete the process of abandoning their support for civil rights and launch an effort to regain the party’s competitiveness by appealing to white grievance. Here is how Nixon’s strategist, Kevin Phillips, described the so-called “Southern Strategy.”

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.

In other words, for Republicans, the votes were with white people whose racism could be triggered by dog whistles, such as an appeal to “state’s rights” and “law and order.” That strategy worked. Richard Nixon won handily in 1968 and in a landslide in 1972.

The second infection point came with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Just as significant as the emergence of this country’s first African American president was the fact that he was elected after the entire Republican policy agenda was in shatters. The Bush-Cheney administration had demonstrated the folly of the party’s policies in both the foreign and domestic arena with the invasion of Iraq, the failed response to Katrina, and the emergence of the Great Recession.

At that point, Republicans decided to completely abandon the idea of having a policy agenda (other than tax cuts for the wealthy) and go all-in on obstructing anything the Democrats attempted to do. In order to justify that decision, they cast aside the dog whistles and openly inflamed the xenophobic fears of their white base with attempts to paint the first African American president as a dangerous extremist who didn’t love America.

That decision became even more pronounced in the reaction to Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. Recognizing demographic trends, the Republican National Committee issued an autopsy that called on the GOP to do more to win over “Hispanic[s], Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, women, and youth[s].”  On the other hand, Michael Anton warned that 2016 was “the flight 93 election.”

“If you haven’t noticed, our side has been losing consistently since 1988,” he wrote, averring that “the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us.” He blamed “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners,” which had placed Democrats “on the cusp of a permanent victory.”…The GOP’s efforts to broaden its coalition, he thundered, were an abject surrender. 

The election of Trump was a definitive rejection of the RNC autopsy recommendations and an embrace of Anton’s suggestion that it was time to “storm the cockpit or die.”

Those decisions left the GOP without a coherent agenda other than a common heritage. As Yoni Appelbaum writes:

A conservatism defined by ideas can hold its own against progressivism, winning converts to its principles and evolving with each generation. A conservatism defined by identity reduces the complex calculus of politics to a simple arithmetic question—and at some point, the numbers no longer add up.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, Republicans know that the United States is on a path to the inevitable day when their “numbers no longer add up.” As Zachary Roth wrote, the response to those facts led them to decide that “being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.” The calculation was that they could maintain their power at the expense of our democratic norms and institutions.

But as Appelbaum notes, something more fundamental to our democracy broke.

Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed…

[Conservatives] are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this come dark possibilities…When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

In his book Trumpocracy, David Frum identified the cost Republicans are willing to pay when he wrote that, “if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

That is the challenge we face today. After casting aside policy and ideas in favor of ethnonationalism, the Republican Party is now in the process of rejecting democracy as their only alternative for survival. What that portends, as Appelbaum suggested, are some dark possibilities that will remain, even if Trump is defeated in November.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.