Principle: It’s a notion that’s sadly often absent from the form and function of political parties. But for members of the Republican Party who would espouse the priority of country over party — of principle over partisanship — it is gut-check time.
Trumpism has infected the core of the GOP, and the antibodies don’t appear to be working. In a year of pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of American lives and destroyed countless more livelihoods, much of the party followed President Donald Trump’s plunge into anti-science incompetence and bitter polarization when the nation needed to unite in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Amid a contentious presidential election, they largely stood by as their party leader took a battering ram to the pillars of American democracy.
Many were critical of Donald Trump since before he was elected in 2016, and The Eagle has not been an exception, though a significant portion of the United States disagreed, including a large segment of our readership. However, the attempts to delegitimize the election in which he lost by more than 7 million votes and 74 electoral votes is a trespass of a different character. It is a frontal assault on our democracy like nothing we have seen since the start of the Civil War.
President Trump’s full-court press to rend a free and fair election to his favor was largely silenced when the Supreme Court dismissed a Texas lawsuit that sought to completely discard the votes of four other states. A high court with a supermajority of Republican-appointed justices — including three picked by President Trump — rightly found the suit to be frivolous. Yet what is still alarming is the fact that what can only be described as an attempted coup — an inane effort at judicial activism to disenfranchise millions of American voters — enjoyed sizable backing from within the mainstream of the Republican Party, including 18 attorneys general and 126 members of Congress.
Afterward, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party publicly proffered secession as an option for the states that backed the suit. This extreme reaction was denounced by a single Republican member of Congress, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.; the rest of the GOP national leadership’s response was deafening silence.
To Republicans who value democracy, the rule of law and the norms of our republic: Is this your party? There are certainly Republican officials who have demonstrated capable governance and basic decency in spite of their party’s leadership. Figures like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse are linked not by ideology but by principle; they have proven able to avoid the seemingly bottomless chasm of corruption and demagoguery into which President Trump has dragged most of their GOP peers.
But at what point does principle demand not merely sidestepping that chasm but refusing its association? While the head of the Texas Republican Party publicly mulled secession, the former chairwoman of the New Hampshire GOP had a different response to partisan complicity in an all-out attack on our democratic institutions: severing ties with the party.
“They have revealed their impotence and decrepitude as they have fallen, one by one, at the feet of the most corrupt, destructive and unstable president in the history of our country,” wrote Jennifer Horn in a USA Today op-ed. “It seems there is no assault on human dignity too great, no attack on democracy too extreme, to inspire the Republican weaklings in Congress to speak up or stand up to President Donald Trump.”
In newly registering as an independent, Ms. Horn describes her decision not as leaving the Republican Party but recognizing over the years that it has left her: “I have found myself fighting for what I thought were the principles of my party in the face of the ever-deteriorating character and integrity of party representatives.”
This then begs the question for aforementioned members of a critically endangered species: What can decent, principled Republicans do to wrest the party of Lincoln from the death grip of a would-be autocrat, his sycophantic enablers and craven power-brokers who put political expediency over the fate of the nation? Or is the question moot — has the party left you yet?
It’s worth noting that the Republican Party was born out of the dissolution of another political party. The Whigs rose to prominence in the mid-19th century but collapsed ahead of the Civil War, fatally divided by the issue of slavery. The split gave rise to two major coalitions: the Free Soilers, opposed to the expansion of slavery, which gradually coalesced into the Republican Party; and the Know-Nothings, a nativist, anti-immigrant movement, which morphed into the American Party, driven by anti-Catholic sentiment and a desire to root out an alleged “Romanist” conspiracy. One need not squint too hard to see the resemblance to the modern-day GOP’s predicament — the holdout of a principled few against xenophobic conspiracy-mongers.
Come Inauguration Day, decent Republicans in a post-Trump America must take a hard look at themselves and their party. Is there room for reform within a party that has trafficked in such petty polarization and brazen disdain for democracy, and if so what is the way forward? Or should the Republicans go the way of the Whigs?