The GOP Lost Its Way Long Before Trump
Carlos Lozada Reckons with the Recent History of the Republican Party
The Trump era has generated so many books about the dire risks facing government of, by, and for the people that their titles sound like they are talking to one another, a spoken-word poetry of political breakdown:
How Democracies Die . . . On Tyranny.
How Democracy Ends . . . Trumpocalypse.
What Is Populism? . . . The New Class War.
The Soul of America . . . Trumpocracy.
Surviving Autocracy . . . These Truths.
Though the authors of such books often insist that Trump is not their sole preoccupation, the president’s glare looms over every volume. “This is not a book about Donald Trump, not by any means,” Harvard University’s Cass R. Sunstein protests too much in the introduction to his 2018 edited collection Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America. Then he adds, “But there is no question that many people, including some of the authors here, think that Trump’s words and deeds have put the can-it-happen-here question on the table.” It’s a bit of a Trumpian conceit—many people are thinking!—but let the record reflect that, less than four months later, Sunstein published an essay in the New York Review of Books titled “It Can Happen Here.” No question mark needed.
Trump may be the muse of the death-of-democracy bookshelf, but it is not a distinction he carries alone. Degraded norms and disenfranchised voters, Chinese ambition and Russian revanchism, unprincipled political parties and unequal administration of justice—these are among the many maladies of democracy in our age. The scholars and analysts writing such books are, so far, better at diagnosing ailments than proposing treatments. It is almost as if, daunted by the scale of the problem, they have downsized their designs, as though our democracy is now so weakened that even mild medicine might prove too taxing.
Such caution is unnecessary and self-defeating. The challenges to democracy that these books outline are integral to this moment but also eternally present, aggravated by Trumpism but inherent in the American experience. The United States at its most heroic—striving to meet its promise of equality and liberty—is also the United States at its least inspiring, as it fails, repeatedly, to get there. “A nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself to charges of hypocrisy at every turn,” the Harvard University historian Jill Lepore writes in This America (2019). Hypocrisy and inconsistency are such recurring features of American democracy that they are less its hindrance than its definition.In Trump’s rise, the unpredictable met the deliberate; shock met opportunity.
That’s why histories connecting the Trump era to the long arc of America’s democratic struggle feel particularly essential now, and they read that way, too. Remembering the history of the nation for all time is critical to writing the history of the nation in our time, which is why Trump seeks to remake not only today but yesterday, too. “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past,” Lepore explains. “They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”
With so many thinkers across so many arenas pointing, retroactively, to the inevitability of a leader like Trump emerging in America—congratulations, you all saw it coming—it is refreshing to find someone who admits he truly had no idea. “I never imagined that democracy here could be in danger,” writes Larry Diamond in Ill Winds. It is a remarkable statement coming from a founding editor of the Journal of Democracy and a frequently cited authority on the subject, though it also may simply underscore how the establishment is often the last to realize when its time has come.
To his credit, Diamond saw lots of other stuff coming. Well before Trump’s election, the world had plunged into a “democratic recession,” he writes, with the rise of illiberal movements in Europe, the autocratic backlash against the Arab Spring, and the avid attempts by Russia and especially China to undermine free societies. “The problem with Russia is managing the anger, insecurity, and resentments of a former superpower; the problem with China is managing the ambitions, swagger, and overreach of a new one,” Diamond explains, capturing America’s foreign policy dilemma with a pithy contrast. But beyond those two powers, wannabe autocrats across the globe are belittling the free press, rigging elections, politicizing their states’ civil service and security apparatus, and undercutting legislative and independent efforts at accountability. It is authoritarianism not by coups or tanks but by the deliberate erosion and co-optation of the rules. Diamond believes that only Washington can offer a counterweight against these trends. “Without U.S. leadership,” he warns, “the democratic recession could spiral down into a grim new age of authoritarianism.”
Instead, Washington joined the party.
Trump is “the new American Caesar,” Diamond decries, a “highly abnormal and dangerous president” contemptuous of the nation’s democratic traditions, eager to exert a corrupting influence on law enforcement, dismissive of oversight and preferring to mimic, rather than face down, the rise of authoritarianism. Any efforts to address democracy’s decline beyond U.S. shores will have to wait until someone else occupies the Oval Office, he writes. “The longer that Trump stays in power, the deeper and more lasting will be the damage.”
The reason Diamond failed to anticipate Trump’s threat to democracy at home is that he, like so many, thought America’s institutions were strong, its norms of political behavior resilient and embedded. Yes, “norms” have become dutiful shorthand when explaining Trump’s transgressions, but they deserve that distinction. By so easily violating multiple standards of presidential behavior— by lying incessantly, even about matters of settled fact; by refusing to release his personal financial information; by disclosing classified intelligence to foreign officials on a whim; by accusing political rivals of unspecified crimes; by dismissing or berating inspectors general and other officials charged with oversight of federal agencies—Trump has shown that those standards are matters of habit and mutual accommodation, not of law or obligation.
In 2018’s How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize four warning signs of incipient authoritarian leaders: they reject the democratic rules of the game, deny the legitimacy of rival politicians, tolerate or encourage political violence, and announce their willingness to limit the civil liberties of opponents, particularly the press. Trump, the authors note, checked all four boxes even before taking office—and he’s the type who would. “What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism?” Levitsky and Ziblatt ask. “Very often, populist outsiders do,” the leaders who claim to embody the people, standing firm against a corrupt, selfish, and loosely defined elite.Once you’ve made an endless string of concessions, it is hard to stop, and you risk becoming that which you thought you were merely accommodating.
When Trump, in his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, declared “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it,” he was both speaking to his base and laying bare his populist credentials. In his brief, illuminating book What Is Populism?, published less than two months later, Princeton University political theorist Jan-Werner Müller summarizes the key tenet of populism: “Only some of the people are really the people.” Governing with only his core supporters—with some of the people—in mind, rather than the nation in full, Trump has violated the most essential of presidential norms.
Of course, Trump has proved himself a recidivist norm-breaker, uninterested in or uninformed about the rules and traditions of democracy. He doesn’t just break a norm once; he comes back and stomps on it to make sure. “In plain view, Trump was flaunting, ignoring, and destroying all institutions of accountability,” Masha Gessen writes in Surviving Autocracy (2020). “In plain view, he was degrading political speech. In plain view, he was using his office to enrich himself. In plain view, he was courting dictator after dictator. In plain view, he was promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories, now claiming that millions of immigrants voting illegally had cost him the popular vote; now insisting, repeatedly, that Obama had had him wiretapped. All of this, though plainly visible, was unfathomable.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t detail every Trumpian transgression—it would be hard—but rather highlight the two norms without which every other norm, and democracy itself, begins to unravel. The first is mutual toleration, the understanding that political competitors and rival parties should regard one another as legitimate despite their differences over policy or ideology. The second is forbearance, the notion that political leaders should exercise restraint in the use of their official powers, that just because it is technically legal to do something doesn’t mean you should. These inextricable norms “undergirded American democracy for most of the twentieth century,” the authors write.
Trump constantly delegitimizes his opponents, real and perceived, in the political arena, the judiciary, and the press, offering himself as the true and rightful representative of the people. No surprise that, during the president’s Senate impeachment trial, one of his lawyers argued that if Trump believes his reelection is in the public interest, then whatever he does to further that end (such as soliciting Ukrainian assistance in undermining former vice president Joe Biden) cannot be impeachable. No surprise, either, that the president and his defenders frequently invoke the chief executive’s “absolute right” to do just about anything—close the border, interfere with Justice Department investigations, pardon himself, spill intelligence to foreign powers—regardless of whether it’s a good idea, of whether a president should eviscerate standards of behavior just because he can. That is how these norms work together, and fail together. “As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write.
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Trump claimed absolute power over state decisions on loosening health-related restrictions and reopening the economy. “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,” he declared at a press conference. Later, during the 2020 mass protests against racism and police violence, the president pledged that if governors failed to quell the unrest, “I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” Trump eviscerates any sense of forbearance, claiming all manner of authority, and changing course only when doing so is politically expedient, not when it is institutionally or legally advisable.
Why should Trump care if he jeopardizes the political system? He was elected to dismantle it. In Surviving Autocracy, Gessen says that Trump is “probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat,” so brazen were his aspirations to absolute power and indifference to restraint. And while so much has been debated, and so much written, about why certain American voters are attracted to him, the authors of the democracy volumes focus on a different group that could have reconsidered Trump long before his name appeared on a ballot. It is a group whose leaders, initially alarmed by a populist and nativist candidate, opted to collude with him rather than shun or restrain him.
That is the Republican Party.
“Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers,” Levitsky and Ziblatt explain. Throughout the nation’s history, the Democratic and Republican establishments have often succeeded in rooting out or isolating the extremists within, preventing them from reaching power. America’s true protection against would-be autocrats has been as much the discipline of its parties as the wisdom of its voters. But this filtering function has posed a dilemma. “These dual imperatives—choosing a popular candidate and keeping out demagogues—may, at times, conflict with each other,” the authors admit. “What if the people choose a demagogue?”
The Republican Party faced this conundrum in 2016. Rather than fight it, they chose to embrace it. In Trump’s rise, the unpredictable met the deliberate; shock met opportunity. A GOP establishment that comparison-shopped among an uninspiring Jeb Bush, an unappealing Ted Cruz, and an untested Marco Rubio eventually found a bargain-basement deal in Donald Trump.If Trump hijacked the Republican Party, as is often said, he has steered it in a direction it was already pursuing.
David Frum has written a pair of books on the Trump years: Trumpocracy, published in 2018, and Trumpocalypse, out in mid-2020. A longtime conservative author and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is particularly fixated on the GOP’s capitulation to Trump. “Gullibly or cynically, resentfully or opportunistically, for lack of better information or for lack of a better alternative, a great party has slowly united to elevate one man into a position of almost absolute power over itself,” he writes in the first volume. If Trump was ever in position to break or bypass norms of politics, decency, and honesty, he got there with “the complicity of his allies among the conservative and Republican political, media, and financial elite.” Other writers have outlined a devil’s bargain between once-fringe nationalist forces and Trump’s populist appeal, but the bargain Frum describes is more straightforward. Uninterested in the policy specifics that animated Republican lawmakers, Trump merely sought their inaction on his conflicts of interest, ethical shortcomings, and corporate entanglements. “We’ll protect your business if you sign our bills,” Frum writes. “That was the transaction congressional leaders offered Trump.”
In exchange for backing the president at nearly every turn, Republican Party leaders won tax reform, deregulation, and conservative judicial appointments, and perhaps they’ve decided it’s been a good deal. For all the focus on supposed collusion between Trump and Russia, Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight the “ideological collusion” between a strongman and his party, “in which the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians,” making him an attractive gamble. But the cost can be steeper than anticipated, and the payment stream unending.
“Unwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and isn’t tolerable,” the co-authors write. Once you’ve made an endless string of concessions, it is hard to stop, and you risk becoming that which you thought you were merely accommodating. As Frum puts it in Trumpocalypse, “A party dependent on the votes of the alienated and the resentful will find itself articulating a message of alienation and resentment.”
The party decides, we were once told; now, it merely abides.
Of course, it is too much to lay the institutional and political wreckage of the Republican Party solely at Trump’s feet. “Our republic’s sickness has its roots in decades of rising political polarization that has turned our two parties into something akin to warring tribes, willing to skirt bedrock principles of fairness and inclusion for pure partisan advantage,” Diamond writes. But he and other authors recognize that one major party has been more polarizing than the other. The Republican Party has been “the main driver of the chasm between the parties,” Levitsky and Ziblatt point out. For years, it has behaved “like an antisystem party in its obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremist policy positions.” The dismissiveness of truth and fact, the latent nativism, the opposition for its own sake—all of this was apparent long before Trump propelled his political career with the birther fraud and launched his 2016 campaign with a speech trashing Mexicans and calling the Affordable Care Act a “big lie.” If Trump hijacked the Republican Party, as is often said, he has steered it in a direction it was already pursuing.In the spring of 2020, Republicans were already cautioning against a post-pandemic “blame game,” while Trump, even though he claimed absolute authority, washed his hands of any accountability.
Even with another presidential election victory, the GOP would be “wrecked forever,” Frum contends in Trumpocalypse. That’s because, to win again in the face of massive health, economic, and social crises, Trump will need to wage culture wars and suppress minority voters, all for a narrow electoral college majority to offset what could be another loss of the popular vote, the third such outcome in twenty years. “What will be the character of such a political party after such a history?” Frum wonders. “Not a democratic political party, that’s for sure. It will have degenerated into a caudillo’s personal entourage.”
The default position of Republican senators during Trump’s impeachment trial—we know he did it, but it’s not really that bad— is a sign of this degeneration. It resurfaced in Attorney General William Barr’s decision to drop the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, even though the defendant had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials. And we saw it yet again in resistance against examining the White House’s management of the COVID-19 crisis. In the spring of 2020, Republicans were already cautioning against a post-pandemic “blame game,” while Trump, even though he claimed absolute authority, washed his hands of any accountability. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he declared in a press conference on March 13. Those words, Frum concludes, “are likely to be history’s epitaph on his presidency.”
And an epitaph for those who nodded in assent.
From What Were We Thinking by Carlos Lozada. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2020 by Carlo Lozada.