Republicans should use the Trump debacle as an opportunity to correct course and build a reasoned, principled, inclusive future
The 17 months of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency subjected the American public and the national discourse to a degrading obsession with personal insults, authoritarian threats, and overt cues to racist fringe politics. Since his election, Republican leaders have hoped he would “moderate his behavior” and begin to use rhetoric more befitting of an elected president.
He did not do this during the transition, and his first three weeks in office have demonstrated a near total disregard for anyone or anything that would limit his authority to act as he pleases, even where all evidence, and the law itself, are against him. Many conservatives now openly wonder what to do with someone who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but demands they follow his lead without question, even when he openly defames, dismisses or undermines their core values.
Trump Orders Removal of Legal Rights
In what appeared to follow the writing process for a firebrand campaign speech, Donald Trump and a handful of advisers drafted, and then signed and sought to implement, an executive order barring entry to the United States to all refugees (for 120 days), all citizens of 7 nations (for 90 days), and all Syrian refugees (indefinitely). Detentions began at airports even before the order had been signed, and the Secretary of Homeland Security got his first look at the finished draft while the order was being signed on live television.
For a sense of scope, the population targeted by the order is estimated at more than 150 million people. Instructions were reportedly given to the Departments of State and Homeland Security to revoke visas already granted. Permanent residents were detained, interrogated, and in some cases coerced into signing documents stripping them of their legal permanent resident status.
The order directly targeted people of specific religious and ethnic backgrounds; it also targeted law-abiding, legally recognized immigrants, fully approved for entry into the United States. As that detail began to emerge, it became clear that Republican leaders in Congress, senior cabinet officials, and lawyers at the Department of Justice, had been misled by White House officials saying legal immigrants would not be targeted.
Many have found the episode baffling, especially because there was no major support at any level, inside the halls of power or among the general public, for a unilateral effort to expand presidential powers to strip legal immigrants of their rights. What explains the chaotic events preceding and ensuing from the executive order has become clear as the Trump administration has made its argument in federal court:
Donald Trump and his aides believe he has “unreviewable powers” when it comes to anything he, as president, “feels” is a matter of national security.
Donald Trump does not base his political philosophy on allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. His thinking is rooted in the absolutist loyalist faction that opposed the democratization of France and the end of the monarchy in 1789. The right wing of the legislative assembly wanted to end democracy, jail its leaders, and institute a reign of terror against any who would oppose a return to absolute monarchy.
The American tradition of democracy begins with revolution against monarchy and the rejection by General George Washington of the very idea that he might be king. The right wing is anathema in every way to American democracy. So it is hard to fathom how any serious political movement could align itself with Trump’s assertions and remain legitimate.
Rejection of “Unreviewable” Powers
In the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, he has achieved majority disapproval in record time, record high numbers of court challenges, and record protests against his presidency, with daily demonstrations on a range of issues, across the country. According to Gallup’s latest polling, only 29% of Americans believe foreign leaders respect Donald Trump (for reference: at this time in 2009, 67% of Americans believed foreign leaders respected Barack Obama).
As routine resistance spreads in the US and around the world, and as federal courts resist the Trump administration’s claims to unchecked executive power, Republicans have to choose between allegiance to core values and alignment with an extreme and uninformed fringe figure who is using the power of the presidency primarily to scare people, while failing to build a government.
Allied nations are openly expressing concern that what is taking place in the White House is not normal, and should be cause for grave concern. An historic stream of leaks from inside the White House suggest Trump’s own staff share this deep concern—specifically about erratic behavior, vindictive obsessions, and lack of substantive preparation. Trump’s National Security Advisor, retired General Michael Flynn, reportedly under counterintelligence investigation for alleged illicit ties to the Kremlin, has been caught lying about whether he discussed plans to remove sanctions as a favor to Russian Pres. Putin with the Russian Ambassador.
Today, Stephen Miller, Trump’s policy director, made the unbelievable suggestion on national television that federal courts have no authority to limit Trump’s use of presidential power. Mr. Miller even went as far as to make the ominously vague threat that “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see … that the power of the president is quite substantial and will not be questioned.”
Federal courts are so far finding that the Trump administration’s repeated claims to “unreviewable” executive power has no foundation in law.
With basic elements of the Constitutional order of our democracy facing real and explicit threat, most conservatives and Republicans are facing a complicated moment of reckoning. With the opportunity to use majorities in Congress to make deals with a supposedly Republican president, many hope to see their agenda move forward. The problem is: they don’t know if they can trust Donald Trump—who constantly reverses positions, at times in the space of a single sentence—to honor any deal or to honor the basic infrastructure of our republic.
Scant Public Support
In late October, polls showed Donald Trump with just 38% support among likely voters. Hillary Clinton, at that time, had 52% support. In the end, Trump won 46% of the active vote; Clinton won 48%. Because only 55% of the electorate voted in the 2016 election, Trump’s real support was only 26.3% of the overall electorate—the lowest level for a candidate of either major party since 1996.
If there is a silver lining to the debacle of Donald Trump’s rise, it is that the degradations and anomalies may finally demonstrate—both to skilled observers and to the average citizen—that there is an irreconcilable divide between the right wing and a functioning Republican party. The Republican party has gambled, for a long time, on the idea that it could court and count on avowed right-wing voters, without paying a political price, without losing legitimacy, and without actually responding to the extremist demands of this peculiar segment of the political spectrum.
Today, Ken Cuccinelli described Trump as uniquely skilled at inspiring fear and anger in his opponents. Trump does this, because instead of being driven by conservative values or a love for American democracy, he is inspired by the forceful use of threatening language to intimidate people he dislikes or feels threatened by. Cuccinelli went on to say that this tendency, and the rapidly growing backlash it is generating, is very bad for Trump’s presidency and for the Republican party itself.
With each new claim of unreviewable power, each counter-to-fact defamation of the society he leads, each reiteration of unfounded conspiracy theories, each awkward or unnerving encounter with foreign leaders, Trump is alienating more and more Americans. Republican office-holders are increasingly hearing from people who voted for Trump that they feel misled and regretful.
The latest Gallup poll shows Trump reaching 55% disapproval after just 23 days in office.
Will conservatives affirm big-tent values?
The right wing is not conservative; it does not value family life; it does not care about the Bill of Rights; it is not pro-life (it is sometimes anti-abortion, but avidly supports the death penalty—a disqualifier for anyone claiming to be pro-life). It privileges fear and forceful reactions to fear.
The Republican party is at an historic crossroads, and must now consciously, and very publicly choose:
- white supremacy OR people of principle—you cannot have both;
- tax evasion OR economic efficiency and healthy market economics—you cannot have both;
- visceral and programmatic misogyny OR big tent family values—you cannot have both;
- violent harassment of dissidents OR a commitment to democracy, which means open civics, universal voter participation, and peaceful transition—you cannot have both;
- endless tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy OR a strong middle class America, where everyone has access to quality education and financial interests are never allowed to cheat—you cannot have both;
- pseudo-patriotic racism and xenophobia OR deep American patriotism, where nearly all are immigrants or descended from immigrants, and where diversity is conservative, American, routine, and healthy—you cannot have both.
The right wing is hostile to difference, reacts to the other winning the argument with violent intolerance.
The work of keeping a republic
It may be the declaration about our democracy most worth repeating:
On the street outside Independence Hall, immediately after the Constitutional Convention had agreed on the nation’s founding legal framework, a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked him what kind of government they had given the American people. He famously responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
You cannot keep a republic if you put forward leaders who stand against everything that allows a republic to function.
A republic belongs to the people; that is the meaning of the word. In the 1930s, modern republics in Spain, Italy, and Germany, were overthrown by fascists. The fascist movement leaders declared their intention to return these evolving modern states to “greatness” by evoking bygone eras of absolutist central rule; they claimed that only they could do this; they said the modern society would not go backward, but that by embracing the violent, racist, absolutist right wing, they would somehow gain access to better living conditions.
They preyed on the powerlessness people felt during the Great Depression. They did this not because the right wing cares about the wellbeing of ordinary people, not because the right wing favors economics of a kind that benefits all people. They did this because they did not have a credible moral, intellectual, legal or political argument for their seizure of power. They used populist arguments, while linking “greatness” to the absolutist past, because they saw a system belonging to the people, and they wanted to take power for themselves.
The right wing is incompatible with democracy, because its foundation is the violent opposition to the rise of modern democracy in the United States, in France, and elsewhere. Its foundation is brutal amoral absolutist rule. “Right wing” means opposed to democratic republicanism in fundamental ways.
That is not the politics of genuine American conservatives. That is not the politics of the Republican party.
Donald Trump is not a Republican
Donald Trump’s embrace of right-wing political talking points is rooted in the moral laxity that comes with that way of talking about politics: vicious attacks on anyone or anything other, dismissal of any personal responsibility, a deep faith in totally fabricated conspiracy theories, and a hatred for anyone who disagrees.
Donald Trump is not a Republican.
- The Republican party does not stand for or promote sexual assault. Donald Trump has bragged about his assaulting women in shockingly graphic terms, and his remarks were recorded on an open mic; he has responded to women who allege he assaulted them by saying he would use the power of the presidency to persecute them.
- The Republican party does not defend the KKK or neo-Nazi groups. Donald Trump has actively courted, defended and/or condoned them.
- The Republican party does not admire dictatorship or genocide. Donald Trump has openly admired authoritarian leaders like Putin and Assad, and the mass killing they are carrying out against the people of Syria.
- The Republican party does not advocate for having foreign dictators spy on American individuals or institutions, or to disrupt American elections. Donald Trump hired a campaign manager with close ties to Putin political allies and publicly asked Russia to spy on the State Department and attack his opponent.
- The Republican party does not stand for post-election armed resistance. Donald Trump suggested he would not accept a loss at the polls, while vocal supporters called for armed revolution if he loses.
The divide between the Republican party and Donald Trump’s fringe movement is wide, comprehensive, and clear.
Republicans should feel no discomfort in denouncing Trump. Indeed, it is likely that even the slightest show of support for his debauched, potentially treasonous behavior, will ultimately discredit the individual who has shown that support. The most committed and comprehensive denunciation of Trump’s over-reach is fast becoming a pre-requisite for any Republican who hopes to be credible as a candidate for high public office in the future.
The car doesn’t care if you believe in the low fuel-tank reading on your dashboard; when there is no more fuel, it stops running. The Republican party’s flirtation with the extremist right wing is running out of gas. The propagation of bizarre lies, hate-speech, and authoritarian threats from administration officials is discrediting the party they claim to represent. The Republican party can go no further with the beliefs and maneuvers that have made this arrangement seem workable.
As we mark the birthday of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, it is worth remembering the words he spoke at Gettysburg, prefaced by this vital sentiment from his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.
Now, as ever, it is the task remaining before us that we continue to extend the deep and irrevocable protections of genuine adherence to the Bill of Rights to as many people as our democracy can reach, and that we disallow any effort to remove any person’s rights. To ensure that our history continues to move in the direction of liberty and justice for all, we must work together, across the political spectrum, to secure for those here now and for all who would come to build and sustain this democracy in good faith, the irrevocable right to be protected from arbitrary power.
The Republican party can reinvigorate its Republicanism, by using the checks and balances our system affords to resist authoritarian over-reach and reaffirm “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It is for all of us to work for the sustainability and success of the Republic, and to require that all candidates for office, whatever their party, are suited for responsible public service in a democratic republic.
A version of this article was first published here on October 23, 2016. It has been updated to account for the election outcome and the unusual events of the opening weeks of Mr. Trump’s time in the White House.