Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Downfall of the Republican Party

Published in The Atlantic on February 2, 2020


On Friday, Republicans in the United States Senate—with the exception of Mitt Romney and Susan Collins—voted to prevent John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, from testifying in the impeachment trial of the president.

The reason they did so is undeniable: They did not want to hear from the most credible fact witness of all, one whose account would further implicate the president in his corrupt scheme—his “drug deal,” in Bolton’s words—to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation to harm Trump’s main political opponent.

Republicans, from beginning to end, sought not to ensure that justice be done or truth be revealed. Instead, they sought to ensure that Trump not be removed from office under any circumstances, defending him at all costs. The job of Senate Republicans was to make their acquittal of the president as quick and painless for them as possible. In this particular case, facts and evidence—reality—were viewed as grave threats, which is why they had to be buried.

This is simply the latest act in an unfolding political drama, one in which the party of Lincoln and Reagan has now become, in every meaningful sense, the party of Trump.

I have written before about the massive moral and ethical defects of the president; there’s no need to rehearse them here. The point I want to make is a somewhat different one, which is that Trump’s takeover of the GOP has happened not because he is widely loved or admired by Republican lawmakers but because he is feared; not because most of the people in the Republican Senate Conference aspire to be like him, but because they are too timid to challenge him.

From a certain perspective, their timidity is understandable. They know that to publicly challenge Trump—to call out his ethical transgressions, cruelty, and indecency even as they support his policies—invites impassioned attacks from Trump supporters and, in some cases, a primary challenge. No one likes to be under attack, particularly by the base of one’s own party, and no one wants to lose a job.

Moreover, they will argue, they must defend the president in public so they can have influence in private. They have also convinced themselves that they are essential to the project of repairing the Republican Party post-Trump, and that this requires that they not be viewed as disloyal to Trump while he’s serving as president. “What good does it do to attack Trump?” they will ask. He won’t change his ways, and they will only weaken themselves in the process. (Many of them are happy to attack Trump in private conversations, citing, chapter and verse, things he has said or done that alarm them, showing that they both know better and are playing a cynical game.)

That, at least, is the story they tell themselves. Some of what they say is worth taking into account. But what they don’t tell themselves, probably because it would be too psychologically shattering, is that they have become fully complicit in a corrupt enterprise called the Trump presidency. (Romney is the rare exception.) They are defending actions they know are wrong and that, if they had been done by a Democratic president, they would be outraged by. More than that, they are validating Trump’s approach to politics—the hyper-aggression, the lawlessness, the mendacity, the shamelessness—and therefore guaranteeing imitators. It also happens that their influence on the president is far smaller than they tell themselves. They have made concession after concession after concession, justifying each one along the way. Then you look back at the road they’ve traveled, and it’s breathtaking. Donald Trump has changed them far more than they have changed Donald Trump.

In 1991, when Václav Havel received the Sonning Prize for contributions to European civilization, he spoke about those “who are starting to lose their battle with the temptations of power.” It is an insidious thing, Havel warned, to become captive to the perks of power. Politicians, he said, soon learn how easy it is to justify staying in power even as they give up bits of their soul in the process. It is easier than they think, he said, to get “morally tainted.”

“Politics is an area of human endeavor that places greater stress on moral sensitivity,” Havel concluded, “on the ability to reflect critically on oneself, on genuine responsibility, on taste and tact, on the capacity to empathize with others, on a sense of moderation, on humility. It is a job for modest people, for people who cannot be deceived.”

To see men and women who in other spheres of their lives are admirable, who got into politics because they believed it was a noble profession and had a positive vision for the Republican Party, beaten down and broken by Trump is a poignant thing. Their weakness and servility, their vassalage to such a fundamentally corrupt man, is dispiriting to those of us who not only lament the injury Trump is inflicting on the nation as a whole but who still care about the Republican Party and worry that conservatism is in the process of being subsumed into angry, ethnic populism.

What Republicans who have rallied behind Trump don’t fully grasp yet is the toxic effect he’s had on the younger generation, and on college-educated, suburban, and nonwhite voters. (Trump is wildly popular among blue-collar and rural voters, who are shrinking as a percentage of the voting population.) The damage done by Trump won’t be limited in its reach. He has imperiled the future of the party he leads. And those who think the GOP will simply snap back to the best of what it was pre-Trump—who think the worst elements of Trumpism will vanish once he leaves the White House—are kidding themselves.

Those who fell in line behind Trump have empowered him (and his many acolytes and media propagandists) to redefine much of conservatism and the principles that once informed the Republican Party. I don’t think that is what they intended, but that is what they have helped achieve.

Few things in life are permanent, most of all in the realm of politics. The fight for the future of the Republican Party, post-Trump, will be an intense one. Those of us who are conservatives and those on the center-right who believe the soul of GOP is still worth fighting for will not go gently into the good night.

But for now, Donald Trump has an iron grip on the Republican Party—and Republican lawmakers who privately lament what he has done have publicly enabled what he has done. That is something that must haunt at least a few of them, at least in their private moments, when they lay aside their rationalizations for just a moment and reflect on the role they have played in this horror show.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He is also an Egan Visiting Professor at Duke University.

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