But in 2021, the performances of his partisan opponents mattered at least as much to the nation’s future. And in Washington and state capitals, Republicans have compiled a record of dishonesty and aggression that threatens American democracy itself.
The January 6 insurgency, prompted by then-President Donald Trump to reverse his electoral defeat, offered them another avenue. The murderous violence that put their own lives in danger has given Republican lawmakers the strongest possible justification to part ways with Trump’s disfiguring pathologies.
For a moment they did. The shaken congressional leaders condemned him and returned to the vandalized capital to assert Biden’s victory.
The moment passed.
These same Republican leaders subsequently scuttled a proposal for a bipartisan inquiry. GOP lawmakers in battlefield states restricted voting procedures and altered election administration to help would-be losers succeed where Trump had failed to thwart popular will.
“Until recently, when I got up in the morning, I didn’t think American democracy could be at stake,” observed Richard Haass, a senior national security official from two Republican administrations who resigned from the GOP. “It’s no longer obvious. I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say that this is the biggest crisis we’ve faced since the 19th century.”
Up close, the crisis stems from Trump’s rise to power in 2016 on false promises to the minority of voters most aggrieved by the cultural and economic changes that are reshaping 21st century America. But its roots can be traced back to the decades-old Republican strategy of garnering support from white conservative opponents for the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
These voters – disproportionately southern, less educated, rural, evangelical – now represent the white-hot core of the Trump-era GOP.
“When you think of the DNA of the current Republican Party built around racial resentment, it’s just a small step,” said Robert P. Jones, opinion analyst, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute. “The very idea that certain citizens should have a privileged place in the eyes of the law is, in essence, undemocratic.”
Unlike previous Republican campaigns, Trump barely concealed his race-based appeals. It has constantly fueled anxiety over the loss of power and primacy among the shrinking ranks of conservative white Christians.
“Having alienated college-educated suburban voters, many consistent Republicans decided their best bet was to keep their contracting coalition in a state of constant turmoil and fear, fighters in a never-ending cultural war,” Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W. Bush, wrote earlier this year. “Right now, the Republican Party is a serious threat to American democracy.”
Trump has long expressed his admiration for authoritarian strongmen. Fox News star Tucker Carlson hosted his program in Hungary in August, which academics from Eastern European nations call an example of eroding democracy.
“There are two key parameters: how do they deal with violence and accept election results,” said Daniel Ziblatt, professor at Harvard, co-author of “How Democracies Die”. In both cases, Republicans have crept into authoritarianism.
Trump and his elected allies have turned to praising the January 6 crowd and downplaying its lawless violence; some brandish guns on social media or in campaign ads. A congressman circulated a photoshopped anime video that appeared to depict the murder of a fellow Democrat. (He later said that he “does not” marry violence or harm any member of Congress “and that the video” symbolizes the battle for the soul of America. “)
In a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 30% of Republicans agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.” In a differently worded American Enterprise Institute poll question last January, 60% of evangelical white Christians agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so quickly that we may have to use force to save it.”
Urged on by Trump, leading Republicans either asserted or acquiesced in his big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him as a qualifying threshold. In the 2022 GOP primary race for Georgia governor ex-Sen. David Perdue sets himself apart from incumbent Brian Kemp by saying he would not have certified Biden’s victory in Georgia in 2020.
The deteriorating political conditions for Democrats allowed Republicans to take control of Congress next year without further help. But having lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, they are not taking any risks.
A group of anti-Trump Republicans see glimmers of hope in their efforts to change the party from within. Former House Member and Congressman Barbara Comstock cites the November victory for Virginia governor of private equity Glenn Youngkin, who accepted Trump’s endorsement but avoided his crass tactics.
“Has the year been a daunting one? Yes, ”admitted Comstock. “But I think new leaders are going to step up.”
“It’s important to bring the party to their senses,” added Kori Schake, a former Bush aide who heads foreign policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think it’s possible. I’m still a Republican, standing behind Liz Cheney.”
Invoking the Republican congresswoman for Wyoming, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, only underscores the scale of the challenge. House Republicans ousted her from the conference chair after she flatly rejected Trump’s lies about the election. She and Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger have become lone voices seeking to hold Trump and his insurgent allies to account and assert America’s 245-year-old democratic experience.
“The way we approach January 6 is the moral test of our generation,” Cheney said recently. In 2021, his party failed.
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