Of all the things President Trump has destroyed, the Republican Party is among the most dismaying.
“Destroyed” is perhaps too simplistic, though. It would be more precise to say that Mr. Trump accelerated his party’s demise, exposing the rot that has been eating at its core for decades and leaving it a hollowed-out shell devoid of ideas, values or integrity, committed solely to preserving its own power even at the expense of democratic norms, institutions and ideals.
Tomato, tomahto. However you characterize it, the Republican Party’s dissolution under Mr. Trump is bad for American democracy.
A healthy political system needs robust, competing parties to give citizens a choice of ideological, governing and policy visions. More specifically, center-right parties have long been crucial to the health of modern liberal democracies, according to the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt’s study of the emergence of democracy in Western Europe. Among other benefits, a strong center right can co-opt more palatable aspects of the far right, isolating and draining energy from the more radical elements that threaten to destabilize the system.
Today’s G.O.P. does not come close to serving this function. It has instead allowed itself to be co-opted and radicalized by Trumpism. Its ideology has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs. Its policy agenda, as defined by the party platform, is whatever President Trump wants — which might not be so pathetic if Mr. Trump’s interests went beyond “Build a wall!”
“There is no philosophical underpinning for the Republican Party anymore,” the veteran strategist Reed Galen recently lamented to this board. A co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee run by current and former Republicans dedicated to defeating Mr. Trump and his enablers, Mr. Galen characterized the party as a self-serving, power-hungry gang.
With his dark gospel, the president has enthralled the Republican base, rendering other party leaders too afraid to stand up to him. But to stand with Mr. Trump requires a constant betrayal of one’s own integrity and values. This goes beyond the usual policy flip-flops — what happened to fiscal hawks anyway? — and political hypocrisy, though there have been plenty of both. Witness the scramble to fill a Supreme Court seat just weeks before Election Day by many of the same Senate Republicans who denied President Barack Obama his high court pick in 2016, claiming it would be wrong to fill a vacancy eight months out from that election.
Mr. Trump demands that his interests be placed above those of the nation. His presidency has been an extended exercise in defining deviancy down — and dragging the rest of his party down with him.
Having long preached “character” and “family values,” Republicans have given a pass to Mr. Trump’s personal degeneracy. The affairs, the hush money, the multiple accusations of assault and harassment, the gross boasts of grabbing unsuspecting women — none of it matters. White evangelicals remain especially faithful adherents, in large part because Mr. Trump has appointed around 200 judges to the federal bench.
For all their talk about revering the Constitution, Republicans have stood by, slack-jawed, in the face of the president’s assault on checks and balances. Mr. Trump has spurned the concept of congressional oversight of his office. After losing a budget fight and shutting down the government in 2018-19, he declared a phony national emergency at the southern border so he could siphon money from the Pentagon for his border wall. He put a hold on nearly $400 million in Senate-approved aid to Ukraine — a move that played a central role in his impeachment.
So much for Republicans’ Obama-era nattering about “executive overreach.”
Despite fetishizing “law and order,” Republicans have shrugged as Mr. Trump has maligned and politicized federal law enforcement, occasionally lending a hand. Impeachment offered the most searing example. Parroting the White House line that the entire process was illegitimate, the president’s enablers made clear they had his back no matter what. As Pete Wehner, who served as a speechwriter to the three previous Republican presidents, observed in The Atlantic: “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 debasement goes beyond passive indulgence. Congressional bootlickers, channeling Mr. Trump’s rantings about the Deep State, have used their power to target those who dared to investigate him. Committee chairmen like Representative Devin Nunes and Senator Ron Johnson have conducted hearings aimed at smearing Mr. Trump’s political opponents and delegitimizing the special counsel’s Russia inquiry.
As head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Johnson pushed a corruption investigation of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter that he bragged would expose the former vice president’s “unfitness for office.” Instead, he wasted taxpayer money producing an 87-page rehash of unsubstantiated claims reeking of a Russian disinformation campaign. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, another Republican on the committee, criticized the inquiry as “a political exercise,” noting, “It’s not the legitimate role of government or Congress, or for taxpayer expense to be used in an effort to damage political opponents.”
Undeterred, last Sunday Mr. Johnson popped up on Fox News, engaging with the host over baseless rumors that the F.B.I. was investigating child pornography on a computer that allegedly had belonged to Hunter Biden. These vile claims are being peddled online by right-wing conspiracymongers, including QAnon.
Not that congressional toadies are the only offenders. A parade of administration officials — some of whom were well respected before their Trumpian tour — have stood by, or pitched in, as the president has denigrated the F.B.I., federal prosecutors, intelligence agencies and the courts. They have failed to prioritize election security because the topic makes Mr. Trump insecure about his win in 2016. They have pushed the limits of the law and human decency to advance Mr. Trump’s draconian immigration agenda.
Most horrifically, Republican leaders have stood by as the president has lied to the public about a pandemic that has already killed more than 220,000 Americans. They have watched him politicize masks, testing, the distribution of emergency equipment and pretty much everything else. Some echo his incendiary talk, fueling violence in their own communities. In the campaign’s closing weeks, as case numbers and hospitalizations climb and health officials warn of a rough winter, Mr. Trump is stepping up the attacks on his scientific advisers, deriding them as “idiots” and declaring Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert in infectious diseases, a “disaster.” Only a smattering of Republican officials has managed even a tepid defense of Dr. Fauci. Whether out of fear, fealty or willful ignorance, these so-called leaders are complicit in this national tragedy.
As Republican lawmakers grow increasingly panicked that Mr. Trump will lose re-election — possibly damaging their fortunes as well — some are scrambling to salvage their reputations by pretending they haven’t spent the past four years letting him run amok. In an Oct. 14call with constituents, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska gave a blistering assessment of the president’s failures and “deficient” values, from his misogyny to his calamitous handling of the pandemic to “the way he kisses dictators’ butts.” Mr. Sasse was less clear about why, the occasional targeted criticism notwithstanding, he has enabled these deficiencies for so long.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, locked in his own tight re-election race, recently told the local media that he, too, has disagreed with Mr. Trump on numerous issues, including deficit spending, trade policy and his raiding of the defense budget. Mr. Cornyn said he opted to keep his opposition private rather than get into a public tiff with Mr. Trump “because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well.”
Profiles in courage these are not.
Mr. Trump’s corrosive influence on his party would fill a book. It has, in fact, filled several, as well as a slew of articles, social media posts and op-eds, written by conservatives both heartbroken and incensed over what has become of their party.
But many of these disillusioned Republicans also acknowledge that their team has been descending into white grievance, revanchism and know-nothing populism for decades. Mr. Trump just greased the slide. “He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party has become in the last 50 or so years,” the longtime party strategist Stuart Stevens asserts in his new book, “It Was All a Lie.”
The scars of Mr. Trump’s presidency will linger long after he leaves office. Some Republicans believe that, if those scars run only four years deep, rather than eight, their party can be nursed back to health. Others question whether there is anything left worth saving. Mr. Stevens’s prescription: “Burn it to the ground, and start over.”