Picture: Andres Leiva/The Palm Beach Post – A group of supporters of the former President Donald Trump waves flags at passing traffic during a pro-Trump event on Sunday, June 11, 2023, on the bridge portion of Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida, United States.
By Francis Wilkinson
There are tens of millions of conservatives in the US For American democracy to succeed, they need a political party that productively channels their aspirations, represents their ideologies, mediates their conflicts and functions in accord with democratic values and the rule of law.
No such party exists.
The vacuum is only partly a collective action problem. Pro-democracy conservative elites have failed to organise to defend democracy and advance their interests. The third-tier candidates opposing Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron De Santis for the GOP presidential nomination can’t even settle on a narrative for why such brazenly anti-democratic politicians pose a danger.
Arriving at a collective strategy to neutralise the threat is even more unlikely. Former congresswoman Liz Cheney has been a brave truth teller. But she has been mostly singing solo, which enabled MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters to isolate, demonise and remove her from power.
The problem is also a function of how deeply askew the GOP was even before Trump. The Republican demand for stupid conspiracy theories to explain the world – climate scientists are all making it up, Barack Obama is an African-born socialist – presaged the moral collapse into Trumpism.
The party may have plumbed a new low after Trump was indicted last week on 37 felony counts for allegedly mishandling classified documents, including highly classified state secrets. The former president was also charged with obstructing the federal investigation.
The indictment was in some ways an homage to the alternate universe inhabited by the Republican Party. It consisted of evidence untainted by association with the world outside MAGA. There were photographs taken by Trump staff. Texts between Trump employees. Transcripts of audiotape of Trump talking. Sworn testimony from Trump lawyers. Transcripts of Trump public statements. It was a collection of facts exfiltrated from the MAGAsphere and derived exclusively from the MAGA king and his subjects. But the provenance of individual facts is irrelevant once you have rejected the legitimacy of facts altogether.
Most Republican elites looked at the damning reality of the indictment, and promptly rejected the latest opportunity to break with Trumpism. Some addressed the indictment in the traditional manner, by misleading Fox News viewers about Hillary Clinton. Others shovelled buckets of nonsense. Still others resorted to rewriting the law in their heads to render Trump’s actions magically lawful. Some argued that the man who led chants of “lock her up” wasn’t being afforded the same grace and forbearance that he had magnanimously bestowed upon his (noncriminal) political opponents.
There were instances of honesty, from Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney, and even from William Barr, who as Trump’s attorney general facilitated Trump’s attacks on democracy. (Barr appears to have drifted toward the rule-of-law crowd after January 6, 2021.) But the isolated, unco-ordinated, musings of select conservatives are unlikely to have a significant impact on the Republican electorate.
In a CBS News poll taken after the indictment was announced, 80 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they would like Trump to be able to be president even if he is convicted. Three-quarters want a nominee “similar to Trump” if Trump is not the nominee. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported “a wave” of calls for violence by Trump supporters. The Washington Post likewise noted a “surge” in violent right-wing rhetoric.
The chicken-and-egg dilemma of the GOP – Republican elites won’t risk telling the base the truth because the base doesn’t want to hear it, and those voters never learn the truth because party leaders and party-aligned media only give them what they want – has been going on since at least 2016. Without concerted action by Republican elites, it’s hard to see how the party pulls out of its anti-democratic spiral.
Relaying his discussions about Trump’s indictment with people “inside the Republican race” for president, CBS News reporter Robert Costa said Sunday: “There is alarm in the sense that they believe if he wins the presidency again, he is now so comfortable with the levers of power, and he ignores the rule of law in the eyes of some of his [GOP] competitors, that he could be a threat to American democracy. Yet very few are saying that publicly.”
Democracy barely survived Trump’s first term, which ended with his instigating a violent assault to halt the transfer of power to a newly elected government. It’s unlikely it could survive a second round.
The most pressing task for anyone eager to bolster democracy is to find a way to make a viable, intraparty fighting force of Murkowskis and Romneys and even the unreliable Barrs. Though a GOP rescue mission has yet to materialise, that doesn’t mean that it won’t. It took a few years to repel the force of McCarthyism in the early 1950s.
The trouble is, this is year eight of MAGA’s dominion over the party. If millions of Republicans are still clamouring for Trump, it’s unlikely that it’s because they’ve failed to notice that he is spectacularly corrupt. For many followers, his lies and grift and even his buffoonery and contempt for national security are a net positive, another means to convey their own loathing for elites and a system that they feel discounts them. Attacks on pluralistic, multiracial, democracy won’t stop any time soon.
With work, luck and pluck, Democrats and independents can repel the GOP. But they can’t reform it. Only Republicans can do that. Many Republicans appear to be waiting, still, for the right moment. Like last weekend.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
This article was published in The Washington Post