The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Do Republicans still believe in democracy?

President Trump is joined by Republican members of the House and Senate on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Dec. 20, 2017. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The American political system is in a full-blown crisis, and the proximate cause is President Trump. By now it should be entirely clear that the president is inflicting grave damage on our democracy.

Yet he could not do this without accomplices – and with each passing day he is finding more of them. They are the members of his own political party.

This week, Americans have watched in bewilderment as the Republicans have tried to twist the Russia investigation, which appears to be taking an increasingly threatening turn for the president, into a full-scale assault on the FBI. GOP leaders, backed up by Fox News, have used the faintest wisps of evidence to argue hysterically for the existence of an anti-Trump “secret society” within the bureau. They have tied themselves into argumentative knots to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe (ably assisted, it would seem, by Russian-controlled social media bots). And they continue to do whatever they can to play down the extent of Kremlin interference in the election.

Republican leaders are, in short, abetting a president who has been working overtime to undermine fundamental principles of our democratic system. These same leaders are staging a full-blown assault on the political independence of law enforcement. They are obfuscating one of the most serious attacks on our democracy in recent memory, and they are preventing the country from bolstering our defenses against future risks of the same kind.

And yet no one in the GOP is sounding the alarm. Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), once praised for his brave criticism of the president, has knuckled under. He recently joined his colleague Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) in calling on the FBI to launch a criminal probe of Christopher Steele, the author of the controversial Trump-Russia “dossier.” When The Post revealed this week that Trump had apparently asked his then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe in May how he had voted in the election, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, didn’t even bother refuting the allegation — one that, in an earlier, more innocent age, would have triggered days of anguished controversy. Trump’s meeting with McCabe, she said, was “just a conversation,” just a matter of “trying to get to know somebody.”

Republicans such as Sen. Ron Johnson are hawking conspiracy theories to sow doubt into the Russia investigation, say Post opinion writers. (Video: The Washington Post)

The establishment Republicans who once challenged Trump so eloquently — remember Marco Rubio proclaiming that he would never let a con man take over the conservative movement? — have either fallen into line or fallen silent. It’s Trump’s party now.

These leaders are merely the symptom of a deeper malaise. It is clear that Trump’s habits of thought are seeping into the rank and file of his party – or, perhaps, fertilizing tendencies that were already there.

Trump attacks the press? One poll this past July showed that 45 percent of Republicans approved of the government shutting down media deemed “biased or inaccurate.” Trump plays fast and loose with democratic norms? An August survey found that fully half of GOP voters would support postponing the next presidential election if Trump proposed it. Trump praises Russian President Vladimir Putin? A poll this past May found that 49 percent of Republican voters regard Russia as friendly or an ally. Trump expresses frustration with democratic constraints on his power? A Pew Research Center poll last year revealed that fully one-third of Republicans favor the idea of a strong leader who can govern without interference from Congress or the courts.

Anti-Trump Republican David Frum put it concisely in a recent discussion with Ross Douthat in the New York Times. “The authoritarian-nationalist system Trump is building,” he noted, “is not being built against Congress, but with Congress – and even more, with Republican Parties at the state level.” The myth of extensive election fraud fits the same anti-democratic pattern. Trump’s claim that millions of fraudulent voters opposed him in the 2016 election provides a useful excuse for subverting democracy through voter suppression mechanisms.

The willingness of evangelical Republicans to rationalize Trump’s questionable morals draws on the same ominous sources: Party is more important than principle. Libertarian GOPers such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) have entered into a Faustian bargain with the less-than-libertarian Trump in the hopes of achieving deregulation and tax reform. Have they ever asked whether the price might be too high?

The health of American democracy in its modern form is vitally dependent on legitimate competition among political parties. What does the future hold for us if one of the two major parties no longer subscribes to the rules of the game?

Trump displays contempt for democratic norms. That is frightening enough in its own right. That the Republican Party appears determined to follow his lead portends disaster.