The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s declaration of moral bankruptcy

Changing his vote from the public stance he took last month, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), center, voted to support President Trump's declaration of a national emergency to pay for his border wall. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

That famous exchange from Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” comes to mind when contemplating the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party.

You can debate when the GOP’s road to ruin began. I believe it was more than a half century ago, when Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon showed their willingness to pander to racists to wrest the segregationist South from the Democrats. The party’s descent accelerated with the emergence of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Fox News in the 1990s, of Sarah Palin in the 2000s, and of Ted Cruz and the tea party in the 2010s. There were still figures of integrity and decency such as John McCain, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. But the GOP evinced no more enthusiasm for any of them than it had for George H.W. Bush. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the party’s plunge into purgatory picked up momentum.

Republicans now found themselves making excuses for a boorish, ignorant demagogue who had no respect for the fundamental norms of democracy and no adherence to conservative principles. The party of fiscal conservatism excused a profligate president who added $2 trillion in debt and counting. The party of family values became cheerleaders for what Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has witheringly and accurately called the “porn star presidency.” The party of law and order became accomplices to the president’s obstruction of justice. The party of free trade did nothing to stop the president from launching trade wars. The party of moral clarity barely uttered a peep at the president’s sickening sycophancy toward the worst dictators on the planet — or his equally nauseating attacks on America’s closest allies. The party that once championed immigration eagerly joined in the president’s xenophobic attacks on refugee caravans. And the party that long castigated Democrats for dividing Americans by race pretended not to notice — or even cheered — when the president made openly racist appeals to white voters.

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Faster and faster went the GOP’s descent into oblivion. Now its bankruptcy is complete. It has no more moral capital left. The Republican Party as we once knew it — as a party of limited government — officially ended on March 14.

The Senate joined the Democratic-controlled House to pass a disapproval resolution for the national emergency declaration Trump issued to build his border wall. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Rhonda Colvin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

That was the day that 41 of 53 Republican senators voted to ratify President Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional and transparently cynical declaration of a national emergency so that he can spend money for a border wall that Congress refuses to appropriate. This comes 16 days after 182 out of 195 House Republicans voted the same way. Only 13 Republicans in the House and 12 in the Senate dared to block this flagrant assault on the Constitution. So only 10 percent of Republicans in Congress have any — any — principles left. By an interesting coincidence, that’s also the percentage of Republican voters who disapprove of Trump. The party of Lincoln — the party that freed the slaves and helped to win the Cold War — is now devoted exclusively to feeding Trump’s insatiable ego and pandering to his endless lust for power.

And to think that some commentators hailed the Senate’s abysmal failure to muster a veto-proof majority as a victory for principle because, why, 12 whole Republicans dared to defy their supreme leader. There were indeed some pleasant surprises in that list, such as Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the Senate leadership, and Roger Wicker (Miss.), who typically votes with robotic predictability for whatever Trump desires.

But only one Republican who is up for reelection next year — Susan Collins (Maine) — had the guts to defy the president. Other senators stared into the abyss and blinked. Ben Sasse (Neb.), who prides himself on his devotion to the Constitution and his independence from Trump, was among the sellouts. No one should take his claims to be a serious person seriously ever again. So too supposed constitutional conservatives such as Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), Cory Gardner (Colo.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) revealed themselves to be rank hypocrites and craven partisans. We ask soldiers to risk their lives to defend the Constitution, but these cowards would not even risk their political careers.

Cruz (Tex.) was a particularly choice study in situational ethics. He thundered in 2014 that “it’s incumbent on Republicans in Congress to use every single tool we have to defend the rule of law, to rein in the president, so that the president does not become an unaccountable monarch imposing his policies.” But his devotion to the rule of law ended with the Obama presidency.

Somehow Thom Tillis (N.C.) managed the difficult feat of making himself even more ridiculous than Cruz. As recently as March 5, he proclaimed his intention to vote against the state of emergency. “It’s never a tough vote for me,” he said, “when I’m standing on principle.” Turns out reelection mattered more to him than any principle. Facing threats of a primary challenge next year, he folded like an accordion.

Trump won’t be president forever — he could be gone in less than two years. The GOP can always find a new leader. But where will it find new principles? Because it has none of the old ones left.

Read more:

Thom Tillis: I support Trump’s vision on border security. But I would vote against the emergency.

James Inhofe: Why I support the president’s national emergency

Ted Cruz: Make ‘El Chapo’ pay for the border wall

Gary Abernathy: Why a higher wall will lower crime

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump shouldn’t be forcing Republicans to choose fidelity to him or to the Constitution