The great virtue of President Trump’s smoking subversion tape is that it clarifies the goals of all concerned.

The president’s stated objective is not to expose abuses in the electoral system. It is to pressure the Georgia secretary of state into manipulating the electoral system to squeeze out 11,780 additional votes — Trump specifies the exact number — in his favor. His cynical, delusional justifications are beside the point. He would say anything — invent any lie, allege any conspiracy, defame any opponent, spread any discredited rumor — to perpetuate his power.

This, in turn, illuminates the motives of his congressional enablers. In light of Trump’s clarifying call, the term “enablers” now seems too weak. When Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and their GOP colleagues try to disrupt and overturn a free and fair election, they are no longer just allies of a subversive; they become instruments of subversion. They not only help a liar; they become liars. They not only empower conspiracy theories; they join a conspiracy against American democracy. They not only excuse institutional arson; they set fire to the Constitution and dance around the flame.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) announced Jan. 2 that a dozen Republican senators intend to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. (Reuters)

Their pathetic motivations no longer matter. Some are simple cowards, frightened by angry people wearing red hats. Are we supposed to indulge their cravenness out of pity? Are we supposed to sympathize with people who want to keep their jobs at the cost of their country? Others eventually want the angry people in red hats to support their political ambitions. Are we supposed to humor people who seek the presidency by spitting on the institution of the presidency? Are we supposed make allowances for a selfishness so comprehensive that it eclipses duty, loyalty and love of country?

We are witnessing what happens when treacherous politicians run in packs. A solitary betrayal of the constitutional order by a member of Congress is a source of shame and, perhaps, a cause for expulsion. When 100 and more Republicans join hands and betray the constitutional order, it is a populist cause. They gain the confidence, even the thrill, of shared disloyalty. But their oath of office — in every single case — has been dishonored. They have demonstrated their unfitness for office and called their own patriotism into question.

So maybe it is for the best that they stand up and be counted. Maybe it is best for Americans to know who will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — and who will not. By all means, let’s engrave their names into a marble slab — a roll call of those who failed the most important test of self-government in our lifetimes. There are a lot of monuments honoring bravery. Let’s have one dedicated to abject cowardice.

This attack on the constitutional order has led Republican populism into direct conflict with conservatism. Those who once claimed to endorse law and order have come to endorse lawless attacks on the public order. Those who once called themselves constitutionalists now treat the constitutional system with contempt. Those who once warned against tyranny now submissively serve a president with authoritarian pretensions. Those who once stood for federalism now demand that the federal government invalidate state-run elections. Those who once demanded judicial restraint now want courts to overrule democracy on a breathtaking scale. This is a movement fueled by high-octane hypocrisy.

But this is not the greatest damage. Not nearly. Anti-constitutional Republicans are teaching, in essence, that partisan and ideological victory is more important than democratic self-government. They may try to dress up their betrayal as fighting against socialism, or against the “deep state,” or against multiculturalism, or against antifa, or against secularists, or for white pride, or for a Christian America. But what they are really saying to their supporters is this: Your anger is more important than our republic. If that argument feels familiar, it should. A secession movement tried it once before.

It is fortunate for the country that Trump is a clownish figure. In his subversion tape, he ricochets between ominous threats and pathetic lunacy. He is not capable of an organized thought, much less an organized coup. Any revolution with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sidney Powell and Lin Wood in the vanguard is likely to end in the joke bin of history.

And yet: Trump and his congressional implementers have purposely placed a virus in the public order. A significant portion of the country has expressed support for the triumph of anger over institutions. These are potential recruits for anarchy. Trump, Hawley, Cruz and the others may be laying the path for a rougher beast slouching toward Washington. They are shredding the careful work of America’s founders. And they deserve nothing but contempt.

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