There are three stages of Republican political pusillanimity.

The first is feral cowardice — captured in the wild-eyed, hunted expression of Republican senators asked to comment on the president’s latest insane or destructive tweet. This is pure “fight or flight,” minus the fight part.

The second is calculating cowardice — in which an elected Republican hopes he or she (but mainly he) can refuse comment in the several days after a presidential outrage. This reflects the undignified but understandable desire to blend into the scenery and avoid the attention of primary predators.

The third is complicit cowardice. This is silence in the face of presidential attacks on the constitutional order — a silence that rings out across the prairies and down the hollows as approval and permission.

With President Trump now claiming that the electoral system is “under coordinated assault and siege” by “corrupt forces” and calling on the governor of Georgia to “overrule” his secretary of state and invalidate that state’s election results, we are well into stage three of GOP gutlessness.

By claiming the plot against his rightful rule was successfully coordinated across several states, Trump is not merely claiming instances of election fraud. He is alleging that the American system of democratic government has failed, which implies a right to revolution. By demanding specific, unlawful acts to overturn results in a fair election, he is urging authoritarian solutions to his political problems.

The coup has already occurred in the president’s mind. Can there be any doubt he would keep power by overturning the election’s legitimate result? Can there be any question he would snuff out the democratic voice of the nation if he could?

The jockeying for the post-Trump future of the Republican Party has started, says Post columnist Max Boot. (The Washington Post)

This is the interpretive key to Trump: He is instinctually un-American. He has no respect for the country’s institutions or values. He is ignorant of the nation’s story, dismissive of its conventions and unmoved by its romance. He sees politics the way a Machiavellian would in any country — as the pursuit of power, not the stewardship of certain truths.

Loyalty to Trump now leads well beyond democratic boundaries. Loyalty to the country and its government — being shown primarily by Republican state officials — brings down presidential wrath and abuse by MAGA forces. With even the morally malleable Attorney General William P. Barr now rejecting ridiculous, dangerous libels against the electoral system, the continuing silence from many elected Republicans is — how to say this politely? — sickening. Craven. Dishonorable.

It is sobering that the United States in 2020 seems to have an audience for autocracy, a constituency for authoritarianism. But we are right to hold public officials to a higher standard. Elected Republicans have accepted the votes of Americans, accepted the honors of public service, but refused the duties of responsible governance. By trying to hide from responsibilities this large, this basic of constitutional self-government, they have placed themselves in the hot, unflattering spotlight of history.

It is revealing GOP hypocrisy at its foulest. People who complain of judicial overreach seem happy with executive overreach. People who talk of law and order excuse a lawless attack on the constitutional order. People who speak of patriotism can’t be bothered to speak up for the American traditions, beliefs and institutions.

The exceptional nature of American politics involves one vulnerability: Our democracy must re-create itself in every generation by reaffirming the ideals that created it. Our institutions are not machines that automatically produce the common good. They depend for their survival and success on democratic values — on the constraint of power, not only by law but by convention and conscience.

By expecting such integrity in elected Republicans, we are not asking all that much. The fear of being targeted in a presidential tweet and gaining a primary opponent is real enough. But it is hardly the risk of a young soldier on D-Day, or a protester at a segregated lunch counter. Honoring the oath of office is the minimal commitment of responsible representation.

I know and like many Republican members of Congress. But those who sacrifice their ideals to the ambitions and insecurities of a single corrupt ruler have ceased to serve the country. Their failure to defend democracy at this moment of testing cannot be excused and will not be forgiven.

That judgment is harsh. But I am upset with elected Republicans precisely because I believed in many of them. Because I still know they can be better. Losing a public office is ultimately a small matter in the soul’s long adventure. And losing a public office in a just cause is one of history’s great honors.

My plea to elected Republicans: Remember who you are. Remember the oath that binds you. Remember the idealism and love of country that brought you to service. In a world of chance and change, the great things are eternal: courage, judgment, honesty, honor, moral integrity and a sense of the sacred. It is never too late to do the right thing.

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