The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans were once the anti-radicals. They’re now battering American democracy.

President Trump speaks at a rally in Valdosta, Ga., on Dec. 5. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

One of my first memories as a child was riding to vacation Bible school in the back seat of my grandmother’s Dodge Dart and hearing the news on her AM radio that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. That night, I would be stopped suddenly while racing down the basement stairs by the look of horror in my grandmom’s eyes. The matriarch of our family was born into poverty in 1903, married a man who served in World War I, raised four children through the Great Depression in rural Georgia, said goodbye to her 17-year-old son leaving home to fight in World War II and welcomed him home when he returned from Europe — only to watch her husband die of a stroke a few years later.

Jewel Clark was the strongest woman I have ever known, and I never again saw her as frightened as she seemed to be that night watching the black-and-white images crossing her TV screen. The America that my grandmother had known was falling apart.

I often viewed the ’60s and ’70s through the frightened eyes of my parents, both helplessly dazed and endlessly shocked by the sight of assassinated leaders, burned cities, lost wars, desecrated American flags, martyred students and democratic institutions brought low by a frenzied, radical age.

A year before my grandmother sat in stunned silence inside our family’s suburban Atlanta home, Joan Didion had found herself vexed by the “hemorrhaging” that was beginning in San Francisco. The legendary essayist wrote of America’s atomization and the painful realization that “things fall apart.” Reporting on the lost souls of Haight-Ashbury, Didion mourned that “at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job.”

The dystopian scenes painted in her book “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” would take different forms across the United States in the coming years. Millions of Americans responded to the riotous upheaval playing out nightly on network news by flocking to a conservative movement that would soon identify itself by what it was not, define itself by the enemies it kept and occupy itself with an endless search for a lost America that proved irretrievable — because it was a land that had never existed.

The Republican Party projected itself as the bulwark against left-wing radicalism, the moral arbiter of all that was evil, and the righteous judge of what was constitutionally permissible and what was an abomination against God. The movement chained itself to rigid ideology and primal fear, despite Russell Kirk’s warning that “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology” and is guided instead by principles “arrived at by convention and compromise.”

But a party that elevated Donald Trump from Manhattan’s class clown to the U.S. presidency no longer has any use for the likes of Kirk, Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley.

For four years, Republicans averted their eyes as Trump broke the law, defied constitutional norms, trashed governing traditions, dehumanized political opponents and further radicalized a party that had long ago become unmoored from conservative tradition — and yet that proved to be but a preview of worse things to come. Now, Republican leaders are either actively engaged in sedition against the United States or offering their silent support to a president furiously working to overturn an election.

The leveling wind against liberalism has instead become a gale-force wind beating away at the foundations of American democracy.

So what does one do when the cure becomes more toxic than the disease? When the fever proves more deadly than the infection it was meant to kill? Where do voters turn when those who promised to protect American institutions against political extremism pose a greater threat to democracy than the progressive elites they long demonized?

Last weekend, I asked those questions while watching with horror as fellow Americans in Valdosta, Ga., cheered on a politician’s efforts to stage a coup against his democratically elected successor. What a devolution it has been for a party whose members proudly pack pocket-size Constitutions in their jackets while perversely claiming fealty to the Framers’ original intent. How ironic that the very people who convinced my parents they would be the cure for political extremism have metamorphosized into a band of radicals who present the greatest risk to American democracy since the Civil War.

Now it is Jewel Clark’s grandson gazing at images on his television and wondering how a country could so badly lose its way on a tortuous journey from Haight-Ashbury to Valdosta, Ga.

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