The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s rot has reached the GOP’s roots

A member of the National Guard walks near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
A member of the National Guard walks near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)

The acquittal of former president Donald Trump from charges of inciting insurrection brought hints of hope for the Republican future. There was Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) following the facts to a conviction vote. There was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) bluntly opposing the president’s actions. The circle of GOP resistance to Trump’s influence has expanded beyond the conscience of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

But the dominant note of the day was still cowardice. The case presented by the House impeachment managers was so compelling and overwhelming that the extent of Republican cravenness was highlighted in neon. Republicans who knew better tried to hide behind thin technicalities. And most Republican senators did not seem to know better. In the end, we witnessed a historic collapse of moral and political leadership. And it was no less tragic for being expected.

There is a natural process by which political parties renew themselves. Newt Gingrich’s combative, uncompromising Republican revolution in the mid-1990s was a foil for the compassionate conservatism that defined the party in the 2000 presidential election. The rise of tea-party, anti-government populism set the stage for a contrasting reform conservatism, which sought to modernize government in pursuit of populist goals.

This dialectic, however, really operates only in the realm of policy. If Trumpism were merely a set of proposals, there could be an antithesis. But the movement fully revealed by the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol is united by a belief that the White, Christian America of its imagination is on the verge of destruction, and that it must be preserved by any means necessary. This is less a political philosophy than a warped religious belief. There can be no compromise in a culture war. There can be no splitting of differences at Armageddon.

What has emerged within the Republican Party is a debate on the value of democracy itself. In the traditional American view, the democratic process has an essential nobility. It does not always produce the results we seek, yet, in the long run, it protects the rights we value. But the Trumpian view of democracy is purely instrumental. With the stakes of politics so high — with socialists, multiculturalists and child rapists (as the QAnon fabulists would have it) intent on destroying American society — outcomes are the only things that really matter. Not truth. Not civility. Not electoral procedure. Just the gaining and maintenance of power.

Follow Michael Gerson's opinionsFollow

A loss of faith in democratic structures does not lead to anarchy. It leads people to invest their hopes in someone who promises to defend their fragile way of life. In a January 2020 survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than half of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” This is as close as political theory comes to a mathematical principle: Tribalism plus desperation equals authoritarian thinking.

Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump's loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

From one perspective, it is absurd that so many Americans have invested their hopes for the preservation of civilization in a fool. But Trump has been effective in promoting the tribalism of White grievance, as well as desperation about the fate of America. And, unlike any other president, he was happy to step into an authoritarian role, attempting to maintain power through intimidation and violence.

Can the GOP really have a productive debate between people who believe in democracy and those who have lost patience for it? Between those who view politics as a method to secure rough justice in a fallen world, and those who view it as a holy crusade against scheming infidels? Between those who try to serve conservative political ideals and those who engage (in Sasse’s immortal words) in “the weird worship of one dude”?

The greatest need in our politics is a conservatism that opposes authoritarianism. The greatest question: Can such a movement emerge within the framework of the Republican Party?

As it stands, I am skeptical. There are scattered outposts of Republican sanity in Congress, and more in state governments. But in most of the GOP, the rot has reached the roots. Activists feel the anger that Trump has fed rather the contempt for Trump that he has earned. They feel cheated rather than defeated.

At the same time — though I admire the normality and professionalism of President Biden’s administration — it is hard to imagine a future for market-oriented, pro-life conservatives in the Democratic Party. A strong ideological current heads in the other direction.

And it is equally difficult to believe that a third-party challenge to the political duopoly would be anything other than quixotic.

This should leave me both homeless and hopeless. But even an exiled conservatism offers this comfort: Nothing human is permanent. And no good cause is finally lost.

Read more from Michael Gerson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: A conversation with Jamie Raskin

Colbert I. King: McConnell has basically written the Senate’s censure resolution already

Max Boot: The Senate got smoking-gun evidence of Trump’s guilt. Republicans didn’t care.

Dana Milbank: Trump left them to die. 43 Senate Republicans still licked his boots.