Broadly speaking, there are two Republican defenses of Donald Trump. The first is the hard-shell, Lindsey Graham, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows variant: This is all outrageous, and the real criminals are the Democrats and Jim Comey and the lovely Lisa Page. This defense is what drives these nutso GOP requests to have Hunter Biden appear under oath before the House, which is about as likely as the U.S. Olympic Committee hiring Jordan as its wrestling coach.
The second, soft-shell variant is one you’ve heard a thousand times: Well, what he did was bad, or a little bad, or maybe not what I would have done; but it doesn’t rise to the level of being impeachable.
This is the attempt to sound “reasonable,” far more rational than Graham, who just openly says he won’t even read the testimony transcripts. In fact, it’s not reasonable at all. In its way, it’s worse than the full Jordan, and more insidious, because in sounding reasonable on the surface it masks the cancer that is eating the Republican Party and has been, in fact, since before Donald Trump ran for president.
That cancer is that this is no longer a small-d democratic party. It’s an authoritarian party. And the seemingly reasonable, soft-shell defense of Trump is grounded in that authoritarianism.
Let me explain what I mean here by starting with the question of why these Republicans say that what Trump did was bad but not impeachable. One answer is obvious: They are afraid of Trump and his voters. They fear that Trump can turn his people against them and defeat them.
And that’s maddening to the rest of us, but it’s also in a way comforting, because it implies that once Trump is off the scene, this madness will lift and they’ll return to “normal.”
So it’s true, but it is not the only thing that’s true. They also say that everything Trump has done is unimpeachable for this far creepier and less reassuring reason: They do not want to admit that any Republican president is capable of doing anything illegal or impeachable while in office. They simply will not allow that precedent to be established.
It’s still the case that too few people understand the truth about the modern GOP. It is an un-American party. It is not interested in democracy. It is interested in power. It doesn’t care how it gets it. Twice in the last five elections, its winning presidential candidates have lost the popular vote. Suppose that had gone the other way around. Do you think the Electoral College would still exist? I can assure you it would not. They would have found a way to gut it. But because the un-democratic results in 2000 and 2016 happened to favor them—hey, the Electoral College is great! Whatever it takes.
Everything Republicans do with respect to our political processes is explained by this truth. Matt Bevin says, with zero evidence, that there were voting irregularities in Kentucky. Yes, he’s just being a Trumpy asshole on one level, but on another, he’s asserting this fundamental Republican truth of our age: Power is more important than democracy. He’ll steal it however he can, if he can get away with it.
And as I said, all this preceded Trump. All the crazy gerrymandering is about power over democracy. Remember when the state legislatures of Wisconsin and North Carolina tried to strip their governor’s office of powers during lame-duck sessions because the incoming governors were Democrats? Power over democracy—or, in that case, limiting the legitimate democratic power of the other side. And of course Merrick Garland. Power over democracy.
None of those things—and there are others, some truly Reichstag-ish ideas like ending direct popular elections of senators, which is a thing—have anything whatsoever to do with Trump. Instead, it’s the other way around. That is, conventional wisdom holds that Trump made the GOP lose its mind. The truth is the opposite: The GOP had lost its mind before Trump, which is why he was able to take it over. He was exactly what they were waiting for.
I was trying to explain all this in a New York Review of Books piece in 2018, and while I consider it mildly self-indulgent to quote myself at length, I’m going to do it in this case. Yes, I wrote, the Republicans of the Bush-Cheney era were ideologically extreme; but even then, the Republican Party remained committed to the basic idea of democratic allocation of power. Since the Civil War, Democrats and Republicans have fought sometimes fiercely over their ideological goals, but they always respected the idea of limits on their power.
No one had come along to suggest that power should be unlimited. But now someone has, and we have learned something very interesting, and alarming, about these “conservatives,” both the rank and file and holders of high office: Their overwhelming commitment is not to democratic allocation of power, but to their ideological goals—the annihilation of liberalism, the restoration of a white ethno-nationalist hegemony.
A lot of them find Trump embarrassing or worse, but on this basic point, the vast majority of them agree with Trump and appreciate the way he has freed them from having to pretend.
So of course they’re not going to admit Trump did anything impeachable. On Planet Earth, what Trump did is open-and-shut impeachable. As Republicans surely would agree if a Democratic president had done it.
But here’s the thing—no Democratic president would hold up military aid for another country unless its president agreed to investigate his or her political opponents because Democrats, while of course not perfect people, have enough respect for the institutions of democracy that they just wouldn’t do that. Most Republicans probably wouldn’t do it either. But now that one has, it’s possible that others will, and as long as that possibility exists, Republicans have to act like it wasn’t really that bad a thing to do. A “mistake.”
Oh, I nearly forgot: There’s defense 2-b, that it can’t be a crime if it didn’t succeed. Nikki Haley is the latest to trot this one out. This also is legally insane on its face (there are a lot of crimes in our penal code called “attempted” this or that, and they’re still crimes). But, again, it is rooted in the party’s authoritarian DNA. It’s a desperate rationale for holding on to power at all costs.
Is there some line that even Trump can’t cross, that will make Republicans say enough, and choose democracy over power? In theory, yes, but only if their backs are against the wall and the garrotes are held at their necks. Until that unlikely day, we will hear excuse after excuse.
David Frum wrote in January 2018: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” He was late. They already had. But he was, to quote an old Frum book title, Dead Right.
So when you hear someone on television say that Republicans’ posture is all about their fear of Trump, don’t buy it. It’s partly about that. But it’s also about this. If they were to acquiesce in the removal of a Republican president, they’d be placing democracy ahead of power. And this is one thing that we know they will not do.