Jan. 31, 2020, was the worst day for democracy in America since April 12, 1861, when South Carolina forces opened fire on Fort Sumter. Both days represented a moment when an old guard representing a dying way of life placed their own survival ahead of that of the United States and our Constitution.
What followed in 1861 was a desperate, all-out attempt to deny progress—the rise of the industrial U.S., the end of slavery—and the same is what should be expected of a GOP that cannot survive the demographic changes that will transform an urbanizing, post-industrial U.S. It is an irony that the GOP was founded as an anti-slavery party, a harbinger of the changes to come in the mid-19th century, and today has become a reactionary force surviving by stoking fears of the massive U.S. social transformation that is already well underway.
Despite the combative rhetoric of the blustering president and his Republican base, the tactics employed by the no-longer-grand old party are unlikely to involve violence in the streets. Rather, they are employing different kinds of scorched earth tactics, in this case against the democratic system of government that, untwisted by their efforts to pervert it, would gradually give more power to a new American majority that is not white and is largely urban. (By 2043 the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than half of all Americans will be from groups once categorized as “minorities.” Today, already 82 percent of Americans live in urban areas. In 20 years, that number is projected to be around 90 percent.)
They have long seen these changes coming and consequently, their war against democracy has been on-going for years. Their win-at-any-costs ethos has involved everything from actively seeking foreign intervention in U.S. elections in both 2016 and again in the run-up to the 2020 elections to an active, long-standing campaign to undermine the fairness of U.S. elections. The perniciousness of that effort has been tied to the fact that it has been incremental and below the radar of many American voters. The cannon fire on Fort Sumter was hard to miss and required an immediate response. Attacks in state legislatures and the courts, shrouded in the dull grey language of legal action, are stealthier.
Packing the judiciary and winning statehouses has been key. That judiciary, especially under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the man who has more or less mutely presided over a Senate trial that has been a travesty of justice, has already delivered a series of devastating blows to any prospect the U.S. might have of conducting fair elections. Those most likely to oppose the GOP, especially people of color, have been the primary victims. The Supreme Court’s Citizen’ United decision gave those with greater financial resources more say in our elections. In the Shelby County case, they struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act intended to limit the damage done by redrawing election districts to increase the likelihood of domination by the party defining the districts. In Rucho v. Common Cause, they granted what Zack Beauchamp described in Vox as “a blank check to partisan gerrymandering.” In McDonnell, they all but legalized corruption. Such court decisions have been accompanied by state governments from Georgia to Wisconsin actively working to suppress voter turn-out or rewrite rules in ways that give disproportionate power to the GOP.
Damaging as these efforts have been, what took place in the Senate on Friday when it voted not to hear witnesses in the trial of Donald Trump— when witnesses such as John Bolton were available who could corroborate his guilt—may have been the most damaging blow of all. Because this decision effectively ensured that Trump would not only be acquitted of crimes he certainly committed, it also ensured a number of key points made by Trump and his defenders would in months and years to come be supported by the precedent of the momentous Senate action. These include a virtual ratification of the idea that anything a president might do to win reelection would be acceptable. It gave license to a president to ignore laws prohibiting seeking foreign interference in a U.S. election, or accepting services or things of value from a foreign actor to help win an election.
Trump’s defenders at times went beyond Richard Nixon’s assertion that if the president does something it is not illegal, to a new preposterous standard that anything a president does is by definition in the national interest and therefore not impeachable. They effectively gutted the impeachment provisions of the Constitution and at the same time validated the president’s rejection of congressional subpoena power, a key, as House manager Adam Schiff noted, to the Congress’ constitutionally-mandated oversight role and to its standing as a co-equal branch of government.
Talk about scorched earth—the GOP leaders of the Senate essentially gutted their own future oversight powers in order to preserve this newly super-empowered president in the hopes that this would ensure their own re-elections. They violated in a single stroke several core principles of the Constitution they swore to uphold. First and foremost among these is the one that led to the American revolution in the first place, the idea that no individual is above the law. Also obliterated by their decision is the idea of checks and balances between the three branches of government. They have raised up the presidency and debased it at the same time. They have opened the door to tyranny.
Will Trump continue through that door? Well, if past history is any indication, he will certainly try. He cheated in the 2016 elections. And when the investigation into that abuse was pressured into a conclusion by Trump-appointed officials atop the Justice Department and offered a complex judgment that damned the president yet did not penalize him, he saw that as license to continue. The day after Robert Mueller testified about his report to Congress, Trump got on the phone to continue his shakedown of Ukraine’s President Zelensky.
Further, by withholding aid to Zelensky, Trump was giving yet another gift to his first and most important foreign sponsor, Vladimir Putin (who, with the Senate vote and Britain’s official departure from the E.U., had one of his best days ever on Jan. 31).
Now, super-empowered by the Senate and protected by Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr, will Trump seek the help of Russia again? Will he follow through on his entreaties to China to investigate Joe Biden? Will he continue in his mutual election interference pact with Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu in which each leader-accused felon seeks to help keep the other in power and above the law?
The Senate not only empowered Trump, it sent a message to world leaders: “It is open season in the U.S. If you want to help Trump win re-election and thereby win his favor, go ahead.” Many leaders—from MBS to Xi Jinping, from Putin to Kim Jong Un, must know that if a Democrat is elected president they will face much tougher relations with the U.S. Now they know it is not only OK for them to try put a thumb on the scale of the U.S. elections but that the president and the senate of the United States will ensure they are protected if they do it.
The desperate GOP, seeing the clock running out on their brand of racism- and ignorance-fueled, aging white male-based power, will compound the above with renewed efforts to suppress the vote during the months ahead. Who is going to stop them? The courts they have packed? The Department of Justice? The president and the Republican Party that are rooting for their success?
No. This election is likely to be the most at risk to foreign and domestic meddling and distortion in modern history. It is clear that the GOP will stop at nothing, use every legal or semi-legal trick in the book and then, when they run out of those, they will move on, as the president did, to the illegal—and the GOP will seek to find new ways to forgive or even endorse that behavior. Where they can undermine the law and the Constitution to advance their own narrow interests they will continue to do that, without regard for the lasting damage they are doing—because for them there is only now. For them, tomorrow is the enemy and certain defeat.
One hundred and sixty years ago, in February 1860, at Cooper Union in New York City, rising GOP political star and contender for the new party’s presidential nomination Abraham Lincoln saw a similar threat and an identical mindset from the South and its defenders. He condemned them in one of the most important speeches in American political history—one that resonates as chillingly today as it did then.
“Your purpose then,” he said of America’s then enemies from within, “plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”