Some friends and I were musing in this post-Omarosa moment about what Republicans would do if a tape in fact emerged of Donald Trump saying the n-word. They’d denounce him, of course. And I’m sure that on some level, most of them would find it genuinely offensive.
But what would they, you know, do? One assumes that Tim Scott and Mia Love, the two African American Republicans on Capitol Hill, would be awfully worked up. Among the remaining 285 white ones, a couple would give thundering floor speeches, probably the same old suspects, Flake and Corker, who are retiring. Ben Sasse would hit social media, as is his ineffectual custom. Then, if recent history is any guide, they’d do… nothing. Another controversy would erupt, the n-word story would move out of the cable-news cycle, and the Republicans would skate away.
The question is why. The conventional wisdom answer, one I’ve believed myself, is “they’re afraid of Trump’s base.” That’s kind of true, but I have come to believe that isn’t the reason.
In my most recent piece for The New York Review of Books, I hit on a new theory, one that just came to me while I was writing the piece. D.C. Republicans don’t fail to object to Trump because they’re afraid of his base. They refuse to stand up to Trump because they like what Trump is doing.
They’re embarrassed by him here and there (tweets), and they disagree with him here and there (tariffs).
But for the most part, they don’t complain too much out loud or carefully limit the scope of their complaints when they do because they’re with him on the most fundamental commodity in politics: power, and its use. Trump’s anti-democratic instincts, which are so dangerous to so many of us, do not trouble Republicans in the least.
The full explanation of this theory requires that we dip into a bit of history. The Democrats and Republicans have been our country’s two main parties since the 1850s. In that time, they have disagreed on a lot of things. But they have agreed on one big thing: They have followed the rules of the game established by our Founders (and subsequent generations) about the basic democratic allocation of power.
The main rule is that if you lose an election, you suffer consequences. The most obvious example of this is the Supreme Court. When Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer to the Court in 1994, then-Texas Senator Phil Gramm said Breyer was “as good as we have a right to expect.” Gramm was an arch-conservative in his time, but he was acknowledging there the central truth about the democratic allocation of power, and Breyer was confirmed 87-9.
For 140 or so years, both parties mostly agreed on the rules. Yes, there was FDR’s court-packing scheme, which most of his fellow Democrats did not support. But after that, a broad consensus held for a long time. Then, the Republicans started behaving a little differently. They started challenging the rules. Democrats did too, a little, especially on judicial nominations, but it was Republicans who drove this change.
The shutting down of the recount in Florida in 2000. The aggressive gerrymandering, first engineered by Tom DeLay. The Hastert Rule, holding that bills could pass the House only with a majority of Republicans, and not with bipartisan support. The attacks on voting rights—straight-up attempts to make it hard or even impossible for certain citizens to vote.
There have been other efforts that are less well-known because they haven’t gained much traction, but they’re pretty devious all the same. Remember a few years ago how Republicans in Pennsylvania wanted to award presidential Electoral College votes by congressional district? That is, the winner in each district would get that district’s electoral vote, instead of the winner of the whole state taking all.
If you did the math, you’d see that this would have given Mitt Romney the majority of the Keystone State’s electoral votes in 2012—a large majority, in fact—instead of the zero he got according to the rules that have existed since the beginning of the republic. If every state did this, it’s unlikely that any Republican would ever lose a presidential election again.
There’s a similar effort afoot by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to return to senators being elected by state legislatures and not directly by the people. This was the case until 1913. No normal human being thinks we should go back to the old way, but abnormal human beings trying to change the rules of political power in this country do, because Republicans control 32 state legislatures and Democrats just 14. I expect you can do this math, too. It would mean a lot more Republican senators. ALEC contends, laughably, that the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment “disenfranchised states.”
So in sum, for a generation now, Republicans haven’t been just arguing with Democrats about who wins elections. They’ve been trying simultaneously to change the rules of the game so that they will win every election (their Supreme Court majority has done its part too, by the way, by allowing all this dark money into the system).
And then came the mother of all rule changes, the Battle of Verdun, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the sack of Rome by the Vandals: the blocking of Merrick Garland. This was an unconscionable rewriting of the rules. Let the American people decide, they said. The American people had decided. They elected Barack Obama to a second term of four years. Not three.
I’ve thought a lot about why the Republicans didn’t just go through the motions of giving Garland his hearing and then rejecting him, as they had the votes to do. They could have scheduled it so that they voted him down in August, and then semi-plausibly argued that it was now too close to the election to proceed. Then, they would have played by the rules but still prevailed. So why didn’t they?
To my mind, there’s only one answer. They wanted to show the Democrats and the country that they didn’t play by the rules. They wanted to make that public demonstration to establish a precedent—to show, to return to my phrase from above, that they could exercise public contempt for the democratic allocation of power. And win.
This is the party they have been in the process of becoming since the Miami-Dade Brooks Brothers riot of 2000, if not before. But one thing was missing—a president who agreed, who gave them permission to proceed with the flaunting of the rules of the democratic game. They’d never had that. Nixon was a crook, but at the end of the day he followed the rules and resigned. Bush Jr. gave us an unjustifiable war and torture, but he pursued both more or less according to the rules.
But Trump? No rules. No commitment to the democratic allocation of power. Make staffers sign these ridiculous NDA’s. Revoke the security clearance of a former CIA director. And the Republicans—not all of them, perhaps, but most of them, and most of the major donors—love it. Under Trump, it’s open season on the rules.
And this, not fear of the base, is why they don’t criticize him. On this most fundamental question, they’re with him all the way.
So stop waiting for Republicans to “wake up” and speak out. Not going to happen. And the next time you hear someone say that Republicans act the way they do out of fear of Trump’s base, run all this past them. It’s the Rosetta Stone to understanding these people.
As I wrote in the Review, they’ve been waiting for just such a man.
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