Trump’s Wrongdoings Are a Feature of His Party, Not a Bug

The GOP was corrupt long before 45 came along

Illustration: Jenna Anderson

AA Republican president stands accused of traitorous acts, working in cahoots with a kleptocracy that emerged from the ruins of the USSR and its KGB — a menace the GOP long grounded its very identity upon fighting — in multiple schemes to undermine our national elections.

Many have asked why the Republican Party would stand lockstep behind such a brazen criminal. The most commonly heard answer is that Trump has “taken over” the Party. That’s true insofar as the president is always the head of his party, but it is not a satisfactory answer.

Trump has managed to line up virtually every significant constituency of the GOP, not the least among them its senators and House members, behind him with remarkable uniformity, to the point that many GOP House members enthusiastically joined Trump in declaring his conduct with Ukraine to be “perfect” and nearly none were willing to criticize his conduct during the impeachment debate, while virtually all GOP senators stand ready to suppress further evidence of Trump’s criminality, then summarily acquit him.

The truth is, Trump and his serial illegal electoral interference are the apotheosis of a transformation of the GOP that began during the Reagan presidency, if not before. It is a transformation arising from the Republican Party’s slow but insistent recognition that it has become a permanent minority party, advancing policies that are widely unpopular, and that its political success is dependent upon hobbling democracy and, most importantly, the electoral process.

Ratcheting up voter suppression

The GOP’s now direct opposition to democracy is demonstrated in the party’s relationship with the now gutted Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Great Society legislation that combated Jim Crow voter suppression schemes. The hollowing out of the VRA, and its continued somnolence, is attributable in substantial part to two Republican figures who are poised to play significant roles in the upcoming impeachment trial: Chief Justice John Roberts and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

McConnell is a rare species among white politicians of his generation in the South: A lifelong Republican who came of age as an advocate for civil rights. In a memoir, McConnell reverently recalls that, during a 1965 visit to Washington, a GOP Kentucky senator took him to Lyndon Johnson’s signing ceremony for the VRA. And in 2006, when McConnell was the GOP Senate whip, he helped to shepherd a renewal of the VRA through the chamber by unanimous vote, after which it was signed into law by George W. Bush.

Yet that 2006 vote masked a change in the GOP’s attitude not only toward the VRA, but indeed toward the value of fair elections. During his time as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration, after clerking for Goldwater supporter and civil rights opponent William Rehnquist, John Roberts began aggressively advocating for the gutting of the VRA. Roberts’ initial target was a statutory provision overruling a Supreme Court decision requiring proof of racist intent to challenge discriminatory voting laws Though Reagan supported Robert’s proposal, Sen. Bob Dole led GOP legislators in beating it back.

During the intervening years, however, Roberts’ anti-voting rights position moved closer and closer to the GOP mainstream. Then, one event heralded that opposition to voting rights was to become central to the GOP’s survival as a national party. In 2000, George Bush became president, after (like Donald Trump) losing the popular vote, when the Supreme Court ordered vote counting halted in Florida and directed Bush’s installation as the nation’s Chief Executive.

While Bush signed the bill renewing the VRA, in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, Roberts, his nominee as chief justice achieved, by judicial fiat, not legislative vote, his lifelong goal of gutting the VRA. Roberts led a five-justice majority in nullifying the preclearance provision of VRA, based on the absurdly disingenuous proposition that the era of discriminatory voting laws was effectively over. After the Shelby decision, in numerous states, the GOP fully implemented systematic plan to weaken the voting rights of Democrats, and specifically African Americans, in order to ensure that GOP candidates for state legislative office, and the House, would have large advantages, and could maintain control over state legislatures in many states (which in turn play the primary roles in drawing most House districts), even if they received a minority of votes.

With each passing year, the Republican war upon voting rights has become more audacious, culminating in the Trump administration’s calculated effort to intimidate Hispanic residents not to answer the census (which is used to allocate House seats among the states) by prominently including a citizenship question on the form. Roberts, openly grudgingly, put the kibosh on the scheme, but only after chiding a trial judge for eliciting evidence of the intentionally discriminatory purpose underlying the scheme.

Which brings us back to McConnell, who has traveled a long distance since he proudly witnessed Johnson signing the VRA into law. Though the House (over near unanimous Republican opposition) recently passed a bill intended to address the purported defects in the statute found in the Shelby case, and reinstate preclearance, McConnell has made it clear that he is resolutely opposed to legislation intended to curing discriminatory voting laws, which he has dubbed the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Populism as a cover for reaction

Even as the GOP has come to oppose fair elections, it has increasingly embraced profoundly unpopular, and systemically regressive, policies. Perhaps the leading figure in this transformation of the party is former House Speaker Paul Ryan. During the Obama administration, Ryan became known as a supposed budget “wonk.” He actually was a radical adherent to the brutal philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand. Like Rand, Ryan was obsessed with the danger that makers (that is, successful capitalists) would be defeated by takers (that is, everyone else), to the grave detriment of society.

As the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, Ryan began to propose budgets that would gut Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs. Despite the fact that such plans were profoundly unpopular and had crashed and burned during the Bush administration, the GOP House majority passed the Ryan budgets, sanguine that they would never become law.

Trump campaigned against changes in Social Security and Medicare; but after he took office Ryan was able to further his longstanding policy goals by enacting a wildly regressive tax “reform” bill. Because the bill was passed virtually entirely with GOP votes in the two houses of Congress, and because Trump’s team had little interest in moderating its most regressive aspects, the law provided an absurdly large gift to wealthy individuals and public companies, and even ended up raising the tax burdens of some middle-class voters.

The law has been a political drag on the GOP since its enactment, but ironically, likely increased GOP legislators’ reliance on Trump, since they have depended upon the president and his appeals to nativism and culture war issues to maintain the loyalty of voters who have had little enthusiasm for the GOP’s single major legislative achievement.

Despite the fact that he made a point, often on the record, of making moralistic comments about Trump’s conduct, Ryan, far more than McConnell, allowed the chamber he led to become a hothouse of right-wing conspiracy theories and other efforts to support Trump, even as evidence that Trump welcomed illegal Russian assistance, and that it had been crucial to his narrow 2016 victory.

The simple fact was that Ryan and his ideological allies needed Trump to get his deeply unpopular policy goals implemented, both in the House and elsewhere in the government. And fellow right-wing extremist, and Koch Brothers acolyte, Vice President Mike Pence was busily implementing a similarly Randian scheme to eliminate environmental and other regulations on a wholesale basis, even as McConnell was devoting the time the Senate had on its hands, because of an absence of legislation, packing the courts with young, radical right (and frequently blatantly unqualified) judges. And of course, after stonewalling consideration of Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, McConnell succeeded in cementing a right-wing majority on that tribunal as well.

Traitorous illegality is a feature, not a bug, of the Republican Party

The 2018 elections were not only a repudiation of Trump, but just as significantly of the GOP’s profoundly unpopular policies. Yet their results had the curious impact of strengthening Trump’s power over the party.

Apart from disgust with the president, including among many longstanding Republican suburban voters, the victory was fueled by a Democratic campaign focused like a laser beam on Trump’s greatest policy failure to date: His effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which the Democrats employed as a proxy for broader dissatisfaction with the Trump/Ryan/Pence policy agenda.

Trump’s intrinsically criminal electoral strategy now appears to be a template for Republican electoral success, not an anomaly.

Yet the results of the election, if anything, made Trump a stronger force in his increasingly minority party, and impliedly vindicated his resort to criminality in order to get elected. In the wake of the recent election, the GOP minority in the House and majority in the Senate is comprised of a larger percentage of particularly enthusiastic supporters of Trump; and Trump’s appeals to nativism and fear of immigrants and minorities are increasingly central to binding the party to its remaining core voters.

On this background, Trump’s intrinsically criminal electoral strategy now appears to be a template for Republican electoral success, not an anomaly.

In 2016, in the face of grave unpopularity, Trump, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon recognized that, for Trump, the only road to an electoral college victory was a targeted and intensive appeal to nativism and racism, as well as the demonization of his opponent. And the Russians’ help was integral to achieving that end, a fact became only more clear as the scale of the Russian’s criminal scheme was disclosed in the Mueller report.

As the 2020 election approached, Trump’s underrated political intuition once again told him that the intensive defamation of his strongest opponent was essential to his, once again, extremely narrow, reelection chances; and he turned, even earlier, to searching for foreign help. Furthermore, Trump tightened his ties with the regime of Vladimir Putin, in patent bid to encourage him to engage in yet another criminal scheme to aid Trump’s election.

The monkey wrench in the scheme was the whistleblower report, which disclosed a massive scheme, involving the most senior members of the Trump administration, directed at coercing Ukraine to fabricate a criminal investigation against Joe Biden.

While William Barr and the DOJ captained an assiduous effort to bottle up the whistleblower report, and thereby prevent evidence of Trump’s Ukraine scheme from coming to light, the effort failed because of the investigative efforts of Adam Schiff and the new Democratic majority in the House, as well as the unwillingness of some responsible public servants to remain silent, despite directives to do so from the White House.

Despite claiming that he wants a full trial, Trump’s goal all along has been to keep as much evidence as possible and, most importantly, the testimony of his closest aides and cabinet members, from being heard.

And now Mitch McConnell stands ready to serve the president’s wishes, most importantly by ensuring that GOP senators can vote to acquit the president without being forced to confront even more damning evidence of his culpability, thereby allowing the president to trumpet his acquittal, as an agreement by a majority of the Senate that his conduct was not only not culpable, but indeed “perfect.” Indeed, the day after the House voted to impeach Trump, McConnell intimated that the Senate might not even recognize the House’s impeachment articles as legitimate.

Trump and his tactics, which are intended to garner reelection despite the fundamental repugnance of the president and his policies to the majority of Americans, are — at bottom — of a piece with the strategies that the GOP has pursued during recent decades to retain its power in the face of decreasing popularity among voters, and its pursuit of extremely unpopular policies.

When one considers that Trump, in effect, took those strategies to their logical extreme, he begins to appear more like the ultimate Republican candidate, rather than an outsider who transformed the party into something it was not.

Far from being an anomaly, it is sadly appropriate that, by the end of the trial, Trump will have succeeded in rendering virtually the entirety of the GOP House and Senate as open and notorious accomplices in his criminal scheme to undermine the nation’s democratic system.

David Lurie is a lawyer who practices in New York City. He has also written for Slate and The Daily Beast. You can follow him on Twitter here: @davidrlurie

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