In less than six weeks, Americans will be casting ballots in one of the most momentous mid-term elections in my lifetime. The conventional (and historically grounded) wisdom is that the party in the White House always fares poorly, an inevitable combination perhaps of disenchantment within the incumbent presidentâ€™s party, and vengeful opportunism within the opposing party.
The political press, after doing their best to hype the drama and conflict throughout the campaign, will then complacently default to some variation of, â€śThe American people seem to prefer a divided government, refusing to concentrate too much power in the hands of one party, invoking the checks and balances, just as the Framers intended.â€ť Then, following a decent interval, they will resume complaining about the partisan gridlock paralyzing Washington and frustrating the will of the voters.
Todayâ€™s political situation is too perilous for that familiar template of coverage-as-usual. American democracy is facing an internal threat and an existential crisis like we havenâ€™t seen in many years, if ever.
I appreciate Joe Bidenâ€™s recent speech defending democracy, but it was almost two years too late. He should have been talking about it back in the fall of 2020 during the post-election months, when the Trump forces were trying to steal back the presidency through spurious legal challenges, undermining public confidence in voting procedures, bullying election officials, fielding fake elector slates, while pressuring the vice president to reject the legitimate elector slates, and ultimately inciting a violent insurrection to block congressional certification of the Electoral College vote.
Iâ€™m a lifelong Democrat, so you may be inclined to dismiss what I say as blind partisanship but listen to what prominent former Republicans have to say:
â€śItâ€™s not only that Trump has to lose, but that all his enablers have to lose. We have to collectively, in essence, burn down the Republican Party. We have to level them because if there are survivors, if there are people who weather this storm, they will do it again.â€ť(Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, 8/25/19)
This is why these mid-terms are so important. Republican leaders and Trump cultists (who are functionally indistinguishable) will take anything less than repudiation at the polls as a mandate to press on with their suicide mission to promote Trumpism at any cost. Make no mistake: if they retake Congress, theyâ€™re empowered to thwart the rest of the Biden presidency and virtually ensure the Democratsâ€™ defeat in 2024, ushering in the return of Trumpism if not Trump himself.
A few principled conservatives have been honest enough to admit that simply defeating Trump, the man, wonâ€™t be enough to eradicate the scourge of his movement, a toxic brew of bigotry, corruption, aggressive ignorance, incompetence, democratic disenfranchisement and authoritarianism tipping into outright fascism.
â€śThe nationâ€™s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes much larger than the small man who is the great exacerbator of themâ€¦. The measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many and will be protracted far beyond his removal. One such measure must be the removal of those in Congress who, unlike the sycophantic mediocrities who cosset him in the White House, will not disappear magically.â€ť (Washington Post columnist George Will, 6/1/20)
George Will has been among the most prominent Washington intellectual champions of Republican Party conservatism for nearly 50 years. He is such a fixture in the Washington establishment that he secretly helped Ronald Reagan prep for his debates with Jimmy Carter, using briefing materials stolen from the Carter campaign, while offering nominally independent commentary in his Washington Post column and in TV interviews, only conceding 25 years later that it had been â€śinappropriate.â€ť It takes a hell of a lot to sever a guy like that from his Republican roots.
While a few prominent Republicans have rejected Trump but still wax nostalgic for the days of supposedly â€śreasonableâ€ť conservative Republicans like Reagan, Stuart Stevens, a former Republican campaign consultant, is having none of it. After some deep soul-searching, this veteran operative has emerged as a very public penitent. Stevensâ€™ most recent book opens with a stark confession: â€śI have no one to blame but myself. I believed. Thatâ€™s where it all started to go wrong.â€ť He goes on to write:
â€śThere is nothing strange or unexpected about Donald Trump. He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party. Trump isnâ€™t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form.â€ť (Stuart Stevens, â€śIt Was All a Lie,â€ť 2020)
Soon to be former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) offers the most striking recent example of unreserved repentance. Along with her Republican colleague on the House select Jan. 6 investigating committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), she has been one of the most vocal and eloquent critics of Trump and the alarming authoritarian turn his Republican Party has taken. Last October, Kinzinger announced his intended retirement this year, and today speaks with the serenity of a man who has put electoral politics behind him.
But Cheney doubled down on her criticism knowing that it was certain political suicide in her re-election bid. Last month, after her landslide defeat in this yearâ€™s primary, she told a TV interviewer:
â€śI feel sad about where my party is. I feel sad about the way that too many of my colleagues have responded to what I think is a great moral test and challenge of our time, a great moment to determine whether or not people are going to stand up on behalf of the democracy and on behalf of our republic. And so, it does make me sad that so many people have failed the test.â€ť (Rep. Liz Cheney, 8/19/22)
William Kristol, son of the prominent conservative intellectual and journalist Irving Kristol, and a conservative movement figure who served as Vice-President Dan Quayleâ€™s chief of staff and later promoted Sarah Palinâ€™s vice-presidential candidacy, is another early and ferocious critic of Trump and Trumpism who has abandoned the Republican Party. In a Washington Post interview earlier this month, he said:
â€śYou canâ€™t overestimate how much damage the capitulation of conservative and Republican elites has done. Trump by himself succeeding was bad. The Republican Party going along with Trumpâ€”and the conservative establishment legitimating and rationalizing and enabling Trumpâ€”created the very dangerous situation weâ€™re now inâ€¦. [I]f we donâ€™t have two reasonably healthy parties, the unhealthy party has to be defeated.â€ť (Bill Kristol, former Republican, 9/6/22)
These conservative former Republicans have it right. There is no possible rapprochement with political adversaries who reject the most fundamental principles of democratic government. Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that, following Trumpâ€™s lead, at least a dozen Republican candidates for governor or U.S. senator refused to commit to honoring the election results should they lose.
Our choice, therefore, is clear: either we burn to the ground todayâ€™s Republican Party, or we watch todayâ€™s Republican Party burn to the ground our democracy.