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Republicans stand at democracy’s crossroads

Editor’s note: Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Capitol Report or Bloomberg LP.

We don’t know how Donald Trump’s presidency will turn out, or what the cost could be to democratic culture and norms. But we know that Trump’s capacity for harm will depend only partly on Trump and his aides.

Enormous power will rest with Republicans in Congress. If the GOP wants to constrain Trump’s propaganda, political chaos and end-runs around ethical, constitutional and democratic standards, especially on the domestic front, it can.

It’s far from clear, however, that it will.

Trump represents an obvious departure from democratic behavior and norms. But what about the GOP? Is the Republican Party still fixed in a democratic orbit, respectful of American political traditions and protective of civil and political rights? Or is its early acquiescence to Trump, following other retrograde motions — Republican presidents get to appoint justices to the Supreme Court but Democratic presidents don’t — a sign that the party is transitioning into something else?

“I don’t see any evidence, at least at the grass-roots level, that the Republican Party is morphing into a vehicle for authoritarian rule,” said political scientist Matthew Dickinson, an expert on the presidency, in an email interview. “Trump did highlight a deep strain of political and economic populism within the Republican electorate, but I didn’t see evidence that people were willing to cede authority to a strongman and his ruling clique.”

Of course, the GOP’s grass-roots, which account for much of the demand side of the political propaganda market, may not be all that reliable a bulwark. They didn’t terribly mind their candidate’s lack of disclosure, accountability or credibility, or his wallowing in cruel attacks and trashy conspiracy theories. They may not mind such behavior in a president, or a majority party, either.

Thomas Mann, a University of California, Berkeley, and Brookings Institution scholar who co-wrote an influential 2012 book on the decline of democratic norms among congressional Republicans, exhibits less confidence about democracy’s durability. In a blog post, Mann said that the silence of GOP leaders on everything from Trump’s alarming personnel moves to his egregious conflicts of interest is alarming.

“The risk of party loyalty trumping institutional responsibility naturally arises with unified party government during a time of extreme polarization,” Mann wrote. “A devil’s bargain of accepting illiberal politics in return for radical policies appears to have been struck.”

Sarah Binder, a Brookings congressional scholar and political scientist at George Washington University, believes it’s too soon to tell. She emailed:

Reports that GOP incumbents in the House are fearful of attacks from Trump and his supporters if they stray from his preferred positions (whatever those may be) raise big doubts about the “democraticness” of the Hill GOP. If true, those reports suggest that diversity of opinion and its free expression are at risk. And that’s not so democratic. But I think it’s too early to know whether and to what degree such fear is taking root on the Hill.

Norman Ornstein, Mann’s co-author and a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, has long held a darker view. “The party has been in transition for a number of years ideologically, but has also clearly begun to cast aside in many venues the fundamental norms of democratic behavior,” Ornstein emailed.

He cited Republican Senators Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse as potential counters to the party’s authoritarian drift. “But the fact that the party has been rewarded with major victories at the state and national level means the approach and mentality gets solidified instead of fragmented,” Ornstein said. “The next year is a major test of how far otherwise conventional politicians will go to achieve political ends.”

John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, is hopeful that “Republicans remain a small-d democratic party.” But, he said in his email, “there are disturbing signs, such as Newt Gingrich’s casual suggestion that Congress should rewrite ethics laws to accommodate Trump, and that Trump could simply pardon his kids if they fall afoul of the laws in place. That’s sniffing at dictatorship.”

“With luck,” Pitney continued, “Republicans in Congress will take their oaths seriously and recognize that their loyalty is to the Constitution and the institution, not a president of their party. The next couple of years will be a fight between James Madison and Donald Trump. Let us pray that Madison wins.”

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