Back in my more naive days — that would be a few months ago — I would worry that supporters of Donald Trump didn’t fully appreciate the harm that his election and campaign might do to the country and to our system of government.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that I had been foolish: Many of those who avidly support Trump don’t back him in spite of the damage he might do; the damage that he would do has become the whole point. In the final throes of his presidential campaign, Trump is appealing to and validating a significant number of Americans who have lost faith in the Constitution, in Congress and the presidency and the Supreme Court and Washington and the mainstream media and just about every institution in the land. As a result they want to rip it all down.
That includes the Republican Party itself, which many Trump voters have come to see as an instrument of their own betrayal. They have even lost faith in the most basic institution of all, the ballot box, with significant numbers believing that the election victory that is theirs by right and numbers is being stolen from them by the media and through massive voting fraud.
According to a recent AP poll, 58 percent of Trump voters now believe that there’s a great deal of fraud in the voting process; just 29 percent said they had quite a bit or a great deal of confidence that their votes would be counted accurately. That belief equips them with a mental mechanism by which they can reject Hillary Clinton as a legitimate president, with potentially serious consequences.
“If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” as Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, told The Boston Globe at a Trump rally in Ohio last week. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take. . . . I would do whatever I can for my country.”
That is dangerous talk, and responsible leadership would try to squelch it immediately. But within today’s Republican Party, those leaders who feel a sense of national responsibility have lost the confidence of their base, while those who have the backing of the base show no sense of responsibility. So Trump and many of his backers — Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, for example — have chosen to feed that sentiment. As Trump told a rally Friday in Greensboro , N.C., “It’s one big fix. This whole election is being rigged.’’
And after Mike Pence, playing Jiminy Cricket to Trump’s Pinocchio, tried to insist that the Republican nominee would “absolutely” accept the verdict of the voters on Nov. 8 as legitimate, Trump pointedly refuted the claim:
Of course, the belief among the Republican base that elections can be and have been stolen in recent years is not something that Trump created. For a decade or longer, Republican leaders and conservative media have invested heavily in the myth of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that every single academic and nonpartisan study has concluded that the notion of in-person voting fraud is itself a fraud. They did so because the myth of widespread voter fraud allowed them to justify voter ID laws that they hoped would depress minority turnout.
In short, they were willing to undermine confidence in the very foundation of self-governance just to gain a small tactical advantage, and in time the myth outgrew their ability to control it. In fact, Trump is living proof that their entire project has gotten away from them, creating a crisis of credibility for our system of government that may be unmatched since the Civil War.
You can trace the antecedents of this crisis a long way back. In its modern incarnation, it might begin with Gingrich, who back in the late ’80s fully embraced the notion that government is the enemy of conservatives. Unlike Ronald Reagan, however, Gingrich pushed it a radical step farther, arguing that conservatives had nothing to lose by attacking government’s legitimacy and by refusing to allow the system to function unless they could fully control it. More and more, they began to treat the government as if it were a foreign occupying force, rather than the legitimately elected expression of the American people.
But to make that approach work, they first had to wage an all-out war against the notion of compromise. They needed to drive home the argument that if government was the enemy of the people, if liberals were also the enemy, then by definition a compromise with the enemies of the people was tantamount to treason.
They have largely succeeded. From that reasoning has flowed the concept of the RINO, the Republican who was willing to compromise across the aisle and thus was not really a Republican at all. It brought us government shutdowns, and a reluctance to perform even basic government functions.
During the ’08 financial meltdown, when leaders of both parties warned that failure to pass a Wall Street bailout plan would bring a total economic collapse, an overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted to let the collapse happen rather than compromise. Later, when experts warned that failure to raise the debt ceiling would bring about systemic failure, many Republicans were again eager to see that happen.
That sentiment dictated the GOP refusal to compromise in any way with Barack Obama, to make it their single overriding goal to ensure that his presidency was a failure. It brought us the so-called Hastert Rule, which dictates that the only measures that are allowed to come to vote in the GOP House are those with majority support within the GOP caucus.
Over time, that no-compromise ethos became so engrained in the GOP mindset that Republican factions became unwilling to compromise even with each other, so that even when they do control the House and the Senate by significant margins, they are incapable of governing.
It’s important to recognize how radical that approach has been, and how thoroughly it undermines the constitutional order. In a European parliamentary system, the party that wins an election is given largely unchecked power to implement its platform. Compromise in such a system is unnecessary. Our Founders, however, looked at the example of the British Parliament and chose another course. The various checks and balances that they built into the American system constitute an elaborate machine that is designed to force compromise upon the various factions and interests.
But if you treat compromise as illegitimate and even treasonous, as Republicans now do, then you render the Founders’ mechanism of government inoperable. It has gotten to the point that Americans 45 and younger no longer have a memory of a time when Congress functioned as it was designed, which also explains why Congress as an institution has a job approval rating of 12 percent. That is not an accident. It is the logical, almost inevitable outcome of a concerted, conscious effort to break the faith of the American people in the legitimacy of their own government.
You see that same sentiment percolating up in a lot of different ways these days. You saw it in birtherism, the concept that Barack Obama was never a legitimate president because he was somehow born overseas. The theory had no basis in fact, and was dispelled by considerable documentary evidence. Even if Obama had been born overseas to his American mother, he still would have been considered every bit a natural-born citizen as Sen. Ted Cruz is.
But birtherism offered an outlet, an excuse, for those who refused to grant Obama the status of a legitimately elected president. It offered them a means to argue that the results of the election didn’t matter and could and should be overturned.
You saw that same sentiment in the recent insurrectionary statements by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who warned an audience of evangelicals that if Clinton wins this election, the threat to freedom may have grown so great that Jefferson’s famous “tree of liberty” would have to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants and patriots. And you can see it in the muttering in the conservative media about preparing articles of impeachment against Clinton so that they’re waiting for her the moment that she takes office.
Last month, conservative state legislators even met in Williamsburg, Va., for what they called a “simulated convention of the states,” in which they proposed and voted upon ways to rewrite the Constitution. They are part of a movement to invoke the Constitution’s Article V, which allows for such a constitutional rewrite if two-thirds of the states’ legislatures choose to demand it. Already, Georgia and several other conservative states have quietly passed resolutions demanding just such a convention.
You also get nonsense such as this, from Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., a Trump backer and surrogate:
As I mentioned above, today’s conservative rhetoric contains echoes of the kind of rhetoric heard back in 1860, when the South was trying to come to grips with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. As Southern leaders saw it, the Constitution was being ignored, the will of the people was being subverted and remaining within the system was no longer a viable option for them.
“I do not think we should wait for any further violation of the Constitution. The Constitution has already been violated and even defied. The violations are repeated every day,” as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Hill put it to his fellow Georgians. “We must resist, and to attempt to resist and not do so effectively — even to the full extent of the evil — will be to bring shame on ourselves, and our state and our cause.”
The curative pursued by Hill and his contemporaries — secession from the Union — is of course not on the table. But through our growing geographic and cultural concentration of like-minded people, we are seeing the rise of a different form of separatism, a kind of virtual confederacy.
In one sense, you could argue that our Founders would be shocked by what we’re seeing today. The idea that you could discredit government, render it inoperable through extreme partisanship and then leverage the resulting anger and discontent to elevate yourself to power — you might think that such a thing would have been unthinkable.
To the contrary, it was predicted with perfect accuracy by Alexander Hamilton in 1792:
” … the only enemy which republicanism has to fear in this country is in the spirit of faction and anarchy. If this will not permit the ends of government to be attained under it — if it engenders disorders in the community — all regular and orderly minds will wish for a change and the demagogues who have produced the disorder will make it for their own aggrandizement. This is the old story.”
This is the old story made new again.