In 2016, the Republican Party platform ran to 54 single-spaced pages. It addressed matters as diverse as crony capitalism, the Endangered Species Act, administrative law trends, and Dodd-Frank. At some points, the document seemed oddly disconnected from the nominee, as when it pledged to “meet the return of Russian belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Elsewhere, it reflected his influence, for example, in the declaration that “We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first.” But, wise or unwise, the platform was the voice of the party. Hundreds of named individuals from every state and territory in the United States participated in its drafting. Arguments over its contents were sometimes heated, and compromises were struck.
In 2020, the Republican Party issued a one-page notice that it was foregoing a platform altogether. Citing health and safety concerns, the Republican National Committee simply affirmed that: “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” The document was unsigned.
That is the sound of American democracy cracking. For 160 years, beginning with its anti-slavery manifesto in 1856, the Republican Party has issued a platform every four years. Only in 2020 did it simply genuflect to its leader. The health fig leaf was risible. It would have been easy to draft a 2020 platform remotely, as the Democrats were able to do. No, the de-platforming (if you will) of the Republican Party was the official seal on a phenomenon that has been obvious for some time, namely that Republicans have ceased to behave as citizens of a republic and have adopted the habits and mindset of a cult.
Republicans’ tolerance for leader worship, antithetical to the democratic spirit, was already evident in 2016 when, rather than recoil, they cheered assertions from Trump like “I alone can fix it.” That’s not what John Adams had in mind when he described our republic as one of “laws, not of men.” It fully reverses the democratic principle, memorably enunciated by Gerald Ford when he assumed the presidency, “Here, the people rule.” As recently as 2008, Republicans offered mocking lectures to Democrats about what they deemed Barack Obama’s “messiah complex.”
Leaders who had boasted of their attachment to something called “constitutional conservatism” fell into line behind a constitutional illiterate who claimed that Article II permits him to do whatever he wants. Rather than rebuke Trump for flouting the law by redirecting Defense Department funds to a border wall that Congress had explicitly refused to support, they offered groveling statements of agreement that the situation at the Mexican border constituted a national emergency. The Republican capacity for shame atrophied.
Similarly, when Trump imposed steel tariffs on Canada (Canada!) in the name of “national security,” the Republicans permitted their attachment to law, to say nothing of honor, to take a back seat.
With rare and brave exceptions, Republicans have found no line they were unwilling to cross, no principle they felt duty bound to uphold, no tradition they would not defile. The Trump years have disfigured democracy by eroding the rule of law and encouraging a once-vibrant political party to become a claque for one man.
The violations of law have accumulated faster than Americans could digest them. From the very start, according to two government watchdog groups, the Trump Administration has flouted the Presidential Records Act by employing an email messaging system that automatically destroys messages after they are read. The party that made Hillary Clinton’s emails the scandal of the century was silent.
Trump has consistently violated at least the spirit of the emoluments clause by enriching himself and his family. The Republican Party shrugs it off.
According to a recently released Government Accountability Office report, the top two officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), appointed to “acting” positions, are serving in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. No leading Republican found it worthy of comment.
Holding parts of the Republican National Convention at the White House violated the Hatch Act, because, while the President and vice president are exempt from its provisions, nearly all of the other executive branch officials who would have had to play a role in staging the flamboyant show are covered. Again, the Republican Party was indifferent. Mark Meadows, White House chief-of-staff, scoffed “Nobody outside the Beltway really cares.”
Last year, a watchdog agency recommended that the President fire advisor Kellyanne Conway for violating the Hatch Act. Her response was “Blah, blah, blah. . . . Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
Trump has been credibly accused of suborning perjury by requesting that his then lawyer, Michael Cohen, lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. This elicited not a flicker of concern from the GOP. Trump dangled pardons before cronies facing trial, urging them to hang tough. This passed muster too. When Michael Cohen was preparing to testify against Trump before Congress, Trump tasked others (including a sitting member of Congress) with discouraging him—also known as witness tampering. Trump repeatedly urged federal officials to violate immigration laws, including by shooting would-be illegal immigrants in the legs, with the promise that he would pardon them. And he has removed inspectors general when their investigations threatened embarrassment.
Trump’s assault on democracy doesn’t end with law breaking though. His leadership has corroded the very idea of dialogue. His cataract of lies has exhausted and dispirited his opposition while encouraging his own side to disregard the tools of democratic governance—coalition-building, debate, compromise—in favor of raw exercises of power. Above all, his encouragement of violence, evident from the very early days of his campaign in 2015 when he urged followers to punch out protesters, has introduced an element of thuggery to the top echelons of American politics unseen since the Civil War.
None of this would have been possible without the active collaboration of the Republican Party, which has so neutered itself that it cannot summon the dignity to present a platform, and instead bleats its support for anything and everything Donald Trump dictates.