The long triumph of the far right in the Republican Party is a process of asymmetric warfare. The insurgents are willing to destroy the party in order to prevail, while the Establishment’s primary goal is to hold the party together. A war between a faction determined to win and a faction determined to patch things up can only have one outcome.
The nomination of Roy Moore is another marker in this ongoing struggle. Moore prevailed in his primary by attacking Mitch McConnell, whom the insurgents blame for undermining the Trump presidency. Moore has openly defied legal authority in service of his belief that his theology overrides the authority of the United States government. This ought to disqualify Moore for service in public office, the most minimal qualification for which is a profession of respect for the rule of law. And yet, rather than declaring Moore unfit to serve, Republicans have endorsed his candidacy. Their stated qualms are limited to the concern that he might fail to vote for their tax-cut plan.
“He’s going to be for tax reform, I think,” Ohio senator Rob Portman of Ohio tells Politico. “Who won? I wasn’t paying attention. I’m just worried about taxes,” adds Nevada senator Dean Heller. If America slides into authoritarianism, the history of the Republican Party’s complicity could be titled, “I wasn’t paying attention. I’m just worried about taxes.”
Karl Rove waged a battle to deny Moore the nomination, fearing his inflammatory comments would harm the party, and hoping to reelect the more pliable Senator Luther Strange. In a postmortem column for The Wall Street Journal, Rove focuses his anguish on the possibility that further primary battles will drain funds that ought to be used against Democrats:
“While copycat challengers may not have Mr. Moore’s advantages, tough primary contests next year will certainly drain GOP funds and divert focus that might otherwise be used to defeat Democrats in the fall,” he fears. “They will also add to the growing sense of a Republican civil war, which complicates the coalition-building needed to pass the party’s agenda.”
“Coalition-building” is, of course, the opposite of the insurgents’ goal.
Rove’s column concludes with a rousing call for … well, you can probably guess:
Passing tax reform has now become an existential imperative. The electoral disaster that might visit Republicans if they can’t get tax reform done ought to galvanize leaders at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue and reinforce a bit of old wisdom: that the perfect should not be allowed to be the enemy of the good.
Republicans are doing nothing whatsoever to refute the mordant liberal observation that they will happily go along with any violation of democratic norms if there will be upper-class tax cuts at the end.
There is no display of establishmentarian cravenness more thorough than that offered up by Paul Ryan in his interview with Sean Hannity last night. Hannity has attached himself to Trump, and has routinely accused the party’s congressional wing of failing its great president. In the interview, Hannity plays the role of Grand Inquisitor. He presents Ryan with accusations that some Republican senators have been heard voicing internal criticisms of President Trump.
“I know people that sit in Senate private closed-door meetings, and they write me what’s said,” Hannity tells Ryan. “I’ll give you names — Ben Sasse, John McCain — at least 10 or 12 senators that don’t want the president to succeed.”
Hearing this, Ryan pastes a look of distress on his face. Hannity asks Ryan what his relationship with Trump is like. “It’s very good. It’s the opposite of this. We have a great relationship,” he tells Hannity. “You don’t have that in the House of Representatives. We have caucuses every week. You don’t hear that kind of talk from the House of Representatives.”
After Ryan professes his complete satisfaction with Trump’s leadership, and abjures any impure secret doubts or impure thoughts, Hannity asks if he has any disagreements with Trump. “No … no,” Ryan pleads.
At this point, in the style of any good show trial, Ryan goes on to prove his innocence by denouncing the treachery of his colleagues. “So it really comes down to the Senate. The Senate is where people need to focus their attention,” suggests Inquisitor Hannity.
“Look, I love to bash the other guys,” replies an eager and obviously relieved Ryan. “I can control what we can control. But we’re doing our job here in the House.”
The insurgents don’t have to make public displays of support for McConnell or Ryan or the party agenda. They advertise their opposition at every turn. The Establishment, on the other hand, is terrified of any schism, and willing to prostrate itself in the service of unity. A decade ago, Paul Ryan himself was the right-wing alternative to the party Establishment. The long rightward march has no end in sight.