In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s bid to secure an unelected second term, his former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, in an extensive interview with Tim Alberta, registered her disgust: “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” According to Haley’s self-exonerating account, Trump had changed in a way she failed to anticipate. “The person that I worked with is not the person that I have watched since the election,” she said. “Never did I think he would spiral out like this … I don’t feel like I know who he is anymore.”
Haley pleaded that she missed every sign — decades of signs — that Trump posed a menace to American democracy. This is an excuse that can only be used once. But now, having admitted she never would have followed Trump had she known where the path would lead, she is prepared to follow him once again. “We need him in the Republican Party,” she told John McCormick in a new interview. “I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”
Haley’s journey follows a path most of her fellow Republican officeholders have trod: first denying Trump’s authoritarian inclinations and then ultimately accepting them. Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative and formerly influential Republican adviser, seized the attention of the intelligentsia by warning in a Washington Post essay that the constitutional crisis had already arrived. Trump is likely to win the party’s presidential nomination; ergo, the Republican Party is presumptively a vehicle for Trump’s authoritarian ambitions. Therefore — and here was the sharp end of the argument — anything advancing the Republican Party is a vehicle for Trump’s attack on the Constitution.
Kagan’s provocation irritated his former allies because it closed off any pretense that Republicans engage in normal politics without endangering the republic. Five years ago, they could hyperventilate about Hillary Clinton’s email server while denying they had any connection to Trump’s already evident threat to democracy. Now, all plausible deniability is gone. Anybody who supports the party’s normal political operations — even the handful of remaining open Trump critics — is throwing lit matches around the kindling of Trump’s next Reichstag fire.
What’s striking is how few Republicans accept the idea that the insurrection has fundamentally changed anything. None of them are acting as if their party poses any danger. Most of them are carrying on as if the next Republican nominee might well be somebody like Nelson Rockefeller. Zero Republicans have even entertained joining with Democrats to support a bill to protect voting or elections from the subversion campaign Trump’s allies are energetically carrying out in various red states.
Their apparent calculation is that even if they still harbor private concerns over the party’s direction, “normal” Republican partisanship remains completely kosher. Neither Kevin McCarthy nor Mitch McConnell has faced any defections from his caucus — the one major bipartisan effort in Congress, an infrastructure bill, was a ploy designed to wedge off support for Biden’s broader social agenda and came with the approval of leadership.
Mitt Romney, the bravest of the Republican Trump critics in the Senate, explained that he was supporting his party’s filibuster on a Democratic plan to lift the debt ceiling. “We’re not voting in any way to help raise the debt ceiling,” he told reporters. “As a group, we are all together.” As a raw partisan gambit, it makes perfect sense: Threaten a debt-ceiling breach, and potential economic meltdown puts pressure on Biden and compresses his party’s space to maneuver its agenda through Congress. Romney did not seem to have any misgivings that increasing the chance that Biden fails would necessarily increase the chance that Trump returns to power. He seemed able, like his entire party, to compartmentalize.
The reason you can’t cordon off Trump from the rest of the party is that we now live in something functionally resembling a parliamentary system. Biden leads the governing party. Trump is the leader of the opposition. To oppose the one is to support the other.
The primary rationalization for refusing to treat Trump as a national emergency has remained consistent all along: He either doesn’t mean what he says or he lacks the ability to do what he wants. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” an anonymous Republican official told the Washington Post days after the election.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has advanced versions of this case several times and returned to the subject again recently. Forming a popular front to block Trump and his party was simply unnecessary, he insisted, because the threat did not justify such an extreme step. “My thesis,” he argued, “is that Trump is an adventurer of few consistent principles rather than a Hitler, that we’ve seen enough from watching him in power to understand his weaknesses and incapacities, and that his threat to constitutional norms is one of many percolating dangers in the United States today, not a singular danger that should organize all other political choices and suspend all other disagreements.”
Douthat’s case for complacency had several glaring flaws. First, by relying heavily on Trump’s bumbling execution of his last coup attempt, it assumed his next efforts would meet the same fate. This ignores his energetic and successful scheming to target and replace Republican officials who stood in his way. Republicans removed Liz Cheney from their leadership over her refusal to let Trump’s coup go. Trump’s intraparty critics have either been purged or shut up, while his supporters have gotten louder and bolder. His stolen-election narrative has taken hold so firmly within his party — a supermajority of whom do not believe Joe Biden won the election fairly — that Republicans have given up trying to correct it; on the rare occasions reporters bother to ask them, they deflect the question and merely affirm that Biden is the sitting president. Many Republican politicians believed last January that their political future required speaking out against him. Hardly any of them believe that today.
He likewise assumes that Trump will prove less able to steal an election without the benefit of the federal government than he was as the sitting president. It is true that some of the weapons at his disposal last January will be in Biden’s hands in January 2025. But many of the state officials who resisted him last time have been replaced with more pliant figures; Trumpist Republicans seem likely to gain control of the election apparatus in Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia. In any case, Trump might well win the election fairly — and then what? A two-term limit is hardly going to make the executive branch safe from his abuse.
The strangest aspect of Douthat’s case is an insistence on quibbling over the precise scale of the danger. He expends hundreds of words attempting to establish that a scenario in which Trump ends the republican experiment in America is merely possible, not probable. Does the probability of a catastrophic outcome like the end of American democracy actually need to exceed 50 percent before we take firm action to stop it?
While conservatives like Douthat are correct that Trump is not a Hitler, that is setting the bar for action rather low. Trump doesn’t need to be a potential Hitler, or even a Mussolini, to justify suspending our normal rules of political conduct. He may well be a Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian strongman who has conducted a clinic in democratic erosion that Republicans envy in increasingly undisguised terms. It was a minor gaffe two years ago when Trump’s ambassador to Hungary confessed that Trump would enjoy having Orbán’s quasi-dictatorial powers. Now, Orbán is flattered in prime time on Fox News. The Conservative Political Action Conference has scheduled its next annual shindig in Budapest.
Like the strippers in the Bada Bing! club who assume that what Tony Soprano does in the back office doesn’t concern them, Republicans wish to believe they can smooth his path to power without being complicit in his designs. But Trump’s Republican Party is an authoritarian project. For the time being, there is no form of Republican politics that is consistent with democracy.