Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has failed to get his chamber to join the House of Representatives in passing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He has handed President Donald Trump a major defeat that now tops the list of non-accomplishments of Trump’s failed presidency. In his daily pronouncements, in his usual bombastic style, whether at a Cabinet meeting, a Rose Garden ceremony or even a Boy Scout Jamboree, Trump constantly claims to be a great negotiator, a super dealmaker, a winner who always wins. Yet his first six months in office are a desert of non-accomplishment. His major accomplishments have come from trying to undermine the federal bureaucracy in carrying out existing law. Here he is having some impact, none of it good.
As he promised, Trump is different. He is far more outrageous than previous presidents. He is ignorant of his place in history, the responsibilities of his office, and even the crude outlines of his own policy agenda. He consistently contradicts his own staff publicly, flying off the handle, tweeting at all hours, and revealing his incredibly thin skin. He is constantly undermining his own attempts at winning with ill-chosen words and actions. He remains very unpopular, even among those who voted for him in the first place. He maintains a narrow base of support, and this base includes a rabid and racist core of supporters, who are desperate to turn back everything the first black president, Barack Obama, had accomplished. Trump is the white nationalist president, and at times he seems not very good at that (for which, I guess, we should be thankful). Trump remains an existential threat to the rule of law and the basic constitutional principles of the U.S. political system.
As disturbing and distinctive as all this is, we need also to consider how Trump is also the fulfillment of years of Republican politicking to undermine government at all levels. For years, the Republican Party has been working to take our politics “off-center” and polarize partisan divisions by becoming the home to right-wing extremism. Ever since Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy, the Republicans have been working to become a home for the most extreme white nationalists our country has to offer. It is a party that now panders to its racists. Trump’s leadership of the birther movement that claimed Barack Obama was a Muslim from Kenya was just the most extreme and bizarre version of the Republican Party’s racist trajectory.
Trump’s cabinet of corporate cronies reflects the other extremist trend in a Republican Party increasingly beholden to corporate interests and their money, most prominently, but not by any means only, the Koch Brothers. The Republicans are now perched with the Trump administration to finally complete their longstanding objective of undermining the liberal welfare state, with its social spending, redistributive tax policies, and business regulations. As limited and flawed as it is, the social welfare state has been attacked by the Republican Party for decades as the big government socialism it never was. Trump’s cabinet appointments, policy proposals and budgetary initiatives all point to a concerted effort to complete that Republican take down of the welfare state.
The Republican Party has become over time its own swamp that was not being drained, but filled with more unappealing plants and animals all the time. With Trump, the swampification accelerated as he chased away moderates and attracted extremists. Those Republicans that are left are increasingly willing to defy the basic norms that make possible our constitutional system and the rule of law.
John Adams coined an aphorism that ours is a system of laws not of men. But the reality is that democracy requires people’s willingness to adhere to basic norms of reasonable behavior. Without that, the system will fall of its own weight. If people defy legal limits and there is not sufficient pushback, the limits can be breeched. Over time, this is what Republicans have chosen to do. They have chosen to find whatever partisan advantage they can exploit for their extreme agenda.
The Republicans have peeled back the legal limits on money in elections, sought to fix congressional representation to their advantage through gerrymandering via the takeover of state governments which itself was consummated by flooding state elections with corporate donations. They have suppressed the vote of nonwhites, the elderly and low-income people. Undermining democracy, stealing elections, the Republicans worked corporate lobbies, sometimes organized via ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the Koch funded peak association, to dominate the policy process. This defiant attitude has not just taken our politics off center but led to policy enactments that consistently contravene popular opinion.
The most recent strategy for repealing Obamacare is the ultimate norm-defying gesture of Republican extremism and no holds-barred partisan gamesmanship. McConnell held no hearings, took no testimony, crafted a proposal in secret and then asked the Senate to pass a blank check so he could negotiate with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on a possible repeal bill. These procedures did not even sit well with many Republicans. In the end, John McCain came back from brain surgery and a cancer diagnosis to join with Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to deny their party a majority vote.
McCain voted against the process as much as the (non-existent) bill. For years, McCain has complained about various maneuvers designed to subvert the norms essential to the constitutional system. He has been an outspoken proponent of campaign contribution limits and a vocal opponent of torture. What McConnell was doing was simply beyond the pale in McCain’s thinking.
An additional factor is that, as McCain, Murkowski and Collins know, the Republican Party has put itself against public opinion even in the states where Trump won by commanding majorities. Republicans can persistently rig the system, buy elections, suppress votes, and corporate lobby policy changes; however, it eventually leads to a party that is at odds with what most people want.
We have apparently reached an end point for norm-defying partisan extremism. Beyond lies only the breeching of the bounds of constitutional democracy and falling off the precipice into the abyss of authoritarian rule. I see the light at the end of the tunnel, the end of Republican extremism as we have known it. We can hope that this moment is the beginning of a movement back toward a political system where democratic norms are respected and democratically responsive policies are enacted.
Sanford F. Schram teaches Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. You can follow him on Twitter.