The Republican Party has been, is, and will be useless in the fight to resist Donald Trump.
Sure, some elected GOP officials individually refused to accommodate him. But they all instrumentalized him. They needed him for their own ends. And now that he's won, "big league," the forces militating against resistance have been compromised.
Can we really count on congressional Republicans to stand up to Trump if and when he abuses his power, corrupts the dignity of his office, or self-enriches under the aegis of the presidency?
Republicans are now like William H. Macy's character in the movie Fargo, the desperately indebted Jerry Lundegaard, who hired a low-rent goon to kidnap his wife and extract a hefty ransom from his rich father-in-law. Like Lundegaard's wife, the fate of the GOP's legislative agenda now rests with a man of highly dubious character and questionable motivation. The leverage Trump wields over Republicans can't be overstated. As Dan Balz of The Washington Post noted, Trump is effectively the "country's first independent president."
When faced with a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime chance to overhaul the country's entitlement system and seal a conservative Supreme Court majority for a generation, are Republican leaders going to scrutinize the Trump Organization's familial ties to the White House with the same vigor they would have, say, pursued allegations about the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency?
Color me doubtful.
As evidenced by #NeverTrump-er extraordinaire Mitt Romney's recent kiss-the-ring meeting with the president-elect in New Jersey, a victorious Trump doesn't need his intraparty dissidents to repudiate their opposition in order to co-opt them. Indeed, he may even blacklist them from the roughly 4,000 government jobs the incoming administration must fill. He merely needs them to lay down their rhetorical arms — to make the transitional noise of "looking forward rather than backwards," "wait and see," "give him a chance to lead."
It's entirely possible, too, that figures like Romney may accept a position in the administration with an eye toward checking from within Trump's worst ideas and restraining his most erratic impulses. In this role, they'd be doing their country a public service — but they will nonetheless leave behind a vacuum of independent opposition.
Democrats, too, are compromised. With the hope of driving a wedge between the seemingly populist president and plutocracy-friendly Republicans on Capitol Hill, they are exploring possible avenues of cooperation with Trump on issues like infrastructure, trade negotiations, and the carried-interest tax loophole. And even when they stand up to him, as they no doubt will, their opposition will seem like business-as-usual partisanship — the same neutral media frame that allowed Trump to become a generic Republican alternative to Hillary Clinton in the first place.
This is why we need to form a new organization to protect the integrity of the republic. For the next four years, the American public will need to hear voices that rise above the din of partisan bickering. Columnist E.J. Dionne recently proposed a "bipartisan Alliance for the Republic" to act as an ethics watchdog and to defend basic democratic norms. That's a start, but what I have in mind is metapartisan rather than bipartisan.
Rather than a hodgepodge of lawmakers and pundits who conscientiously object now and then to this or that Trump overreach, we need an organization with a calling card, a Post Office box number, and an independent fundraising apparatus. It will provide talking heads to public-affairs TV shows and written contributions to op-ed pages. In addition to resisting Trump, its eventual goal will be to "DeTrumpify" the government — to remove elements of extremism and rent-seeking that may remain in the ecosystem of the federal bureaucracy long after Trump departs.
The Trump administration poses three interlocking threats to our system of republican government: Trump may attempt to shrink the bounds of permissible domestic dissent, join the United States to a new, informal alliance of authoritarian governments, and line his pockets while he's at it. We need an independent watchdog to stop him.
During the campaign, Trump made hay of his opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Despite no hard evidence that he actually held these positions when it mattered, Trump's seeming break from the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party attracted curiosity and sometimes support from realist-minded critics of GOP foreign policy. Yet given his penchant for muscular rhetoric on defeating ISIS and his longstanding admiration for crackdown artists like Vladimir Putin and the butchers of Tiananmen Square, we have more reasons to suspect that, far from a devotee of republican restraint, Trump is a different kind of imperialist: an American enabler of Putin's vision of an anti-Western authoritarian empire.
Rather than departing with the neoconservative project of advancing Western values through the forward deployment of the U.S. military, the Trump administration stands to undermine those values at home and abroad.
International relations expert Daniel Drezner worries about the optics of "freaking out" about Trump too soon. He writes: "Warn Americans about Trump too early, and most Americans will believe that you are overreacting. Warn Americans about Trump too late, and it's too late. The challenge to those worried about Trump's threat to liberal democracy is to figure out the best moment to sound the alarm."
Drezner is right. The solution is to quietly mobilize, right now, to win this battle.