Viewed in isolation, the fact that Republicans in the House of Representatives first decided to gut, and then not to gut, the Office of Congressional Ethics isn't the biggest scandal or embarrassment in the world. American government managed to function reasonably well up until the ethics office took its current form in 2009 — and though reversing course on curbing it was an embarrassment for the GOP, it will be forgotten before Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20.
Still, this Beltway kerfuffle is important precisely because it didn't happen in isolation. It's part of a long-term trend, now accelerating rapidly, away from attachment to the rule of law among elected members of the GOP.
While prominent members of the Republican Party's leadership (including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of whom reportedly opposed the effort to shutter the ethics office, as well as plenty of principled GOP senators) remain wedded to democratic norms, many rank-and-file Republicans appear willing and eager to shred those norms in favor of a level of partisanship so extreme that it rejects the very notion of neutral rules that apply equally to all. For these members of the GOP, winning and holding as much power as possible is all that matters, double standards be damned, even if it means behaving more like tribal chieftains than statesmen — you know, the kind of people who see nothing wrong in seeking political advantage by shuttering an office that investigates corruption but who backtrack the instant it becomes a political liability.
In this respect, Trump — with his ruthless, personalized attacks on his enemies and complete lack of concern with principle or propriety — is very much a Republican of the moment.
Consider the GOP case against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. She was thoroughly crooked — a lying, cheating, nodal point for corruption and self-dealing sleaze who used a charitable foundation as an influence-peddling operation designed to enrich herself and her family while also playing fast and loose with classified information on her private email server because it made her life a little more convenient.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that every bit of it is true — that Republican attacks on Clinton were grounded entirely in facts and followed from a perfectly reasonable assessment of their gravity. If so, then the least devotion to fairness, the barest minimum of concern for upholding consistent standards, would lead these same Republicans to respond to their own president-elect's far vaster conflicts of interest and far graver ethical breaches with at least as much outrage.
But aside from the lonely Twitter account of Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the House GOP has had little critical to say since Trump prevailed — almost as if standards of personal and professional conduct only apply to the other team, which of course transforms them from rules, principles, or laws into partisan weapons to be wielded against political opponents.
There are many ways to describe systemic corruption, but that's a pretty good one.
The same thing can be seen in the relative indifference of many rank-and-file Republicans to claims of Russian meddling in the presidential election. The point isn't that the GOP should be jumping to conclusions before all of the evidence has been gathered and presented. It's that there can be no doubt at all that the party would be jumping to every conclusion imaginable if Russia had been credibly accused of interference in an election that Hillary Clinton (or any other Democrat) had narrowly won.
But if Vladimir Putin helped (however marginally) to defeat Clinton and hand the GOP the White House? Well then, Republicans appear ready to conclude that Putin's not so bad after all. I mean, he helped them win, didn't he? And that's what counts.
Yes, winning counts. But is it all that counts? Those Republicans (John McCain, Lindsey Graham) who have pledged to investigate the Russian charges obviously don't think it is. But such Republicans of principle are increasingly few and far between. All the momentum is on the other side — with those who treat the playing field of politics as a battlefield from which their enemies deserve to be extirpated by any means necessary.
Once this imperative has been followed and shown to work, opposing it from within the ranks of the winners becomes futile. As for Democrats attempting to fight back on the other side, the effort comes with its own perils. Upholding the old rules will leave liberals vulnerable to the ruthlessness of their opponents, who no longer abide by such restraints. On the other hand, breaking from those standards to match Republicans blow for blow will push the nation even further away from the very liberal democratic norms (like the rule of law) that they admire and hope to defend.
That leaves the approach that appears to have sunk the House GOP's plans to scuttle the congressional ethics office: thousands of angry phone calls from constituents. If all the GOP cares about is winning, then the only thing that can check its power is the threat of losing.
In a world of collapsing norms and rules, responsible, sustained, and targeted democratic action has never been more important.