One of the most illuminating moments of the entire 2016 presidential contest came in early May last year, when President Trump declared in an interview that the GOP is "called the Republican Party," not "the Conservative Party."
He was right: The clearly not-conservative Trump's own success in clinching the Republican nomination, and even more so his general election victory six months later, proved that the party was no longer unified around the conservative ideology that had galvanized it since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
But if the GOP has ceased to be a vehicle for advancing Reaganite conservatism, what is it instead? What do Republicans stand for in the era of President Trump?
Six months into the Trump administration, an answer is coming into focus. And it is deeply disturbing.
Across large swaths of public policy, including how and even whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act after seven years of promising to do precisely that, the party is deeply fractured and incapable of acting at all. But in other areas, its actions and inactions make clear that what's distinctive about the GOP in the age of Trump is its willingness to go along with, and sometimes enthusiastically pursue, the shredding of foundational norms of liberal politics. If the Republican Party is no longer a conservative party, it's also increasingly unclear if it's still a small-d democratic party.
This is not hyperbole.
To begin, as always, with President Trump himself, the leader of the GOP clearly believes that the entirety of the federal government, very much including agents of federal law enforcement (the attorney general, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the special counsel's office), owes him personal loyalty — a view that is fundamentally at odds with the rule of law. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, think their timid and toothless expressions of "concern" about the president's past and present actions count as adequate oversight. Which means they're perfectly fine with Trump acting more like a kleptocratic despot than the head of the executive branch of a democratic republic.
But the problem goes well beyond Trump.
There is, to begin with, the bill that would make it a federal crime (a felony punishable by up to a $1 million fine and 20 years in prison) to support the international boycott against Israel for its occupation of the West Bank. That 14 Democratic senators have joined with 29 Republicans in backing this flagrant assault on the First Amendment is certainly shameful, but it does nothing to diminish the outrageousness of those who like to portray themselves as courageous defenders of free speech endorsing a bill that would drastically curtail it. (And no, I don't support the movement to boycott Israel, just the right of others to do so, which is exactly the way liberal democracy is supposed to work.)
Even worse is the Justice Department's announcement on Wednesday that it is reviving the practice of allowing "state and local law enforcement officials to use federal law to seize the cash, cars, or other personal property of people suspected of crimes but not charged." This practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, has been widely abused by police departments across the country in what amounts to government-backed theft from citizens who are supposed to be constitutionally protected from having their property seized without due process of law. That's why state and local governments, along with the Obama Justice Department, have acted to curtail the practice. But now, in a full-frontal assault on civil liberties, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given local police departments a way to circumvent these restrictions.
While it's true that numerous conservative writers and organizations have denounced the policy shift, the pertinent question is whether significant numbers of Republicans in Congress (and not just a handful of its most libertarian members) will take a politically effective stand against it. That's how we will know the party's position on the issue.
But worst of all is the administration's Commission on Election Integrity, which President Trump insists is motivated by the "sacred duty" to determine the "full truth" about voter fraud in this country. Too bad the panel's vice chairman and de facto head, Kansas Republican Kris Kobach, ended its inaugural session by declaring in an MSNBC interview that "we will probably never know the answer" to the question of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump won the popular vote in November of last year, despite official results certifying that Clinton prevailed by approximately 2.9 million votes. Why the uncertainty? Obviously because voter fraud is so extensive that nothing about the outcome can be known for sure.
Never mind that just over a decade ago the Bush administration's own five-year investigation into voter fraud found "virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections." Or that not a shred of evidence has been found to substantiate President Trump's contention that "millions" cast ballots illegally in the 2016 vote. Or that Kobach's own antifraud efforts in Kansas have uncovered a grand total of just 128 cases of noncitizens attempting to vote, and has secured only one conviction since 2011, out of 1.8 million registered voters in the state. (Kobach told members of the commission that the true number of fraudulent voters in Kansas has been estimated as high as 18,000. He provided no evidence to back up the assertion.)
The president and Kobach can talk all they want about uncovering the "full truth." The reality is that there is no evidence of systematic voter fraud in this country, the supposed need for such a commission is rooted in baldly racist conspiracy theories, and the commission itself is almost certain to function as a vote suppression commission launched, promoted, and overseen by a Republican White House and Justice Department. It is a full-frontal assault on the core liberal democratic institution of free and fair elections.
Where are the Republicans honest and principled enough to say so and stand forthrightly against the commission systematically purging names from voter rolls? Where are the Republicans brave and strong enough not to cower in fear before the venal and vacuous president they helped elect? Where are the Republicans willing to prove that they care about the fate of democracy in America?
Until these Republicans show themselves, we'll know exactly what kind of party the GOP has become.