Public impeachment hearings for President Trump got underway Wednesday. The president stands accused of using his power to undermine democracy, and while these hearings might cover a lot of ground over the next few weeks — every day seems to bring some new report of wrongdoing by the president and his cronies — members of the House aren't likely to delve much, if at all, into how Trump's wrongdoing reflects the culture of the party he heads. And that's a shame, because if there is a story that defines the GOP in the 21st century, it's the willingness of its elected officials to use their power to undermine opponents and entrench themselves in office.
In other words, Trump's abuses of power mirror those of the GOP as a whole. Republicans can't turn on him, because doing so would be to indict their party's entire approach to politics.
At the state level, GOP legislatures across the country have passed numerous voter ID laws over the last decade or so — ostensibly to protect the sanctity of elections, but also with the intended effect of depressing turnout among Democratic constituencies. When voter suppression hasn't been enough — when Democrats managed to win elections anyway — Republicans have in recent years gone to extraordinary lengths to neutralize those wins. In North Carolina and Michigan, GOP-led legislatures neutered the governors' offices after Democrats won elections and replaced the Republican officeholders. In Utah, voters approved Medicaid expansion at the ballot box — and GOP legislators backtracked. In Florida, voters approved letting ex-felons vote — only to see Republican officials there create the 21st-century equivalent of a poll tax.
All that, and we haven't even talked about the GOP's recent history of racist gerrymandering.
Now consider the case against Trump: The president is accused of withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine to pressure that country's leaders into announcing an investigation affecting the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump's chief rivals in next year's presidential election. The president was trying to create an unfair advantage for himself in 2020.
It's easy to understand why Democrats would object — Trump's scheme would steal away from them a fair shot at recapturing the White House. But why would Republicans bat an eye? Given the GOP's recent history, is leveraging military aid against Democratic presidential candidates really all that extreme a step for the party?
There has been a lot of debate in recent years about whether Trump is an aberration within the Republican Party or simply an outgrowth of the rot that party leaders have let spread at the party's base over the last few decades. The correct answer is both — what looks like an aberration often is merely evolution. As my colleague Damon Linker noted this week, the Republican Party is essentially Trumpist now. And the president and his party are united in the belief that their entitlement to power allows them to manipulate and undermine the country's democratic processes.
The issue turns to what that means for the future of the American experiment. The impeachment process will help us find out.
Democrats, at least, seem to understand the stakes. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday opened impeachment proceedings by invoking Ben Franklin's old nostrum about America being a republic "if you can keep it." Outside the hearing chambers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referenced the same saying. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch noted Wednesday, the Franklin quote probably "has been uttered more times in 2019 than all the years 1787-2018 combined."
That makes sense. The American republic depends, at its core, on free and fair elections to survive and thrive. If Trump evades accountability for undermining those elections for his own self-interest, the question will not be whether we can keep our republic, but whether we have lost it already. Schiff and Pelosi are right to sound the alarm.
In the meantime, it is probably best to give up waiting for that impeachment-induced moment — a la Watergate — when Republicans realize their duty to country and come around to opposing him. The president and today's GOP share the same sins. It will be difficult for them to abandon each other.
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