If Donald Trump's rise has taught Americans anything, it's that our system of government is not etched in stone, that the rules politicians habitually play by are not really rules at all. Trump's political career took shape when he spread the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. He spent his campaign promising to prosecute his opponent. And after he won, he made repeated, nonsensical claims of voter fraud. Meanwhile, allegations that his campaign corroborated with Russian intelligence to help swing the election have dogged Trump since his election and Republicans have refused to pass legislation that would stop the president from firing Robert Mueller, who is investigating those allegations. There's also widespread speculation that Trump will use his pardon power to protect wrongdoers close to him, as he's already pardoned people for seemingly no other reason than their loyalty to him.
Day by day, the formerly unthinkable becomes merely unusual, then debatable, then routine. When Trump recently (casually) dismissed his own government's report on climate change, it was barely a blip in the news cycle—what else would you expect him to do?
So much attention has been paid to Trump's norm-shattering behavior, which has been criticized by Republicans as well as Democrats, that there's a risk of ignoring the GOP's anti-democratic instincts, which run far deeper than one man. The president may be an aberration, but he's also the product of a party committed to bending the rules and maintaining power at all costs—an eerie saga quietly playing out across the country right now that won't go anywhere no matter what happens in 2020.
Take Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans suffered defeats in statewide elections for governor and attorney general but retained control of the state legislatures. GOP lawmakers have recently begun moving to strip power from the offices Democrats just won. In Wisconsin, this means forcing incoming Governor Tony Evers to implement work requirements for Medicaid—a conservative priority—as well as limiting early voting and entrenching the state's voter ID law, measures that would almost certainly make it more difficult for Democrats to win future elections. In Michigan, it means giving the legislature more of a say in the process of defending state laws against legal challenges. Republican lawmakers in the state are also using procedural maneuvering in an attempt to defuse ballot initiatives on sick leave and raising the minimum wage.
All of these outrages have been abetted by gerrymandering after the 2010 Census that gave Republicans an edge in state elections—Democrats won a majority of votes in Michigan House races last month but Republicans control 53 percent of the House seats; Republicans have 63 of 99 Wisconsin Assembly seats even though they earned fewer votes than their Democratic counterparts.
As many commentators have already noted, these efforts by Republicans to water down the powers of offices right after Democrats won them were pioneered in North Carolina. That's where the GOP called a special legislative session to consolidate power immediately after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016. Like several other states, North Carolina has been gerrymandered by the GOP; this summer, a federal court ruled that the US House map in the state so favored Republicans that it was unconstitutional. There's also evidence a Republican operative may have illegally collected voters' absentee ballots in North Carolina this past election, a finding that has put a US House race into doubt over allegations of fraud.
These moves are not exactly ideological in the traditional sense, though legislation aimed at stopping the minimum wage from rising and instituting Medicaid work requirements certainly falls in line with right-wing hostility toward the poor. What is at stake here is the process by which the will of the voters is translated into policy—which is to say the core principles of a democratic republic. What's evident is that just as Republicans have made it difficult for many different groups of people to vote in order to retain power, they're also willing to use any procedural tool at hand to block their opponents' agenda. This includes clinging to those hyper-partisan maps: In Missouri, Republican legislators are pushing back on an anti-gerrymandering ballot measure approved by voters last month, while in Ohio Republicans responded to passage of an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment by working to make it harder for grassroots groups to amend the state constitution in the future. Earlier this year Republican Maine Governor Paul LePage refused to expand Medicaid after his state voted for an expansion. (His Democratic replacement has vowed to reverse the decision.)
In this context, Trump's behavior may seem unusually crude or blatant—his praise of white nationalists and open feuding with his own FBI would probably not be features of another Republican administration. But it's not hard to see why the GOP has fallen so aggressively in line with him. Elected Republicans did not break from him in the 2016 election, and with few exceptions they have not provided a meaningful check on his behavior. That's because the GOP does not fundamentally care about the principles of democracy nor the machinery that powers it. A party that writes major legislation in secret, works furiously to undermine the results of elections, and falsely accuses the other party repeatedly of voter fraud is of course going to support a president with destructive tendencies. And while you can point to some bad behavior on the part of Democrats—gerrymandering in Maryland, for instance—there is absolutely no equivalence here.
Perhaps Republicans will eventually decide that their agenda has become unpopular and adopt more moderate stances that might attract younger and minority voters. That was a path advocated for by a post-2012 "autopsy" from Republican thinkers—only to be roundly ignored. It seems more likely that the GOP's anti-democratic tactics will have to be defeated either through hard-fought electoral wins by Democrats or court rulings that reject gerrymandered maps—or both. (That latter path helped Democrats win several US House seats in Pennsylvania in the midterms.) But it's clear Republicans are willing to override clearly stated popular will to get their way. In such an environment, Democrats may adopt the same kind of norm-busting rhetoric, as Stacey Abrams came close to doing when she refused to call her opponent's victory in the Georgia governor's race "legitimate." (Abrams, however, may have had a point, given voter suppression in that state.)
Either way, if and when Democrats retake control over state legislatures and the federal government, they'll have less reason than ever before to work with Republicans in good faith. Small-d democracy in the United States is being badly bent, and to fix it, the GOP may have to be utterly broken.
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