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Will Despotism Win the GOP Debate?

The big question heading into Wednesday’s long-anticipated GOP debate – whether former President Trump will go through with his reported plan to skip the debate or show up at the last minute – is itself a disturbing commentary on the state of American politics. 

Rival Chris Christie is right that Trump is manifestly a coward. The moment Trump refused to concede an election he knows he lost while embarking on a crusade to betray, brutalize and rob his own base by peddling false hope, inspiring them to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and then manipulating them into funding his legal defense, continues to be a despicable and repulsive act of cowardice.

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Yet, the more pressing crisis is not that Trump is afraid of debating Christie, but that Trump is not afraid of skipping the debate. Trump’s nonparticipation is an existential threat to the GOP. A political party that can’t persuade a former president of that party to attend its marquee debate calls into question the legitimacy of that party. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel ought to resign in protest to defend the dignity of GOP primary voters who want a choice.  

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Trump isn’t afraid for a simple reason. He believes he is the party and the state. He believes the Republican Party, as an institution, has zero power to punish him for skipping the debate or for not signing their loyalty pledge because the Republican Party has no power other than the power he delegates to it. Trump is not a beleaguered outsider fighting the establishment; he is the establishment and will condemn anyone who doesn’t head to his establishment headquarters at Mar-a-Lago to pledge fealty. 

This isn’t democracy; it is despotism. 

George Washington, who despised the notion of political parties, warned against our current state of affairs in his Farewell Address:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

As painful as it may be for lifelong Republicans to admit, the party of Lincoln and Reagan is in ruins. That’s why esteemed constitutional conservative, Judge Michael Luttig, who was long on the shortlist for the Supreme Court, recently said, “Today there is no such shared set of beliefs and values and principles, or even policy views, within the Republican Party for America. Until or unless the Republican Party can pull itself together into a credible Republican political party, we simply don’t have two competing parties in America.”

Washington might counter that political parties themselves should not be trusted to be mediating and organizing institutions. In his Farewell Address, Washington also said: 

You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations [from parties]; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

Factions and parties may be an inevitable evil in politics but that does not mean they should be encouraged or empowered. Washington wasn’t as interested in third parties as he was in a no-party identity that protected our Constitution and our founder’s revolutionary belief that rights don’t come from the state, our race, ethnicity, geography or gender, but rather from natural law or nature’s God. 

Democrats are also to blame for our present despotism. For decades, progressives have fought to create a political culture that doesn’t respect our founding principles and the Constitution’s limitations on centralized power. By belittling constitutional conservatives who rightly pointed to the Constitution’s limited and enumerated powers, they opened the door to a despot like Trump who exploits constitutional illiteracy among We the People to defend his Me the Person medieval style of leadership that displaces self-governance with self-love. 

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In 2010, for instance, progressives mocked House Republicans for starting their session by reading the Constitution aloud. 

As Ezra Klein, then with the Washington Post, said on MSNBC, “My friends on the right don’t like to hear this, but the Constitution is not a clear document. Written 100 years ago, when America had thirteen states and very different problems, it rarely speaks directly to the questions we ask it.”

Actually, the Constitution was written more than 200 years ago and was informed by thousands of years of political and philosophical history. But, congratulations, Ezra, you won. Today’s Republican Party isn’t led by a Tea Party-era constitutional conservative but by a reality TV host who doesn’t respect limitations on his power and is surrounded by a cadre of sycophantic enablers who are all too eager to remind him that the Constitution is “not clear” about a great many matters. 

Republicans, who will almost certainly be disappointed by this week’s debate, don’t have an easy road ahead. There are sound strategic reasons for staying in the party, if only to weaken the two-party status quo, but there are also sound strategic reasons for elected Republicans to leave the party or suspend their party membership until Trump drops out of the race and concedes defeat in 2020. A mere five House Republicans could play hardball with Trump if they were willing to sacrifice their political careers to send a message against Trump’s treasonous and unconstitutional behavior. That might sound like self-immolation, but would it be better for Republican primary voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire to engage in self-immolation and hand the election to Biden? 

The harsh reality, which Trump understands well, is that power politics will determine the outcome of this fight. In the real world, politics follows the “cry uncle” principle. Change doesn’t happen until the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing. Unless and until conservatives are willing to inflict real political pain on Trump nothing will change. It’s long past time for Republicans to choose real debates over despotism. 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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