In 1776, in its Declaration of Independence, the United States of America announced the formation of a new nation that would be based on the principle that all people are created equal and have certain basic rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that to “secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This idea of creating a nation based on liberty, the rule of law and the consent of the governed was first established by the Constitution of the United States in 1787, but it was tested, and then confirmed, by the Civil War that was fought some 75 years later. The country is being tested again, and it is necessary to once again reconfirm the country’s governing principles.
In the 237 years of the existence of the United States of America, only twice has this great country faced an existential threat. The first was the Civil War. The path toward war was accelerated by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1852. This overturned the Missouri Compromise and permitted the slaveholding South to dominate the rest of the country that was not yet subject to what has been called the “Slave Power.” But a great leader, Abraham Lincoln, a man of the people, and his party, the Republican Party, successfully fought back and saved our country from the Slave Power. However, both Lincoln and his party (at least the early leaders who sought freedom in the South and a just Reconstruction), disappeared from the scene soon after. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 and replaced by Andrew Johnson, who hoped to destroy Lincoln’s legacy. And the Republican Party itself, which had originally been a party dedicated to extending liberty, became the party of the titans of big business. As industrialization, the rise of corporations, and the Gilded Age came to fruition, the party not surprisingly became the party of Wall Street and big business, often fueled by the rampant corruption and disregard for labor that were prominent at the time. The party came to no longer care all that much about what happened in the South, to black citizens, and to free labor. This political orientation has largely remained as such ever since, even though the party has also produced exceptional leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Now we are faced with a second existential threat in which the Constitution and the ideals expressed in 1776 are at risk. This threat comes from the turn in the Republican party toward support for anti-democratic, unconstitutional leadership, policies and behavior. From the 1870’s through 2016, the Republican party, despite its faults, was a legitimate actor in the American political system. (It was, in fact, the Democratic party of the South, which supported and enforced Jim Crow into the 1960’s, that represented the dominant undemocratic forces in the United States for a long time.) However, the Republican leaders who have recently come on the scene appear to increasingly care for liberty and democracy only when it benefits themselves and their supporters. For example, after Democrat Roy Cooper won the North Carolina Governor’s race in 2016, the Republican controlled legislature and outgoing Republican governor passed laws restricting some of the powers of the Governor’s office, including authorities involving election administration. The same thing happened in Wisconsin in 2018, when the outgoing Governor and legislature restricted the powers of incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers in areas such as elections, appointments, and health care. And in Ohio in 2023, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit abortions and protect reproductive rights in the state, the GOP-controlled legislature sought to block this by stripping courts of their jurisdiction to decide cases on the measure, thereby leaving in place the existing abortion ban.
This move to block Democrats from exercising power is not simply a matter of differing policy preferences. Whatever one’s opinions of Republican policies that have cut Medicaid and health care for the poor, or cut taxes for the wealthiest people in the country, or sought to eliminate or weaken Medicare and Social Security, these are not measures that strike directly at the heart of democratic governance. Changing the rules to ensure that Democrats cannot enact and implement their policy preferences even if they win elections is most definitely a challenge to the existence of democracy itself.
Even more insidious is the ongoing GOP project to restrict the ability to vote among people they think will not vote for their party, including Black and Latino voters, young people, and urban dwellers. After the 2020 elections hundreds of laws were introduced in Republican-led states to limit the vote, and in fourteen states several such laws passed. These laws will limit early voting, mail-in ballots, and ballot drop boxes. They will reduce the number of polling places, leaving more people in long lines to vote. And other laws, many predating 2020, have new voter identification requirements designed to benefit the GOP. An example of this is a law in Texas that allows gun permits to count as a valid voter credential, but not student ID cards.
As this path toward anti-democratic attitudes and behavior gains steam, Republican leaders and voters are routinely expressing support for what can certainly be described as autocracy, or even worse fascism, with little regard for the heritage of Lincoln or the Constitution. This has reached a crisis point as the party is now led, indeed dominated, by one man, Donald Trump, with loud and enthusiastic support from the MAGA movement. Added to this is the acquiescence of Republican political leaders and voters throughout the country to this thoroughly dangerous brand of politics.
Donald Trump’s words and actions indicate that he would be perfectly content to overthrow our democracy and establish a far more authoritarian state with himself as dictator – he stated he would like to be dictator for one day, but his words suggest he’d like the role for life. He was elected President in 2016 with a minority of the popular vote. Then he was defeated for reelection by President Biden in 2020, by a total of 81 million votes to 74 million votes. In response he promptly invented what has become known as the “Big Lie,” claiming that he actually won the election. He continues to claim over and over that he won the 2020 election, and about two-thirds of today’s Republican Party believe what he says.
The Big Lie, and even more broadly, fealty to Trump, has now become the central belief one must adopt to have a ticket of admission to the Republican Party of today. What is remarkable is that when he left office in January 2021, Trump was on his way to becoming an outcast, as party leaders such as Senator Mitch McConnell and Congressman Kevin McCarthy blamed him for the January 6 insurrection, as well they should have. But a big base of voters has stuck with him, and Trump has used this to defeat any potential opposition in the party, starting with McCarthy, who needed only a few weeks to reverse himself and embrace Trump.
The tactics for securing public loyalty to Trump have varied. Trump has ensured that members of Congress who oppose him would face primary challenges. He took sides in Republican primaries in the 2022 elections to support the most MAGA-oriented candidates, and because of his following with GOP voters, his endorsements carried enough weight to decide many races. His most ardent followers have taken over state and local Republican party organizations. And his torrent of lies about fraudulent elections and Democrats and “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) has led to intimidation and death threats against public officials throughout the country. Now, three years after he left office, “Mr. Trump has almost entirely subjugated the elected class of the Republican Party.” Even the candidates who have run against Trump in 2024 said they would support him if he wins the GOP nomination in 2024, and this would be true even if he is convicted of one of the many crimes he is charged with (the sole exception to this was Chris Christie).
A few dissenters remain, but they have not fared well, either quitting politics or losing their bids for reelection. Former Representative Liz Cheney stands out among the small number in this group. She has said that the decision of how to deal with Trump and January 6 is “the moral test of our generation.” To that end, she has said that she is prepared to do “whatever it takes,” even running for president as a third-party candidate, to ensure that Donald Trump never becomes president again. What’s more, she says, “there are tens of millions of Americans who will do everything we need to do to make sure Donald Trump is never the president again.” And while she would like to save the GOP, she stated that, “I don’t know if our party can be saved…We may have to build a new party.”
This is because in 2024 the party is subject to a highly dishonorable, dangerous man, and it looks more like a personality cult than a political party. With no discernable impact on his level of support, Trump has called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” to put him back into office. In fighting the many legal battles he faces, he has stated (in all caps) that the “PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES MUST HAVE FULL IMMUNITY” from all actions taken in office. His lawyers even went so far as to argue in court that the president could legally order the assassination of his political adversaries and still be protected by immunity.
Democracy cannot work this way. The potential consequence of continuing to move in the direction Trump and MAGA are going is an undemocratic, unaccountable government that props up its supporters and targets its opponents. This is what Vladmir Putin does in Russia, but it’s also what President Victor Orban is doing in Hungary, itself a member of NATO, and a place that Trump and other Republican leaders routinely talk about with admiration. A country that believes “it cannot happen here” does so at its peril. Donald Trump’s rhetoric about being “dictator for a day” suggests what we might expect to see if he should be elected: an effort to make 2024 the last free presidential election, signifying a threat to the end of democracy in the United States.
The Constitution provides for a representative democracy and says in Article 4 that all states are guaranteed a republican (in the sense our founders used that word) form of government. Trump and his Republican Party supporters and enablers seem unwilling to act consistently with this guarantee. How can it even claim to be an American political party? Without an abrupt change in tactics and policies and profound changes in attitude, it is time for the Republican Party to go the way of the Whig Party in the mid-19th century, to disappear and be replaced by a party with vibrant, legitimate, conservative principles that the country really needs to defend the Constitution. Truth, history and the American system require this.
This story first appeared at Democracy Paradox.
About the Authors
Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is former acting director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Clinton, and the special representative of President Clinton for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament. He served as General Counsel of ACDA during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several books on nuclear arms control, U.S. foreign policy, and American politics.
David Bernell is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. His research and teaching focus on international relations, American foreign policy, and US energy policy. He is the author of the books Constructing US Foreign Policy: The Curious Case of Cuba, and The Energy Security Dilemma: US Policy and Practice. Prior to coming to OSU, he served as a political appointee in the Clinton Administration with the US Office of Management and Budget, and with the US Department of the Interior.
Ambassador Graham served as a senior U.S. diplomat involved in the negotiation of every major international arms control and non-proliferation agreement for the past 30 years, including The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) Treaties, The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) Treaties, The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).