It’s hard to believe that barely three weeks have passed since Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a mysterious subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, demanding that he produce a whistleblower complaint filed by someone in the intelligence community.
Since that subpoena was issued, the impeachment of Donald Trump has gone from implausibility to near certainty; I at least find it hard to see how the House can fail to impeach given what we already know about Trump’s actions. Conviction in the Senate remains a longshot, but not as long as it once seemed.
And the whole tenor of our national conversation has changed. It looks to me as if we’re witnessing the rapid collapse of a powerful faction in U.S. public life, one whose refusal to accept facts at odds with its prejudices has long been a major source of political dysfunction.
But I’m not talking about the right-wing extremists who dominate the Republican Party. Sorry, but they’re not going anywhere. Most of Trump’s base is sticking with him, while the list of prominent Republican politicians willing to call out Trump’s malfeasance in clear language consists so far of Mitt Romney and, well, Mitt Romney.
No, I’m talking about fanatical centrists, who aren’t a large slice of the electorate, but have played an outsize role in elite opinion and media coverage. These are people who may have been willing to concede that Trump was a bad guy, but otherwise maintained, in the teeth of the evidence, that our two major parties were basically equivalent: Each party had its extremists, but each also had its moderates, and everything would be fine if these moderates could work together.
Who am I talking about? Well, among other people, Joe Biden, who has repeatedly insisted that Trump is an aberration, not representative of the Republican Party as a whole. (Biden’s refusal to admit what he was facing may be one reason his response to the Ukraine smear has seemed so wobbly.)
Some of us have been pushing back against that worldview for many years, arguing that today’s Republican Party is a radical force increasingly opposed to democracy. Way back in 2003 I wrote that modern conservatism is “a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.” In 2012, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein declared that the central problem of U.S. politics was a GOP that was not just extreme but “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
For a long time, however, making that case — pointing out that Republicans were sounding ever more authoritarian and violating more and more democratic norms — got you dismissed as shrill if not deranged. Even Trump’s rise, and the obvious parallels between Trumpism and the authoritarian movements that have gutted democracy in places like Hungary and Poland, barely dented centrist complacency. Remember, just a few months ago most of the news media treated Attorney General William Barr’s highly misleading summary of the Mueller report as credible.
But my sense, although it’s impossible to quantify, is that the events of the past several weeks have finally broken through the wall of centrist denial.
At this point, things that previously were merely obvious have become undeniable. Yes, Trump has invited foreign powers to intervene in U.S. politics on his behalf; he’s even done it on camera. Yes, he has claimed that his domestic political opponents are committing treason by exercising their constitutional rights of oversight, and he is clearly itching to use the justice system to criminalize criticism.
Politicians who believed in American values would denounce this behavior, even if it came from their own leader. Republicans have been silent at best, and many are expressing approval. So it’s now crystal clear that the GOP is not a normal political party; it is an American equivalent of Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice, an authoritarian regime in waiting.
And I think — I hope — that those who have spent years denying this reality are finally coming around.
It’s important to understand that the GOP hasn’t suddenly changed, that Trump hasn’t somehow managed to corrupt a party that was basically OK until he came along. Anyone startled by Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories about the deep state must have slept through the Clinton years and wasn’t paying attention when most of the GOP decided that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by a vast global scientific cabal.
And anyone shocked by Republican acceptance of the idea that it’s fine to seek domestic political aid from foreign regimes has forgotten (like all too many people) that the Bush administration took us to war on false pretenses — not the same sin, but an equally serious betrayal of American political norms.
No, Trump isn’t an aberration. He’s unusually blatant and gaudily corrupt, but at a basic level he’s the culmination of where his party has been going for decades. And U.S. political life won’t begin to recover until centrists face up to that uncomfortable reality.