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When normal politics are no longer possible


Paul Krugman has a good column, that reminds me of Orwell’s dictum that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

. . .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 G.O.P. 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 G.O.P. 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 G.O.P. hasn’t suddenly changed, that Trump hasn’t somehow managed to corrupt a party that was basically O.K. 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 G.O.P. 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.

Krugman doesn’t mention it, but the gradual devolution of the Republican party into an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement that necessarily rejects many of the basic tenets of liberal democracy implicates what Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance: a movement that doesn’t accept the legitimacy of our current political system is a movement whose legitimacy can’t be accepted by that system, either, assuming the system isn’t interested in committing suicide. (ETA: Tracy Lightcap points out in comments that Herbert Marcuse’s exploration of the same topic is also essential reading.)

Liberal democracy and the current incarnation of the Republican party cannot co-exist for much longer. One of them must be destroyed; and the Democratic party’s standard bearer needs to understand this above all.

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