An amazing statistic was recently compiled by NBC News, indicating over 100 of the 241 Republican House members who were in office in January 2017 will no longer be there just four years later, a turnover rate of just over 40%. While not even approaching the turnover levels in Trump’s cabinet, the more remarkable feature of the changing Republican House is the fact that 50 of those 100 have left voluntarily and only 36 have been replaced by Democrats.
Now, putting aside the impotence of being in the minority under current House rules, which certainly drove some GOP retirements, that number of voluntary leaves may seem like some sort of repudiation of Trump. In fact, it is probably the opposite as the majority of those who replaced those fifty are even more beholden to Trump than the ones who voluntarily left. And, as the NBC report points out, those fifty know none of the institutional history of the House and will instead probably rely for leadership on the Gingrich-inspired guerillas like Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan who believe that their continuation in power lies in sabotaging effective government, denying legitimacy to Democrats, and being active participants in Trump’s campaign of disinformation. In effect, Trump has solidified his control of the House Republicans and the Republican party in general.
That result was certainly on display during the initial day of public hearings into the impeachment of Donald Trump. The Republicans’ multiple defenses of Trump ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd to the batshit crazy. The ridiculous was the argument that, since Trump actually released the money when he was caught and Zelensky says he felt no pressure, there was really no problem, no bribery, no extortion. The crazy was the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory regurgitated from the fever swamps of the internet. The absurd was that all the testimony was simply inadmissible hearsay. Of course, the reason we have had very little direct testimony, with the exception of Sondland and apparently now Holmes, is simply because the Trump administration has prevented as many witnesses as possible from testifying and refused to provide subpoenaed evidence contained in documents, emails, and texts. Trump is simply defying the power of the House Democrats to carry on a full impeachment investigation.
Of course, openly defying Democratic oversight and power is the modus operandi of the entire Republican party, not just the Trump administration these days. The denial of Democratic legitimacy extends from the President all the way down to the county level. It involves every conceivable lever of power that Republicans can use, from illegal gerrymandering to legislative power grabs to court-packing.
When Matt Bevin lost the Kentucky gubernatorial race to Democrat Andy Beshear by just over 5,000 votes, the immediate reaction among Kentucky’s GOP legislators is that they could step in and hand the election to Bevin thanks to their control of the state legislature. Section 90 of the Kentucky constitution declares “Contested elections for Governor and Lieutenant Governor shall be determined by both Houses of the General Assembly, according to such regulations as may be established by law”. Senate President Robert Stivers indicated there was a possibility that Section 90 could come into play in the immediate aftermath of Bevin’s apparent loss. That was a signal to Bevin to not concede and find some way, no matter how absurd, to contest the election. If Bevin was able to do that, then Stivers could step in, invoke Section 90, and install Bevin back in the governor’s mansion. Unfortunately, it became apparent that there was no irregularity that would withstand court scrutiny that could allow Bevin to contest the election and, after a recanvass, Bevin finally conceded. But it was not without trying to find some way to throw the election to the GOP-controlled legislature.
In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled legislature had already stripped incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers and the Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul of certain powers after they won the election in 2018. According to the Guardian, “The legislation shields the state’s job-creation agency from Evers’ control until September and limits his ability to enact administrative rules. The measures would also block Evers from withdrawing Wisconsin from a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, one of his central campaign promises. It eliminates the state department of justice’s solicitor general’s office, which the outgoing Republican attorney general, Brad Schimel, used to launch contentious partisan litigation. Doing away with it ensures the Democratic attorney general-elect, Josh Kaul, can’t use the office to challenge Republican-authored laws. The bills also allow lawmakers to intervene in lawsuits, ensuring Republicans will be able to defend their policies and laws in court if Kaul refuses to do it. Kaul would also need approval from the legislature’s budget-writing committee before he can reach any settlements, further increasing the power of that GOP-controlled panel”. The legal challenges to these new restrictions on Democrats’ power were both struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with only the conservatives providing the majority in each decision.
Wisconsin was not the first to strip a newly elected Democratic governor of his/her powers. North Carolina began the trend back in 2016 and Michigan joined Wisconsin in this effort in 2018. But the Wisconsin legislature certainly seems to have it in for Governor Evers. Apparently, for the first time in the state’s history, the legislature basically fired Evers’ Agriculture Secretary, Brad Pfaff. In Wisconsin, the governor does not need Senate approval for his cabinet. But the Senate can vote to remove a cabinet member, which is what the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Senate recently did in a strict party-line vote. The ostensible reason for this vote was a dispute over manure storage rules that had not even been formalized, much less implemented, and was originally introduced by Republican Scott Walker’s administration, raising serious questions as to the validity of the Republicans’ reasoning. Evers described the Senate’s ousting of Pfaff, who had strong support from Wisconsin farmers groups, “absolute bullshit”, even as the GOP Senate leader vaguely hinted that other cabinet members may be similarly targeted.
To show just how deeply the rejection of any Democratic power has infected the Republican party, these attempts to strip newly elected Democrats of existing power have seeped all the way to the county level. In Monroe County, in upstate New York, a Democrat, Adam Bello, just won the election for County Executive for the first time in 30 years. The Republican-controlled Monroe County legislature immediately swung into action, proposing emergency legislation that would strip the Executive of many of his powers. According to the Democrat & Chronicle, the legislation “would give the Legislature authority to approve Bello’s appointments of his deputy county executive, the county attorney, and not just all department heads and directors but other management staff within those departments. He would lose his authority to create new positions and adjust salaries. While Dinolfo [ the current Republican County Executive] can spend up to $20,000 without Legislative approval, Bello’s authority would be capped at $5,000, reverting back to the limit that was in place in 2014. His budget would be due a month earlier. The Legislature would also assume oversight of public works contracts and purchasing.” Bello has rightly called the legislature’s move “a self-serving power grab”.
While Democrats debate amongst themselves about whether to pack the Supreme Court as a response to Merrick Garland and the 2016 election were they ever to win the White House and the Senate, Republicans in states across the country have already succeeded in such efforts. In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey added two new seats the State Supreme Court over the objections of every member of that Court. In addition, Ducey also managed to appoint seven of the ten public members of the supposedly “independent” committee that nominates new Supreme Court justices. Currently, not a single Democrat sits on this committee. This has now allowed Ducey to effectively appoint three of the now seven justices, putting the Court firmly in conservative control.
The result was a recent decision by that Court to allow a religious exemption for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals on First Amendment grounds. The conservative’s majority opinion, in a case that challenged a Phoenix ordinance that barred public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, declared, “no law, including a public accommodations law, is immune from the protections of free speech and free exercise.” According to the Court, the ordinance would force businesses to “conve[y] a message celebrating same-sex marriage” and therefore constitutes “compelled pure speech”. The opinion is so broadly written that it lays the basis for other discrimination, such as those against interfaith or interracial marriage, to also be covered by First Amendment protections. And since the Court based its decision on the state constitution, it can not be challenged in federal courts.
Ducey has merely reprised what now Senator Rick Scott did in Florida when he was governor. Like Ducey, Scott managed to pack the supposedly “independent” commission that picked Supreme Court justices. Scott also attempted to appoint three new justices after his term had ended in an effort to block a potential Democratic governor from doing so. That attempt was thwarted by the state Supreme Court but made no difference in the end when Republican Ron DeSantis squeaked by Andrew Gillum to win the gubernatorial race. DeSantis has now filled those three positions with hard-line conservatives.
In Texas, the 2018 election resulted in 19 black Democratic women being voted in as justices in the Houston area. In addition, Democrats also won elections to the state appeals court. This display of Democratic power prompted an immediate reaction for Republican Gregg Abbott and the GOP-controlled Texas legislature. A bill was introduced that, according to facingsouth.org, “would have amended the state constitution to replace judicial elections with a system in which the governor appoints judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Every four years, voters would decide whether to keep the judges in office through a nonpartisan ‘retention’ election. However, the bill would have ended elections only in counties with more than 500,000 people, targeting urban areas like Houston. That would mean the governor would choose judges in the state’s larger, more diverse counties, while rural, conservative counties could keep choosing their own judges”. The bill failed because Democrats had enough votes to block the two-thirds majority that would be required to change the state constitution. Republicans are now searching for other methods to ensure their control over the Texas judiciary. A recent meeting of the Texas Federalist Society highlighted the findings that the only way to ensure courts were more conservative than their actual constituents was by having the governor or the legislature appoint judges. The Texas legislature has now set up a commission to probably look at doing exactly that, replicating the Republicans’ success in Florida and Arizona.
Not to pick on him in particular because he is representative of a significant faction of current elite opinion, but when Joe Biden says “I just think there is a way, and the thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House…You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends” it simply illustrates that he and others like him have just not come to grips with just how deep the rot has become in the Republican party. All of the power grabs outlined above had nothing to do with Donald Trump or his leadership of the Republican party. Trump is not an anomaly, but instead the culmination of the two decades of Republican thought and the quest for power since the Gingrich-led takeover of the House in the 1990s. That will not change when Trump is gone.
It was remarkable to see someone like Chuck Todd, steeped in both-siderism and thinking similar to Biden’s, appear utterly baffled by the approach of House Republicans during the opening day of impeachment hearings, saying, “We are living in a moment where we have a part of one of our major political parties that is just not accepting the premise, is just not accepting facts that are facts”. And as he continued, he illustrated just how deep his denial of the reality of the actual state of the Republican party is, saying, “It’s just prioritized loyalty to a person, even more so than loyalty to a party, let alone loyalty to a country…which is what makes this head-scratching”. The party is not loyal to Trump. They are loyal to power and will follow any path that will get them additional power or maintain the power they already have.
Yoni Applebaum, in his recent piece entitled “How America Ends”, writes, “When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has-whatever the cost”. That is where the Republican party, from top to bottom, is right now. It can only forestall its inevitable eclipse by denying the legitimacy of its opposition and accruing as much power as it can for itself by any means necessary. For Trump, winning in 2020 will mean the difference between his own personal freedom and potential incarceration. For the rest of the Republican party, losing in 2020 will just be viewed as another step on their way to an inevitable eclipse, which will be resisted with even more fervor than it is today. Even after Trump, there will be no return to normalcy for the Republican party.