As far as anyone can tell, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House – and the leader of what’s left of the Republican establishment – isn’t racist or authoritarian. He is, however, doing all he can to make a racist authoritarian the most powerful man in the world. Why? Because then he could privatize Medicare and slash taxes on the wealthy.
And that, in brief, tells you what has happened to the Republican Party, and to America.
This has been an election in which almost every week sees some long-standing norm in U.S. political life get broken. We now have a major-party candidate who refuses to release his tax returns, despite huge questions about his business dealings. He constantly repeats claims that are totally false, like his assertion that crime is at record highs (it’s actually just a bit off historic lows). He stands condemned by his own words as a sexual predator. And there’s much, much more.
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Any one of these things would in the past have been considered disqualifying in a presidential candidate. But leading Republicans just shrug. And they celebrated when James Comey, the director of the FBI, broke with policy to lay a heavy thumb on the election scales; if Hillary Clinton wins nonetheless, they have made it clear that they will try to block any Supreme Court nomination, and there’s already talk of impeachment hearings. About what? They’ll find something.
So how did all our political norms get destroyed? Hint: It started long before Donald Trump.
On one side, Republicans decided long ago that anything went in the effort to delegitimize and destroy Democrats. Those of us old enough to remember the 1990s also remember the endless series of accusations hurled against the Clintons.
Nothing was too implausible to get on talk radio and get favorable mention in Congress and in conservative media: Hillary killed Vince Foster! Bill was a drug smuggler!
Nothing was too trivial to trigger congressional hearings: 140 hours of testimony on potential abuse of the White House Christmas card list. And, of course, seven years of investigations into a failed real estate deal.
When Clinton famously spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to undermine her husband’s presidency, she wasn’t being hyperbolic; she was simply describing the obvious reality.
And since accusations of Democratic scandal, not to mention congressional “investigations” that started from a presumption of guilt, had become the norm, the very idea of bad behavior independent of politics disappeared: The flip side of the obsessive pursuit of a Democratic president was utter refusal to investigate even the most obvious wrongdoing by Republicans in office.
There were multiple real scandals during the administration of George W. Bush, ranging from what looked like a political purge in the Justice Department to the deceptions that led us into invading Iraq; nobody was ever held accountable.
The erosion of norms continued after President Barack Obama took office. He faced total obstruction at every turn; blackmail over the debt ceiling; and now, a refusal even to hold hearings on his nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
What was the purpose of this assault on the implicit rules and understandings that we need to make democracy work? Well, when Newt Gingrich shut down the government in 1995, he was trying to, guess what, privatize Medicare. The rage against Bill Clinton partly reflected the fact that he raised taxes modestly on the wealthy.
In other words, Republican leaders have spent the past couple of decades doing exactly what the likes of Ryan are doing now: trashing democratic norms in pursuit of economic benefits for their donor class.
So we shouldn’t really be too surprised that Comey, who turns out to be a Republican first and a public servant, well, not so much, decided to politically weaponize his position on the eve of the election; that’s what Republicans have been doing across the board. And we shouldn’t be surprised at all that Trump’s lurid personal failings haven’t caused a break with the leaders of his party’s establishment: They decided long ago that only Democrats have scandals.
Despite Comey’s abuse of power, Clinton will probably win. But Republicans won’t accept it. When Trump rages about a “rigged election,” expect muted disagreement at best from a party establishment that in a fundamental sense never accepts the legitimacy of a Democrat in the White House. And no matter what Clinton does, the barrage of fake scandals will continue, now with demands for impeachment.
Can anything be done to limit the damage? It would help if the media finally learned its lesson, and stopped treating Republican scandal-mongering as genuine news. And it would also help if Democrats won the Senate, so that at least some governing could get done.