A Republican politics of impunity

The real threat to American democracy goes deeper than Trump

Jason Andrews

Government and governance, Law | The World

26 May 2017

The Republican Party’s response to Trump’s firing of the FBI Director has grave implications for the health of American democracy, Jason Andrews argues.

“Suck it up and move on.” With one sentence Senator Chuck Grassley signalled a new phase in the Republican Party’s assault on American democracy. The Senator’s response to criticism surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey summarises the dangerous new attitude that is being normalised within the Republican Party. As numerous commentators anticipated and argued, the firing of Comey is a major indicator that Donald Trump’s fascist rhetoric is not simply meat for the base. Comey’s fate is a watershed event, and understanding its implications is critical. But we would do well to look beyond Trump to focus on the reactions of those around him in the Republican Party.

Senator Grassley was not the only Republican to respond with contempt to appeals for democratic norms of political accountability to be upheld. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the protests of Democrats as hypocritical complaints while House Speaker Paul Ryan defended Trump’s actions as the legitimate exercise of Presidential power. But it is Grassley’s statement, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reveals the extent to which the contempt for democratic norms are being embraced by key elements of the Republican Party.

Trump has been a major catalyst in this transformation of the Party, but it has also been the Republicans’ narrow control over Congress that has allowed such unabashed flaunting of democratic norms to go unpunished.

Although the Republicans retain only narrow control over the Senate and the House, the Republican Party has come to realise that their staunchly loyal voters appear to be unmoved by Trump’s litany of transgressions against civic and social norms. This combination of perceived voter indifference and the Democrats’ current inability to control Congressional investigations has meant that the only immediate restraints on Republican transgressors is the Republican Party itself.

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The current and potential consequences of this for America’s democracy are grave. Maintaining the integrity of democratic norms is vital to ensuring that the robust powers of a democracy’s institutions are directed toward fulfilling the needs of the people as opposed to the desires of the powerful few. But these norms of public political conduct are a mutually constituted agreement within a polity, and thus they are only as strong as the political compact between the polity and its political representatives allow them to be. To endure, they must be defended.

With the present arrangement of power, the norms that once seemed to be firm walls appear now as the thin, shared illusions that they always were.

Ever since Trump nominated himself as a presidential candidate in 2015, it has always been the Republican Party which has possessed the greatest capacity to protect and demonstrate the public value of the norms that Trump has broken. But with each fresh transgression, Republicans have failed to uphold these norms. They have repeatedly averred from the moral course in favour of the craven pursuit of power.

This is the new threat to American democracy. It is not the childish tirades and tantrums of an incompetent, aggressive dilettante that should be giving the world pause, but rather, the emboldening of those elements among the Republicans who will put Party before country, consequences be damned. It is a new politics of impunity in which the public disparagement of democratic norms is being normalised by senior Republicans like Senator Grassley.

But there is some hope yet. Scandals, even major ones, can only bring powerful transgressors to account so long as there is the political strength and public support for those with the authority to enforce the violated norms to do so.

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Here, the strategic disclosure of Comey’s memo is a major development. To date, the transgressions attributable to Trump have been normative violations that Republicans have been willing and able to disregard. However, Comey’s memo entails the first credible allegation of a serious legal transgression that is directly attributed to Trump: obstruction of justice. This has exposed some of the limits of senior Republicans’ willingness to reflexively defend Trump’s actions. Herein, the appointment of a Special Counsel is an indication that senior Republicans perceive there to be sufficient political risks if they do not at least appear to be taking allegations of legal transgression seriously. But the Special Counsel’s investigation could take years to complete and there is no guarantee that the findings will be consequential for Trump in the long run. The most that can be presently said is that it will extend and structure the central controversies surrounding Trump’s presidency.

Importantly, what the appointment of a Special Counsel does not signal is any fundamental change in attitude amongst Republicans for any of Trump’s past transgressions, and guaranteed future transgressions, against democratic norms. Moreover, the Republican Party still enjoys the benefits of controlling the key levers of institutional power, nigh-unwavering support from the conservative news media and a loyal voter base. Consequently, the violation of democratic norms by Republican representatives can, and is likely to, continue without fear of sanctioning. The appointment of the Special Counsel has not changed this.

What can change this situation is the 2018 midterm elections. The Republican Party’s control over the Senate and the House is tenuous and the Democrats only need to regain control over one of them to be able to convene inquiries unencumbered by Republican interference. This would most likely see the initiation of aggressive and highly publicised investigations championed by the Democrats and an intensification of the scandal dynamics already circling throughout Washington. The public support for such inquiries exists, but the Republican Party is holding the cards for now, and their politics of impunity is likely to continue unabated. At least until mid-2018.

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