What happened to the Republican vigilance against efforts to undermine our Constitution through internal subversion?
There are still some of us around who remember the attacks against free speech by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, and also the focus on the loyalty of government employees. All of that was to unearth Communist-led conspiracies to undermine our Constitution from within. Politicians like Richard Nixon based their careers on protecting America from internal threats.
The end of the Cold War, as the Soviet empire fell apart, reduced national fear of international Communist subversion and brought a swelling tide of divisive partisanship. An amazing forty-five-year continuity of bipartisan support for national foreign policy allowed us to avoid nuclear war while resisting the spread of Communism. With the failure of a major external threat, bipartisanship declined rapidly during the Clinton years. The initial response to the terror attack of September 11, 2001, brought a patriotic and unifying response by both parties to the leadership of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, bipartisanship was damaged by Bush’s determination to overthrow Sadam Hussein and then challenge the loyalty of Democratic critics during his reelection campaign. The rise of the TEA Party during the Obama administration accelerated partisanship that refused to cooperate with moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.
Unfortunately, this Republican-generated extreme partisanship became a homegrown attack on our Constitution. Refusing to negotiate and compromise in order to find bipartisan solutions was seen as virtuous adherence to principle in TEA Party circles. As a result, the Republican Speaker of the House became powerless, unable to overcome divisions in his party to do anything other than pass entirely symbolic repeals of the Affordable Care Act. The Republican party that had been so vigilant against internal subversion became notable for demonizing opposition rather than trying to work constructively.
Of course, there are extremists on the Democratic left who also resist compromise and reasonable cooperation. Some of them have adopted the mantra that Democrats need “to fight like Republicans” against the policies of Trump. Their numbers and influence do not compare with the impact of Republican practice under Obama and now Trump.
Partisanship that is called principled because efforts at compromise are vilified should be seen as subversion of our Constitution. Why? Because the checks and balances of our system require cooperative efforts for the system to work. Since the end of the Cold War, our system has been moving toward crisis because of our own internal politics after the threat of international subversion seemed to disappear.
Enter the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Running for Congress or the Presidency as a “Washington outsider” and promising to shake up things people don’t like about Washington has become an American tradition. Yet those outsiders always had some form of experience in state and federal governance. Trump had never run for office before or taken an oath to be a faithful public servant. Lacking practical experience in diplomacy, military strategy, intelligence, or any field vital to national security, he asserted that he knew more than generals. For every issue, he said he was smarter than those who had spent careers in complicated fields and that he would solve problems that had seemed intractable with remarkable speed.
During the campaign in 2016, Democrats were targets of espionage that stole documents and released them on WikiLeaks in order to hurt the Democratic candidate. Rather than acknowledge this attack on American sovereignty, Trump eagerly used stolen inside information without once showing reservations about encouraging continued attacks. He used anything against political opponents that would help him win. Winning clearly was his sole measure of what was ethical. In fact, when asked after the election if he thought he had sometimes gone too far, he dismissed this valid question with: “I won.” Meanwhile, he routinely expressed admiration and approval of Vladimir Putin, the enemy of America who was behind espionage intended to interfere in the election.
Promising to bring dramatic change, Trump’s promises centered on undoing the accomplishments of Obama and undermining normal operations in Washington. America has experienced many revolutions at the ballot box that dramatically changed direction from a previous administration; but even in those revolutions there was essential continuity from one administration to another. Making a central point of systematically counteracting nearly everything done by a previous administration is overt subversion of the essential reliability of government that results from partisanship out of control.
But the situation is even worse. Republican insensitivity to subversion through out of control partisanship has even made them vulnerable to tolerating a president who is clearly mentally unbalanced and under the influence of an American Rasputin. Trump’s attacks on our allies, his efforts to destabilize NATO as Russia is trying to reestablish its empire in Eastern Europe, and his strategy of lies and false information combined with extreme attacks on responsible media reflect the growing power of Steve Bannon in the White House.
At the CPAC meeting on February 23, Bannon was brazen enough to reveal his plan for Trump’s administration. The goal of “deconstructing the administrative state” which Bannon espouses is not the traditional Republican attack on “Big Government,” a concern for limiting the power of government that goes back to the founding of our system. The strategy is intentional subversion of 75 years of foreign policy leading to a more peaceful world. He wants to return to the kind of nationalism that led to two horrendous wars in the twentieth century.
Even worse, “the administrative state” is not just the Obama policies that Trump and his inner circle want to attack. The heart and spirit of the American “administrative state” is the United States Constitution. Bannon’s rejection of our Constitutional and democratic system is not just talk. His role in the hasty and incompetent travel ban is just the first act of aggression to subvert the Constitution. Bannon’s voice sounded loud in the words of the attorney representing Trump in federal court when he claimed the President’s action was beyond judicial review.
What has happened to the Republicans who once battled so mightily against the threat of internal subversion? Why haven’t they been shocked at Bannon’s openly stated policy of subverting our Constitutional system? Why are they tolerating the reemergence of the Soviet empire under a new Stalin with active support within the Oval Office? They were so disgusted at actions of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, so why aren’t they raging against bringing the cancer of Bannon and his supporters into the heart of the executive branch where upholding the presidential oath to the Constitution should be the first priority?
There are processes to defend our Constitution and our Democracy — but they require Republicans in Congress who value their oath to the Constitution over momentary partisan advantage. Are John McCain and Lindsey Graham the only remnants of the Republican party so intent on defending our nation internally and externally?
It is tragic to see the Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan become the agent for undermining the United States Constitution.