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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
During the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an invader lowered the American flag and hauled up a Trump banner. That action embodied the crisis of American politics.
Three major political forces now exist: the Trumpers, the Republicans and the Democrats. They are now openly engaged in a conflict for control of the country. Though Trumpers proclaim it is like 1776, it is more like the Civil War.
Since the end of the post-Civil War military occupation of the South, Republicans and Democrats have shared power, with each party in control from time to time. Each party accommodated the other to a degree, knowing that one day it would be in the minority. Both parties shared strong allegiance to the U.S.
The surprise rise of Donald Trump changed that system. His personal ambition, detachment from political tradition and lack of partisan allegiance made him a conduit for radical populists and racists whom he could arouse by his rhetoric and who could become his reliable base.
The Trumpers were committed and numerous enough to take over the Republican Party. Traditional Republicans remained loyal to their party and feared losing power if they did not align with Trump. GOP office holders wanted to avoid primary challenges.
Trumpers, newly in charge of the GOP, labeled long-standing party members, like Sen. Susan Collins, as Republicans in Name Only, RINOs. In fact, the Trumpers themselves could be considered RINOs.
Traditional Republicans could ignore Trump’s excesses because he pursued policies consistent with some of their most cherished goals: smaller government, conservative judges, lower taxes, less regulation and reduced focus on public welfare and “political correctness.” They relished making unlimited war on Democrats.
The Republicans, like the Democrats, believed that the Constitution and the American political system provided protection against extremists gaining control. Conservatives could use Trump and Trump could use them with positive results on policy and little risk of long-term harm.
Trump was worried that he would lose the 2020 election and started a backfire of fraud claims even before the voting. As a television personality, he saw his crowds, his audience, as proof of his unassailable popularity. He could not lose a “fair” election.
Forewarned, election administrators took strong steps to prevent fraud, and they succeeded. Trump, having continually pushed against customary political norms, persisted in claiming fraud, though he lacked evidence beyond the size of his crowds and what was to him the impossible magnitude of Biden’s vote.
The Trumpers, who owed their control of the GOP to Trump, remained loyal to him, even in preference to their country and its traditions. They would not be satisfied until he was awarded a second term. Many Republican House members and a few senators encouraged them, believing the Trumpers were a political force that could support their own ambitions.
At that point, the Republicans paid attention to what the Trumpers were doing to their party and the country. Most would not overrule a fair election to back Trump or cede power to his loyalists.
Encouraged by Trump’s marching orders and some militant cultists, thousands of Trumpers seized the Capitol to wrest control from the elected Congress. Only the belated use of law enforcement ended the rebellion that day, but not for good.
Thanks to Congress and public opinion, Trump’s regime ends in dishonor, and he should begin to fade away. Will Trumpism survive Trump? Will Trumpers maintain their control of the GOP?
If they do, the party itself will be RINO. True Republicans will have either to try to retake control or form a new party that can attract some independent and Democratic support. A renewed and responsible Republicanism is essential for the good of the American political system.
The Democratic Party does not have the same problems. Unlike the GOP, which has become increasingly disciplined, the Democrats have long tolerated a wide range of opinion. It is a party in which a moderate conservative senator from West Virginia and a strong liberal senator from Massachusetts can both comfortably consider themselves Democrats.
The U.S. is essentially a conservative country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal deployed liberal solutions and increased the government’s role. President-elect Joe Biden seems both to recognize the value of Roosevelt-style progress and America’s preference for moderate change. The Democrats continue their traditional balancing act.
Faced not with “socialism” or a quasi-mythical enemy called “antifa,” the Republicans can serve the country and themselves by reestablishing a responsible counterbalance to the Democrats. It’s time for them to show demagogues the door.
Some Republicans try to stem the reaction to the Capitol invasion by charging that the Democrats undermine hopes for unity. Given the GOP’s history, including Insurrection Day and its House leaders’ opposition to certifying Biden’s election, that won’t work.
The two traditional parties should renew their agreement on the rules of a functioning democracy and faithfully abide by them. Unlike Trump, they should not bend or break those rules to serve their momentary political advantage.
If they remain in total conflict, the traditional parties invite unrest and insurrection by those for whom there are no rules.