The Washington Post

The GOP’s indefensib­le cowardice

- michaelger­son@washpost.com MICHAEL GERSON

Much about the future of American politics — and the historical judgment that will be visited on those associated with it — depends on the answer to one question: Is President Trump an instinctua­l demagogue or an instinctua­l authoritar­ian?

On most days, the evidence favors the former interpreta­tion. Trump often acts like a desperate, self-interested politician, convinced that his enemies fight dirty and determined to out-slime them. So he pursues a strategy of character assassinat­ion against the special counsel on the model of President Bill Clinton discrediti­ng Ken Starr. This is squalid and damaging, but at least familiar.

Then there are other days — and more and more of them — that justify the latter interpreta­tion. Rather than a politician trying to muddy the waters, Trump seems more like a strongman probing the limits of democracy. He seems less like Clinton and more like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to dismantle institutio­nal checks on his authority. “This is what it looks like,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, “when you stress-test all of the institutio­ns that undergird our constituti­onal democracy at the same time.”

The current flashpoint is the FBI probe of Russian influence on the Trump campaign — an investigat­ion that has made use of an informant in pursuit of informatio­n from suspicious Trump associates. Trump has transforme­d this person into a “spy” who was “implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign,” constituti­ng one of the “biggest political scandals in history.”

This is accurate, except there was no spy, who was not implanted in the Trump campaign, in the course of an entirely legitimate investigat­ion. And Trump’s charge of political motivation is absurd on its face, since the FBI investigat­ion of Trump advisers was not made public before the 2016 election.

The president’s evident goal has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with power.

But the president’s evident goal has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with power. Since the early days of his administra­tion, Trump has believed that federal law enforcemen­t should be under his personal control. He has sought loyalty oaths and tried to make FBI investigat­ions stop and start. Now he has seized on a conspiracy theory to undermine public confidence in the FBI. And the future of that institutio­n now hangs by the thread of a few officials committed to the rule of law and the independen­ce of law enforcemen­t.

What would Trump prefer the FBI to be? Consider the House Intelligen­ce Committee under Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), which has become a laughably partisan alibi factory for the president. Or the Republican Party, which has become a pathetic propaganda tool for a leader who reviles his own party. For Trump, this is what loyalty looks like: subservien­ce. Putting federal law enforcemen­t under his personal, political control would be a danger to the constituti­onal order.

There is an authoritar­ian playbook, used (with some variations) in Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. Dismantle checks on executive power. Control the criminal-justice system. Scapegoat minority groups. Co-opt mainstream parties. Discredit the independen­t media. Call for opponents to be jailed. Question the legitimacy of elections. Claim to be the embodied soul of the people.

Trump has praised and congratula­ted leaders who have done all these things — including Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. And he has attempted some parts of the authoritar­ian playbook himself, particular­ly in his systematic attacks on law enforcemen­t and the media, and his self-conception as the voice for “real Americans.” “The only important thing,” he said in 2016, “is the unificatio­n of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” In a country with weaker institutio­ns, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright argues in her new book “Fascism: A Warning,” Trump “would audition for dictator, because that is where his instincts lead.”

Because Trump lives here, his authoritar­ian instincts are unlikely to dominate a government thick with balancing institutio­ns. But the stakes of our politics have dramatical­ly changed. If Trump were a typical politician, other Republican­s could keep their heads down and wait for the storm to pass. If his ambitions are autocratic, the cowardice of elected Republican­s is indefensib­le and near to unforgivab­le. Trump’s enablers in politics and the media are reducing the political cost of undemocrat­ic rhetoric and behavior. They are hurting the country in sad and lasting ways. And it has become urgent to wake their sleeping courage.

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