A recent blog post commented on the role of the Republican Party in allowing Trump to get elected in 2016. Most importantly, the post describes the job of political parties to act as gatekeepers in the political sphere, keeping populist threats and “norm-breakers” out of mainstream politics, as described by Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Decline. I would like to elaborate on the role of the Republican Party as a gatekeeper leading up the 2016 election in more detail. I will provide an analysis of past developments that have allowed norm-breaking to become commonplace in American politics and how these developments have eroded the “guardrails” of democracy and allowed a populist candidate to win the presidency.
As Levitsky and Ziblatt noted, mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance are two of the most important norms followed in a healthy, stable democracy. Leading up to the 2016 election, mutual tolerance fell to extreme lows in American politics, causing erosion of institutional forbearance. The Republican Party had set their eyes on victory in 2016 to reverse the work that Democrats and Obama had done over the previous eight years. Party leadership showed support for Trump in the midst of vulgar campaign moments and past fiascos dug up by the mainstream media. A study carried out days before Election Day found that 80% of Republican lawmakers supported Trump to win the election1.On the other hand, many prominent lawmakers showed an early unwillingness to support the Republican nominee. Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell were both outspoken against Trump’s fiery rhetoric, and Senator Bill Sasse was considered an “anti-Trump ringleader” in the Senate2. Prior to the election, the #NeverTrump movement started to gain ground among conservatives who felt as if there was a crisis occurring in American conservatism. Surprisingly, data shows that conservative Republicans were actually less likely to join in opposition against Trump, while female Republicans, Mormon Republicans, and those who had already committed to a different candidate earlier in the primaries were more likely to join the #NeverTrump movement3. Thus, the majority of the Republican establishment, although critical of Trump in the months before the election, supported him anyways when Election Day arrived. The Republican Party’s support for a populist nominee broke proved that the party had failed to meet its role as gatekeeper. However, many historical developments played a key role in the diminishing role of norms and gatekeeping in American politics, and thus the Republican Party’s acceptance of Trump was not an entirely surprising occurrence of norm-breaking, but rather a continuation of hardball in American politics that resulted from the erosion of important “guardrails” in democracy.
Of course, constitutional hardball has been a constant recurrence since the late 21st century. Levitsky and Ziblatt pointed out the development of hardball politics in the Republican Party starting from Newt Gingrich’s “no-compromise” skirmish with President Clinton to the weaponization of impeachment in 1998, which was bound to fail in the Senate because the House Republicans did not expect bipartisan support. On the other hand, the Democratic Party was left with two choices: fight the Republicans with obstruction or restore traditional norms. The latter choice had no chance in the state of polarization that was forming in American politics at the time. Instead, the Democratic Party chose the path of obstruction. Obstruction was the name of the game for numerous policies on President George W. Bush’s agenda, and even Senate Democrats were weaponizing the filibuster to stop the progress of judicial nominees(a practice that still continues to this day). Practices that had once been seen as destructive to the democratic process were now commonplace on Capitol Hill. President Obama encountered the same issues, but in his case, he also juggled the issues that followed the rise of the Tea Party movement. Yascha Mounk, in Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, described the Tea Party as a force that “sparked a civil war within the Republican Party”, and could effectively exert a “veto over the entire legislative machinery of the United States” in the House of Representatives. Rampant populism accelerated the withering away of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “guardrails” for democracy. The Tea Party agenda promoted the same “no-compromise” approach Newt Gingrich deployed in his takeover of the House of Representatives. Tensions rose within the Republican Party and between the Republicans and Democrats, leading to a climactic turning point for the Senate in 2013 when Democratic Senator Harry Reid adopted the “nuclear option”. Senator McConnell responded to the action, calling that day “a sad day in the history of the Senate” and referring to the deployment of the nuclear option as a “power grab”, while President Obama responded by saying, “today’s pattern of obstruction… just isn’t normal; it’s not what our founders envisioned”4. Institutional forbearance was crippled on Capitol Hill with the decline in mutual toleration and defiance of past norms. A lack of Institutional forbearance created gridlock in Congress, leading to inefficiency in lawmaking and the inability of congressional leaders to seek compromise.
This inefficiency prompted the expansion of executive power to new levels. President Obama, with Congress in a bitter stalemate, unilaterally succeeded in making the Iran nuclear deal, creating the DACA program, and pushing forward new standards for carbon emissions and renewable energy, as noted in How Democracies Die. Of course, Congress could not effectively act on major issues of immigration and energy standards, but when the President started to become the sole actor in domestic policy, the power of the executive branch reached new limits. Nearing the end of Obama’s presidency, the Republicans pushed one last-ditch effort to make sure Obama’s Supreme Court justice nominee Merrick Garland was unable to reach Senate confirmation in a move that allowed a vacancy to remain on the highest court in the land. Moving forward to 2016, it was Donald Trump who clenched the presidency and launched a series of judicial nominations to fill the nation’s federal courts at a historic pace. The same Republican Senators who vowed to make their party the obstructionist force against Obama’s judicial nominees, steered the Trump train through the Senate.
Hostile partisan politics following developments in the late 20th Century marked the end of compromise in American politics. Hardball and the erosion of norms in both the legislative and the executive branches fueled the competitiveness of the two-party system, essentially causing a democratic rivalry to turn into a necessary skirmish for power in Washington D.C. Every modern presidential election has proven to be a turning point for politics as the power to hold the presidency becomes so important for the two major parties. The inability of Congress to pass compromises and bipartisan legislation has ushered in a new age of executive power that increases the significance of the president’s role in politics. The Republican party, after feeling frustrated with Obama’s presidency, sided with the populist demagogue of working-class Americans, because in the end, the party in control of the presidency was all that really mattered. Ethics, morals, and common norms were not significant in determining the qualification of the president. Trump’s party, and the opposition party, had been experiencing gridlock for over a decade, and norms were not the means to gaining overwhelming political power and certainly not the tools used to fulfill political agendas. Donald Trump was an outsider and did not dwell on the norms of his opponents from the Washington “swamp”. Trump set forth on a different course: a campaign that would rally the masses like Andrew Jackson and attack the media and mainstream politicians in ways even Richard Nixon would’ve denounced.
2 The Atlantic published a list of Republicans who opposed Trump just days before Election Day. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/where-republicans-stand-on-donald-trump-a-cheat-sheet/481449/
*Photo by Joyce Boghosian, “Camp David”, Creative Commons Zero license.