The Republican Party was born on March 20, 1854, the green shoots of a political spring. Unlike America’s other parties that were often shotgun weddings of convenience, the Republicans burst forth around moral ideas that were so powerful — ending slavery and making America a world industrial power — that the tail of this supernova lasted for more than 166 years and inspired its eventual nickname, the Grand Old Party.
That GOP died — morally, if not officially — in the late afternoon gloaming of a grey and bitterly cold winter’s day, Feb. 13, 2021. After 43 Republican senators who’d been given a green light to “vote their conscience” on Donald Trump’s impeachment still managed to come up empty — thus enshrining the notion that an end-of-term president can foment a deadly insurrection to thwart a peaceful transition of power and not face any consequences — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strolled to the well of the Senate. He was presumably holding the bloody knife with which he’d repeatedly stabbed American democracy for a dozen years hidden behind his back.
It turns out that McConnell’s past moments of political shamelessness — the years of hurting America’s recovery just to electorally thwart our first Black president, the theft of a Supreme Court pick from Barack Obama so it could be made by a dangerous demagogue whom the Kentuckian then helped pack the judiciary — were just an audition for Saturday’s GOP eulogy.
“There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” said McConnell, referring to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol that had endangered McConnell’s colleagues, his staffers and himself. “No question about it.” But his faux moment of moral clarity was all a sham, as shown by leading the Feckless 43 in acquitting Trump as well as his pretzel logic to justify his vote, a lie-based misreading of the U.S. Constitution that he’d already shredded into 10,000 pieces as he turned the Party of Lincoln into an authoritarian cult with no moral standing and no ideology beyond realpolitick to protect white identity politics.
But McConnell’s effort to obfuscate was in fact one of the most revelatory moments in the long, muddled history of American politics. The unbearable nothingness of his failure — and that of most of his party — to hold Trump to account for a full-frontal assault on America’s core ideals was the final flatlining in the long slow death of a political party that is no longer grand, just old. On paper, the Republican Party may live on — but the GOP as an idea and a moral force is deader than a parrot in a Monty Python sketch, nailed to its perch in a gross caricature of what it once was.
And it’s time for the rest of us — the 57%, the rough number who support the launch of the President Biden era, equal to the percentage of senators who voted to convict Trump — to act accordingly. There is no place for bipartisanship when half of that proposed arrangement is no longer a functioning political party within a working democracy.
“I think our country needs a strong Republican party — it’s very important,” a visibly shaken House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Saturday, crashing a news conference of House impeachment managers to rebut McConnell and his intentionally misleading account of how the process went down. But Pelosi was only partially right. America will indeed need a vigorous two-party (if not multiparty) system to have real, honest debates about how to defend democracy and advance the interests of a forgotten working class. But today’s Republican Party jumped the guardrails of that highway a long time ago.
In many ways, the buffoonery, corruption, and incitements to mob violence that was Donald Trump was just a gross symptom, a massive tumor that resulted from the disease that has been coursing through the Republican Party for decades. In the Nixon and Reagan eras, the GOP abandoned any and all former principles for a self-preservation ethos of tax breaks for a wealthy donor class and stirring up the social resentments of the white working class — an Ed Sullivan Show-level plate-spinning act called “the Southern strategy” that barely hid its white-supremacist roots.
The energy that was needed to keep spinning those plates — including a lie-based media infrastructure of talk radio and Fox News that eroded trust in fact-based journalism and eventually even the science needed to fight pandemics or climate change — was a road map to first demagoguery and, when unchecked, dictatorship.
Ironically, one of the last nails in the GOP’s coffin came last week not from Trump or his weak-kneed enablers on Capitol Hill but from a Page 2 story about the implosion of the supposed anti-Trump elite of the Republican Party, the deep-pocketed Lincoln Project. This network of GOP consultants and higher-ups — who, after decades of implanting right-wing toxicity in the body politic, felt revulsion over the crudity of POTUS 45 — argued they were true conservatives with a conscience in raising $90 million to defeat Trump in 2020. Instead, revelations are showing the Lincoln Project was largely a grift of big-bucks self-dealing and covering up the sexual harassment of one of its founders. In hindsight, maybe the Lincoln Project embodied the actual Republican Party more than it realized.
Is it any wonder, then, to see the mainstream of such a Republican Party come up morally bankrupt, as in the acquittal votes by the likes of McConnell or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman? Portman is the epitome of the last era of “serious Republicans” as a former acolyte of George W. Bush (who, as Bush’s budget chief, presumably at least believes in math) and yet the kind of politician who ultimately can’t see past himself — famously supporting gay marriage only after his own son came out. Today, Portman is walking away from the Senate but is still too fearful of the angry mob that he helped create to vote his own conscience on Trump. His cowardice is typical of the Feckless 43.
To be clear, I have nothing but praise for the moral integrity of the 17 Republicans (10 in the House, and seven Saturday in the Senate, including Pennsylvania’s own Sen. Pat Toomey) who voted to impeach or convict Trump for the most heinous high crime ever committed by a president. But in today’s climate they are islands in the stream, not the makings of a new or revived Republican Party, whose implosion matches the slavery-tied collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s. There is, arguably, a large opening for a completely new second political party — one that actually promotes the economic interests of a multiracial working class and some of its social conservatism, but embraces ethics and eschews racism — but the stench of the GOP’s corpse may have to get worse before that can happen.
In 2021, the only hope for American salvation is not bipartisanship with a dead body but instead a Democratic Party that is every bit as bold as the Republicans are cowardly. That is easier said than done, as we saw again on Saturday when Democrats briefly won, with help from the GOP’s last ethical holdouts, the right to call witnesses against Trump, only to give it up for fear that they’d hurt Biden’s agenda, or miss their Valentine’s Day flights, or ... something.
But let’s look at this glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Since Biden took office, the push to use the controversial 51-Senate-votes reconciliation process to move full steam ahead on coronavirus relief for everyday Americans, and Democrats’ bold move to strip GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments over her dangerous pro-QAnon statements, are signs that the Democrats know they must govern for the 57%.
Now, in the wake of the Republicans’ blocking of accountability for Trump. Democrats must see the light and go even deeper. The failure to get 60 votes, let alone 67, in the open-and-shut case of the ex-president’s insurrection incitement, should not only be the death knell for the GOP but also for the filibuster. Without the ability to represent the 57% of Americans who believe in a morally good and progressive nation on a straight up-or-down vote, Republicans will block voting rights reforms — which is their best hope for gaming the elections of 2022 and 2024.
What’s more, a failure to enact laws backed by a majority of the public — most notably, the $15 minimum wage — will open the door to the ultimate nightmare enabled on Saturday by the Feckless 43, the return of Donald Trump. Beyond Capitol Hill, Saturday’s vote — and McConnell’s acknowledgement of likely criminal conduct by the ex-president — should be a green light for incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland to finally bring Trump to justice in our criminal courts.
That truth may be a hard pill for the likes of President Biden, who was raised on the quasi-sacred altar of bipartisanship. But the only way to save the country from the American carnage of 2021 is for the Democrats to use their narrow majority to push for what is right — politically, economically, morally — and invite any principled Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney or Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler to join them. Real aid for struggling, regular folks, and the bloody shirt of Jan. 6, could help Democrats defy the political wisdom and gain more seats in 2022. And that would speed the inevitable — to declare the Republican Party legally dead, and move on with our lives.
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