It’s easy to forget sometimes, but political parties usually evolve over time.
For much of its early history the Democratic Party was – particularly in the South – the home of racism and white supremacy. A half century ago, the bigoted and conservative governor of Alabama – George Wallace – won several primaries, including North Carolina, in the contest for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.
Conversely, for much of its early history, the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln, emancipation and Reconstruction – was the party of Black Americans. It was Roosevelt’s New Deal that really hastened the switch, but as recently as the 1970s, Massachusetts was represented in the U.S. Senate by a man named Edward Brooke, who was Black, liberal and a Republican.
Today the situation has changed dramatically. In 2021 all the Wallaces are now Republicans and all the Brookes are Democrats.
And while it seems likely that things will have undergone all manner of new and unforeseen changes 50 years hence, it’s also not an exaggeration to say that the Republican Party of today has arrived at a watershed moment – both for itself and the nation.
Perhaps nowhere has this fact been in sharper relief than it was Monday night in North Carolina, as Republicans censured their senior statewide elected official, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
The impetus for this remarkable action, of course, was Burr’s Saturday vote to convict former President Donald Trump at the conclusion of his Senate impeachment trial for inciting an insurrection – a failed coup attempt that was carried out in large measure by Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists.
By any honest assessment, of course, the question of Trump’s guilt in the matter wasn’t even a close call. As Senate Republican leader and longtime Trump apologist and accessory Mitch McConnell carefully detailed in a speech that followed the Senate vote, Trump was unquestionably guilty of the crime of which he was accused.
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said.
Of course, McConnell failed to pursue the obvious course that his on-the-mark assessment of the facts demanded. Instead, he chose the cowardly path of hiding behind the hastily concocted fig leaf that it is somehow impermissible to try an impeached president after his or her term concludes – an excuse that runs contrary to precedent, the overwhelming consensus of constitutional scholars and common sense.
Burr too, tried initially to take refuge in the constitutionality dodge, but once the Senate ruled on the matter, he properly assumed his role as juror, listened to the overwhelming evidence and, unlike his colleague Thom Tillis and 42 other GOP senators, performed his sworn duty appropriately.
Now, however, because of this latter action, Trump loyalists in the leadership of the North Carolina Republican Party have voted unanimously to punish and disown Burr – an action, it’s worth noting, they declined to take or explore a year ago when Burr was credibly alleged to have used insider knowledge about the coming pandemic to make stock trades.
In some ways, of course, the GOP action isn’t that significant. Sen. Burr is a lame duck who is not seeking reelection next year, anyway.
In other ways, however, it constitutes yet another quite remarkable step in the ongoing and precipitous descent of the Republican Party – a spiral that has radically transformed the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and even the Bushes, into the cult of a criminal and would-be Neo-fascist dictator.
Indeed, it was precisely people like those running the North Carolina Republican Party that veteran conservative voice George Will clearly had in mind this past weekend when he authored a column entitled “Will Senate Republicans allow their louts to rule the party?”
As Will put it:
An essential conservative insight about everything is that nothing necessarily endures. Care must be taken. The Republican Party will wither if the ascendant Lout Caucus is the face it presents to this nation of decent, congenial people.”
Meanwhile, as if taking a direct cue from Will, former North Carolina Republican Supreme Court justice, gubernatorial candidate and paragon of decent congeniality, Bob Orr, was more explicit in a tweet posted in response to the condemnations of Burr’s vote:
I CAN’T WAIT TO LEAVE THE GOP. PAPERWORK TO BE FILED NEXT WEEK.”
Does this mean that the GOP’s demise is nigh and that it will soon go the way of the Whigs? Probably not.
As we’ve seen in country after country in recent years – from Russia’s Putin to India’s Modi to Poland’s Duda to Brazil’s Bolsonaro – there remains, for now anyway, an appetite amongst fearful people around the world for authoritarian strongmen (it’s almost always men) and the political “parties” that act as their apologists and enablers.
It does mean, however, that absent swift and determined action by a handful of powerful individuals and interest groups with the wherewithal to rescue it, the GOP could soon cease to be a legitimate governing party, and as growing chorus of observers and advocates have rightfully characterized it, a genuine and dangerous threat to our democracy.
Somewhere, the ghost of Lincoln weeps.