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Frederic B. Hill of Arrowsic is a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and conducted wargaming exercises on national security issues for the Department of State in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The crisis in the Republican Party over the leadership role of Rep. Liz Cheney revolves around “the big lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. But there is another, broader lie: the Republican party of 2021 is no longer conservative as it claims. It is reactionary, right-wing and on the verge of embracing authoritarianism.
One fact to set things straight: more than 60 court cases brought by Trump and his lawyers to claim election fraud were rejected by judges across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Secretaries of state, including Republican officials, found no fraud.
Yet Trump and his backers continued to undermine our democracy for months before, during and after the election as 3,000 Americans died almost daily from a pandemic that, as president, Trump did little to deter or diminish.
With actions like these and the removal of Cheney, the GOP bears no resemblance to a party that once stood for the rule of law, free speech, limited government, fiscal restraint and even civil rights at a time when the Democrats were under the influence of Southern segregationists.
Noting her personal witnessing of free elections in former authoritarian nations such as Kenya and Poland, and condemning Trump’s lies about the election, Cheney said last Tuesday that “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”
As I see it, the Republican Party of 2021 is dominated by reactionary zealots who have enlisted in a cult of personality. Fearful of a former real estate and casino owner with few principles, they are enthralled by a sole purpose: to win power at whatever the cost to American democracy. They back his blatant lies about the election. They accept corruption; they rationalize Trump’s racist outbursts and they welcome party members who spread conspiracy fantasies.
Evidence of this was blatant in January when 139 GOP members of the House and eight senators voted to block certification of President Joe Biden’s convincing victory only hours after hordes of Trump-supporting extremists, many armed and helmeted, stormed the Capitol in a riot that led to the deaths of five people.
Many respected conservatives have denounced Trump and/or left the party. Among them, George Will, David Brooks, Colin Powell, Peter Wehner and Gen. James Mattis. Former president George W. Bush deplores Trumpism. Earlier exemplars of conservative philosophy, such as William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, would likely be embarrassed at the conduct of Republicans today.
Many elected Republicans are not only not conservative, their belief structure is on the verge of fascism. The Italian author Umberto Eco, who grew up during the reign of Benito Mussolini, once set out the complex signs of fascism. Key traits included authoritarian rule, opposition to democracy, xenophobia, disdain for free speech, intolerance, homophobia and use of an impoverished vocabulary, Eco wrote.
Today, many of Trump and his followers’ political views can be found in the tenets of fascism: desire for autocratic governance, seen in his love of Russia and denigration of professional civil servants as “the deep state”, denunciation of the press as “enemies of the people”, glorification of an “America First” isolationism and lots of hate speech.
An impoverished vocabulary? The daily distortions of Fox News and repetitive labelling of unfavorable developments as “fake news” and “cancel culture.”
The current crisis in the GOP is far worse than even the Watergate scandal, when moderate Republicans stood up — like Cheney — for the rule of law and democracy. As a young House member from Maine, William S. Cohen, who would serve three terms in the Senate and as secretary of Defense, was one of the first Republicans who risked his political career to support the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Another Republican, Sen. Charles Mathias, Jr. of Maryland, for whom I worked as foreign affairs director, highlighted the importance of placing country before person or party.
“There have been actions over the past few years that have caused some in positions of power and responsibility to forget that the highest loyalty of an American public servant is not to any personality whether he be a president or a general or a senator; nor is it to any organization, department, agency or party. His first loyalty is to the law of the land built upon constitutional foundations laid by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and George Mason, and other great men of our revolutionary past.”