Members Only | January 30, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The GOP ‘Separatist Movement’

The best way to understand acquitting Trump.

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Things feel different today from what they felt like three days ago.

On Monday, we learned that John Bolton witnessed the president’s bribing of a foreign leader into interfering with the 2020 election. The former head of the National Security Council, in a forthcoming book, says he saw Donald Trump cheating.

That seemed like “a smoking gun.” Four Republicans, who had been vacillating between calling and not calling witnesses for the president’s trial, seemed to be tipping to one side. The Democrats had the advantage. Witnesses appeared inevitable.


Ted Cruz isn’t voicing partisanship so much as the political desperation of a suicide bomber.


Today feels quite different. Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he did not have 51 votes to block an effect to call witnesses, but the Senate majority leader was not admitting defeat. He and others were admitting they had more work to do. No one, not even the four holdouts, wanted to hear from witnesses. They just needed reasons to say no.

I don’t know what those reasons are, but it looks like they found them. Witnesses now seem unlikely. If so, the president’s trial will conclude Friday. By acquitting Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of the Congress, the Republicans will be saying the president can do anything he wants as long as he can hold more than a third of the Senate. By clearing him of wrongdoing, they will be making Richard Nixon’s dream finally come true: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

In other words, the president is above the law.

Not all presidents, of course.

Some of the same Republicans protecting Donald Trump from the consequences of conspiracy, bribery, and election-rigging are the same Republicans who supported Bill Clinton’s removal from office for perjury, a vastly less serious crime. Indeed, no one should expect the Republicans to give future Democratic presidents the imperial powers they are giving the current president. Make no mistake: They will hold the next Democrat to impossible standards, and prosecute brutally with the thinnest rationale.

That looks like it would be hypocrisy, and indeed, that’s what it would be. But if we are going to stop the Republicans from behaving treacherously, we need to look deeper. Indeed, if we stop at hypocrisy, we will be giving the Republicans too much credit.

To act hypocritically, one must genuinely believe in the civic, moral and legal virtue of acting in good faith. One must believe there is a shared set of laws, rules, values, institutions and norms applicable to all of us equally. If we believe this but act in a contrary manner, we are then hypocritical. That is not what the Republicans are doing.

The best way to understand Republican behavior is to imagine two sets of values systems. There’s one for them. There’s one for everyone else. Republicans are the exception to the rule, because they do not believe in rules having equal application. “Justice,” therefore, may or may not be equal justice. It depends. It’s conditional.

If a Democratic president breaks the law, even a minor one, then that president deserves the full force of Congressional investigation, prosecution and removal. But if a Republican president breaks the law, even with corrupt and treasonous intent, then that president deserves protection from accountability, the Constitution and the law.

The first outcome is just. So is the other.

They are separate but not equal.

Republican virtue is moreover conditioned on the opposition’s virtue. If the Democrats act out of bounds, it’s not occasion, from the Republican point of view, to demand the Democrats act in accordance with the values applicable equally to all. It is occasion, instead, to allege the Democrats don’t mean it when they say values are applicable to all. They believe this, because the Republican can’t believe the Democrats can act morally. And they believe that, because they believe the Democrats are the enemy.

The common view is that the Republicans are so partisan they are willing to follow Donald Trump to hell. But that explanation is unsatisfying. Partisanship is one thing. Surrendering to the enemy is another. That, to me, explains why Ted Cruz said, “If we call John Bolton, I promise you, we are calling Hunter Biden.” Cruz isn’t voicing ordinary partisanship so much as the political desperation of a suicide bomber.

I said yesterday the Republican Party is best understood as an insurrection. Perhaps “separatist movement” is a better phrase. That would communicate the binary thinking of the Republican value system. There are two, separate but not equal.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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