Donald Trump’s critics have good reason to focus on the threats he poses to democracy and the rule of law. But the president is not alone in his party.
In case after case, Republicans have demonstrated an eagerness to undercut democracy and tilt the rules of the game if doing so serves their ideological interests. The quiet coup by the GOP-controlled Legislature in Wisconsin is designed to defy the voters’ wishes. It reflects an abandonment of the disciplines self-government requires.
Last month, Wisconsin’s electorate ended eight years of Republican dominance in state government by choosing Democrats Tony Evers as governor and Josh Kaul as attorney general. Democrats also won races for secretary of state and state treasurer.
There was nothing unnatural about this. Voters often tire of one party and decide to try the other side. It’s the beautiful thing about constitutional democracies: There are no final victories, so there are no final defeats. We all agree to rules that apply uniformly whether those we favor win or lose because this protects our right to fight another day and perhaps prevail the next time.
Not so the Republicans in Wisconsin. Having lost the governorship, they’re using a lame-duck session of the legislature to strip Evers of many powers they were perfectly content to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker exercise. Why are they doing this now? Because Walker, who was defeated by Evers, is still in office to sign their bills.
Among other things, the legislation would stop Evers from taking control of a state economic development agency that the Democrat has pledged to abolish, and it would make it harder for him to overturn restrictions Walker imposed on social benefits. It would also limit early voting (which helped the Democrats win by expanding turnout). For good measure, the legislature wants to prevent Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — even though that’s exactly what Kaul told voters he would do.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Republicans are shifting power to the state legislature because radically gerrymandered district boundaries helped the GOP maintain their majorities in the state Senate and Assembly despite the Democrats’ performance at the top of the ticket.
In rationalizing their move, Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, had the nerve to issue a statement declaring: “The legislature is the most representative branch in government.”
Well, no. The Democrats won the popular vote in State Assembly contests by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, but emerged with only 36 seats to the GOP’s 63.
Republican indifference to democratic norms is not confined to Wisconsin. Republicans in Michigan (which also replaced a Republican governor with a Democrat this year) are working on a similar effort.
One Michigan GOP target: incoming Democratic secretary of state Jocelyn Benson, who, like other Democratic secretaries of state this year, was elected on an ambitious reform agenda. This includes greater transparency when it comes to political money. Republicans don’t like this. So they introduced a bill to restrict her oversight of campaign finance issues.
Both states are borrowing from a playbook by North Carolina Republicans who moved to hamper Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper soon after he was elected in 2016. And as Michael Hobbes reported in The Huffington Post, GOP legislators are also trying to dilute progressive referendum victories in states such as Florida and Utah.
And, no, this is not about “polarization” in general. When Republicans won governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland in 2014 and Vermont in 2016, Democratic legislatures made no power-grabs like those Republicans are undertaking. Democrats chose to battle them in traditional ways — and to work with them, too.
The GOP’s anti-democratic impulse has far more in common with the old segregationist Democrats of the South than with the best Republican traditions that led to the rights-conferring 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. The party’s efforts to lock in power regardless of election outcomes also eerily echo some of the behaviors of anti-democratic politicians abroad.
At least a few anti-Trump Republicans are facing up to how extensively their party is undermining democracy’s golden rules. “I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t a key part of Republican strategy to try, in effect, to nullify election results,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol tweeted last week.
But most in the party are either complicit or silent. Is it any wonder, then, that most Republicans are also willing to go right along with Trump?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.