The responsibility of Republican voters

Editorial, New York Times, January 15, 2024.

Republicans who will gather to cast the first votes of the 2024 presidential primary season have one essential responsibility: to nominate a candidate who is fit to serve as president, one who will “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Donald Trump, who has proved himself unwilling to do so, is manifestly unworthy. He is facing criminal trials for his conduct as a candidate in 2016, as president and as a former president. In this, his third presidential bid, he has intensified his multiyear campaign to undermine the rule of law and the democratic process. He has said that if elected, he will behave like a dictator on “Day 1” and that he will direct the Justice Department to investigate his political rivals and his critics in the media, declaring that the greatest dangers to the nation come “not from abroad but from within.”

Mr. Trump has a clear path to the nomination; no polling to date suggests he is anything but the front-runner. Yet Republicans in these states still have their ballots to cast. At this critical moment, it is imperative to remind voters that they still have the opportunity to nominate a different standard-bearer for the Republican Party, and all Americans should hope that they do so. This is not a partisan concern. It is good for the country when both major parties have qualified presidential candidates to put forward their competing views on the role of government in American society. Voters deserve such a choice in 2024.

Mr. Trump’s construction of a cult of personality in which loyalty is the only real requirement has badly damaged the Republican Party and the health of American democracy. During the fight over the leadership of the House of Representatives in the fall, for example, Mr. Trump torpedoed the candidacy of Tom Emmer, a lawmaker who voted to certify the 2020 election results, to ensure the ascendancy of Mike Johnson, a loyalist who was an architect of the attempt to overturn that election. (Mr. Emmer has since endorsed Mr. Trump.) But some Republicans have set an example of integrity, demonstrating the courage to put their convictions and conservative principles above loyalty to Mr. Trump. Examples include people whom he once counted as allies, like former Attorney General Bill Barr, former Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

Voters may agree with the former president’s plans for further tax cuts, restrictions on abortions or strict limits on immigration. That’s politics, and the divisions among Americans over these issues will persist regardless of the outcome of this election. But electing Mr. Trump to four more years in the White House is a unique danger. Because what remains, what still binds Americans together as a nation, is the commitment to a process, a constitutional system for making decisions and moving forward even when Americans do not agree about the destination. That system guarantees the freedoms Americans enjoy, the foundation of the nation’s prosperity and of its security.

Mr. Trump’s record of contempt for the Constitution — and his willingness to corrupt people, systems and processes to his advantage — puts all of it at risk.

Upholding the Constitution means accepting the results of elections. Unsuccessful presidential candidates have shouldered the burden of conceding because the integrity of the process is ultimately more important than the identity of the president. “The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system,” George H.W. Bush, the last president before Mr. Trump to lose a bid for re-election, said on the night of his defeat in 1992. When Mr. Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, he sought to retain power by fomenting a violent insurrection against the government of the United States.

It also means accepting that the power of the victors is limited. When the Supreme Court delivered a sharp setback to President George W. Bush in 2008, ruling that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantánamo Bay had the right to challenge their detention in federal court, the Bush administration accepted the ruling. Senator John McCain, then the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, said he disagreed with the court, “but it is a decision the Supreme Court has made, and now we need to move forward.”

By contrast, as president, Mr. Trump repeatedly attacked the integrity of other government officials — including members of Congress, Federal Reserve governors, public health authorities and federal judges — and disregarded their authority. When the court ruled that the Trump administration could not add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, for example, Mr. Trump announced that he intended to ignore the court’s ruling. After leaving the White House, Mr. Trump refused repeated demands, including a grand jury subpoena, to return classified materials to the government. As the government investigated, he called on Congress to defund the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice “until they come to their senses.”

Voters inclined to support Mr. Trump as an instrument of certain policy goals might learn from his presidency that changes achieved by lawless machinations can prove ephemeral. Federal courts overturned his effort to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities. Campaign promises to roll back environmental regulations also came to naught: Courts repeatedly chastised the Trump administration for failing to follow regulatory procedures or to provide adequate justifications for its decisions. His ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, announced on Twitter in 2017, was challenged in court and reversed on the sixth day of the Biden administration.

In 2016, Mr. Trump appealed to many caucus and primary voters as an alternative to the Republican establishment. He campaigned on a platform that challenged the party’s orthodoxies, including promises to provide support for domestic manufacturing and pursue a foreign policy much more narrowly defined by self-interest.

Voters who favor Mr. Trump’s prescriptions now have other options. The Republican Party of 2024 has been reshaped by the former president’s populism. While there are some meaningful differences among the other Republican candidates — on foreign policy, in particular — for the most part, Mr. Trump’s “America First” agenda has become the new orthodoxy.

Mr. Trump is now distinguished from the rest of the Republican candidates primarily by his contempt for the rule of law. The sooner he is rejected, the sooner the Republican Party can return to the difficult but necessary task of working within the system to achieve its goals.

 Image Credits: Illustration by Rebecca Chew-The New York Times