The Threat to Democracy Is Coming From Inside the US House

Ronald Brownstein/The Atlantic reader supported news

19 october 23

    Jim Jordan’s advance to the brink of the speakership extends the pattern that has played out within the GOP since Donald Trump became a national candidate.

    Representative Jim Jordan may or may not break down the last few Republican holdouts who blocked his election as House speaker yesterday. But the fact that about 90 percent of the House GOP conference voted to place him in the chamber’s top job marks an ominous milestone in the Republican Party’s reconfiguration since Donald Trump’s emergence as its central figure.

    The preponderant majority of House Republicans backing Jordan is attempting to elevate someone who not only defended former President Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election but participated in them more extensively than any other member of Congress, according to the bipartisan committee that investigated the January 6 insurrection. As former Republican Representative Liz Cheney, who was the vice chair of that committee, said earlier this month: “Jim Jordan knew more about what Donald Trump had planned for January 6 than any other member of the House of Representatives.”

    Jordan’s rise, like Trump’s own commanding lead in the 2024 GOP presidential race, provides more evidence that for the first time since the Civil War, the dominant faction in one of America’s two major parties is no longer committed to the principles of democracy as the U.S. has known them. That means the nation now faces the possibility of sustained threats to the tradition of free and fair elections, with Trump’s own antidemocratic tendencies not only tolerated but amplified by his allies across the party.

    Ian Bassin, the executive director of the bipartisan group Protect Democracy, told me that the American constitutional system “is not built to withstand” a demagogue capturing “an entire political party” and installing “his loyalists in key positions in the other branches of government.” That dynamic, he told me, “would likely mean our 247-year-old republic won’t live to celebrate 250.” And yet, he continued, “those developments are precisely what we’re witnessing play out before our eyes.”

    Sarah Longwell, the founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, told me that whether or not Jordan steamrolls the last holdouts, his strength in the race reflects the position inside the party of the forces allied with Trump. “Even if he doesn’t make it, because the majorities are so slim, you can’t argue that Jim Jordan doesn’t represent the median Republican today,” she told me.

    Longwell said House Republicans have sent an especially clear signal by predominantly rallying around Jordan, who actively enlisted in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, so soon after they exiled Cheney, who denounced them and then was soundly defeated in a GOP primary last year. “Nominating Jim Jordan to be speaker is not them acquiescing to antidemocratic forces; it is them fully embracing antidemocratic forces,” she said. “The contrast between Jim Jordan potentially ascending to speaker and Liz Cheney, who is out of the Republican Party and excommunicated, could not be a starker statement of what the party stands for.”

    In one sense, Jordan’s advance to the brink of the speakership only extends the pattern that has played out within the GOP since Trump became a national candidate in 2015. Each time the party has had an opportunity to distance itself from Trump, it has roared past the exit ramp and reaffirmed its commitment. At each moment of crisis for him, the handful of Republicans who condemned his behavior were swamped by his fervid supporters until resistance in the party crumbled.

    Even against that backdrop, the breadth of Republican support for Jordan as speaker is still a striking statement. As the January 6 committee’s final report showed, Jordan participated in virtually every element of Trump’s campaign to subvert the 2020 result. Jordan spoke at “Stop the Steal” rallies, spread baseless conspiracy theories through television appearances and social media, urged Trump not to concede, demanded congressional investigations into nonexistent election fraud, and participated in multiple White House strategy sessions on how to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to reject the results.

    Given that record, “‘undermining the election’ is too soft a language” to describe Jordan’s activities in 2020, Jena Griswold, Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, told me. “He was involved in every step to try to destroy American democracy and the peaceful transfer of the presidency.” If Jordan wins the position, she said, “you could no longer count on the speaker of the House to defend the United States Constitution.”

    Jordan didn’t stop his service to Trump once he left office. Since the GOP won control of the House last year, Jordan has used his role as chair of the House Judiciary Committee to launch investigations into each of the prosecutors who have indicted Trump on criminal charges (local district attorneys in Manhattan and Fulton County, Georgia, as well as federal Special Counsel Jack Smith). Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has described Jordan’s demand for information as an effort “to obstruct a Georgia criminal proceeding” that is “flagrantly at odds with the Constitution.”

    The willingness of most GOP House members to embrace Jordan as speaker, even as he offers such unconditional support to Trump, sends the same message about the party’s balance of power as the former president’s own dominant position in the 2024 Republican race. Though some Republican voters clearly remain resistant to nominating Trump again, his support in national surveys usually exceeds the total vote for all of his rivals combined.

    Equally telling is that rather than criticizing Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, almost all of his rivals have echoed his claim that the indictments he’s facing over his actions are unfair and politically motivated. In the same vein, hardly any of the Republican members resisting Jordan have even remotely suggested that his role in Trump’s attempts to subvert the election is a legitimate reason to oppose him. That silence from Jordan’s critics speaks loudly to the reluctance in all corners of the GOP to cross Trump.

    “If Jordan becomes speaker, it would really mean the complete and total takeover of the party by Trump,” former Republican Representative Charlie Dent, now the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s congressional program, told me. “Because he is the closest thing Trump has to a wingman in Congress.”

    All of this crystallizes the growing tendency at every level of the GOP, encompassing voters and activists as well as donors and elected officials, to normalize and whitewash Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. In an Economist/YouGov national poll earlier this year, fully three-fifths of Trump 2020 voters said those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were participating “in legitimate political discourse,” and only about one-fifth said they were part of a violent insurrection. Only about one-fifth of Trump 2020 voters thought he bore a significant share of responsibility for the January 6 attack; more than seven in 10 thought he carried little or no responsibility.

    That sentiment has solidified in the GOP partly because of a self-reinforcing cycle, Longwell believes. Because most Republican voters do not believe that Trump acted inappropriately after 2020, she said, candidates can’t win a primary by denouncing him, but because so few elected officials criticize his actions, “the more normal elements of the party become convinced it’s not an issue or it’s not worth objecting to.”

    The flip side is that for the minority of House Republicans in highly competitive districts—18 in seats that voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 and another 15 or so in districts that only narrowly preferred Trump—Jordan could be a heavy burden to carry as speaker. “Everyone is worried about their primary opponents, but in this case ameliorating the primary pressures by endorsing Jordan could spell political death in the general election in a competitive district,” Dent told me. Even so, 12 of the 18 House Republicans in districts that Biden carried voted for Jordan on his first ballot as a measure of their reluctance to challenge the party’s MAGA forces.

    The instinct for self-preservation among a handful of Republican members combined with ongoing resentment at the role of the far right in ousting Kevin McCarthy might be enough to keep Jordan just below the majority he needs for election as speaker; many Republicans expect him to fail again in a second vote scheduled for this morning. Yet even if Jordan falls short, it’s his ascent that captures the shift in the party’s balance of power toward Trump’s MAGA movement.

    Bassin, of Protect Democracy, points to a disturbing analogy for what is happening in the GOP as Trump surges and Jordan climbs. “When you look at the historical case studies to determine which countries survive autocratic challenges and which succumb to them,” Bassin told me, a key determinant is “whether the country’s mainstream parties unite with their traditional opponents to block the extremists from power.”

    Over the years, he said, that kind of alliance has mobilized against autocratic movements in countries including the Czech Republic, France, Finland, and, most recently, Poland, where the center-right joined with its opponents on the left to topple the antidemocratic Law and Justice party. The chilling counterexample, Bassin noted, is that during the period between World War I and World War II, “center-right parties in Germany and Italy chose a different course.” Rather than directly opposing the emerging fascist movements in each country, they opted “instead to try to ride the energy of [the] far-right extremists to power, thinking that once there, they could easily sideline [their] leaders.”

    That was, of course, a historic miscalculation that led to the destruction of democracy in each country. But, Bassin said, “right now, terrifyingly, the American Republican Party is following the German and Italian path.” The belligerent Jordan may face just enough personal and ideological opposition to stop him, but whether or not he becomes speaker, his rise captures the currents carrying the Trump-era GOP ever further from America’s democratic traditions.

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