Last week, President Trump’s White House took a significant but little noticed action. “At meetings with top officials for various government departments this spring, Uttam Dhillon, a White House lawyer, told agencies not to cooperate with [any oversight] requests from Democrats,” reported Politico. This is the formalization of an ongoing practice of sidelining such requests—which were often responded to in previous administrations—amid Republican fear that any evidence could be used against the president. As Politico reports “oversight letters requesting information from agencies have gone unanswered since January.”
What’s more, the White House Office of Legal Counsel holds that no minority lawmaker—including ranking members of a given committee—can be granted information without the approval of the chairperson. As long as Republicans hold both chambers of Congress, in other words, they can lock Democrats out of any meaningful oversight authority. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, calls this “the latest in a series of abuses by the Trump administration to operate in a shroud of secrecy,” a move that overturns long-standing norms and practices raising the standard for congressional inquiry to an almost unreachable high. Yes, previous administrations, Democrat and Republican, have ignored or slow-walked oversight requests from opposition lawmakers. But this blanket rejection is a major escalation of partisan combat in governance, an outright statement that Democrats have no prerogatives a Republican administration is bound to even acknowledge.
“It’s an attack on democracy. Members of Congress represent the people, and refusal to provide them with the information they want or need as a matter of policy is saying that we’re going to shut down half of Congress,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York told Slate. “To systematically say ‘we’re not going to give people the time of day’ to half the members of Congress just because they’re the wrong political party, that’s smacking the American people in the nose. It’s saying ‘how dare you elect Democrats; we don’t approve of what you did.’ ”
More broadly, White House rejection of opposition oversight is in keeping with actions from congressional Republicans, as well as Republicans at the state level. America’s two-party democracy only works if both sides see each other as legitimate actors with the right to wield power should they win it. The Democratic Party, as evidenced by the rapid and normal transfer of power from President Obama to President Trump, still holds that principle. But increasingly, it seems the GOP does not.
From Congress and the White House to the state and local level, Republicans have embraced a style of politics that treats opponents as presumptively illegitimate, using all and any means to hinder their ability to govern. On the other side, when Republicans hold power, a growing number reject constraints on their ability to act, attacking inconvenient norms and tilting the playing field in their favor. With the modern Republican Party, we’ve moved from ordinary partisan competition—even partisan hardball—to something ominous and illiberal.
The political roots of this extend back to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” and found a modern expression in the 1994 “Republican revolution” and the often-extreme response to the presidency of Bill Clinton. But the previous apotheosis of this politics was in the reaction to Barack Obama. Yes, opposition parties oppose, and there’s no crime in maximizing one’s advantage or leverage over an opponent. And many of the moves and tactics in question had been used before, albeit rarely, by Democrats. What makes Republican behavior under Obama noteworthy, however, was the unprecedented intensity, ferocity, and uniformity.
From the outset, Republican lawmakers formed an almost undivided front against the Obama administration. After 2011, when Republicans gained a House majority, they began a strategy of legislative brinkmanship—“hostage taking”—threatening catastrophic outcomes to extract extreme concessions from Obama. The underlying premise was always clear: Obama was not a legitimate president, and if he would not voluntarily bend to conservatives’ will, they would force him to do so.
Equally disturbing was the drive toward a kind of nullification, blocking qualified nominees—even after acknowledging their competence and integrity—to prevent implementation of duly signed laws. Republicans filibustered nominees for both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, not out of any dispute with the nominees, but because they opposed the agencies themselves. The problem is obvious: Lawmakers are obligated to carry out laws. It is one thing to condemn a law or run against it; it’s something different—and novel—to attempt to sabotage it for ideological and partisan gain.
Most significant was the “blockade” of the Supreme Court seat left by the late Antonin Scalia. For more than a year, Republicans refused to accept or hear then-President Obama’s nominee for the court, Merrick Garland.
Any Republican who voted for Garland risked a massive backlash from a conservative base who saw the Supreme Court fight in stark, almost apocalyptic terms. There would be no hearing and no vote. Led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans ignored the president’s nomination, essentially treating it as illegitimate.
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, this may have continued. “[I]f Hillary Clinton becomes president, I am going to do everything I can do to make sure four years from now, we still got an opening on the Supreme Court,” said North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr just before the election. Of course, that didn’t happen. Trump was elected president, and Republicans quickly cleared the way for his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, killing the judicial filibuster to preclude Democratic opposition.
This unbending strategy of obstruction, demonization, and near-nullification was echoed in the party’s overall rhetoric toward Obama. Both Republican politicians and right-wing media routinely cast Obama as a fundamental threat to American democracy. He was “destroying our economic system as we currently know it”; his economic plan was “Stalin without the bloodshed”; he was driving the nation “off the cliff to oblivion”; he was even “enslaving” the nation’s children. When Donald Trump emerged to cast doubt on his origins and birthplace—questioning his legitimacy with racist innuendo—Republicans normalized the charge, with a number of candidates expressing their doubts during the 2010 midterm elections.
Obama was the focal point for attacks on the legitimacy of Democratic governance for the simple reason that he was president—although one can’t discount the significance of racial backlash either. But this goes beyond him.
Since 2010, and exploding after 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans across the country have embarked on a comprehensive project of gerrymandering and aggressive voter suppression, slashing access and raising new barriers to voting. They’ve been neither shy nor demure about their aims. “Now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID will make quite a difference as well,” said Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman on the eve of the 2016 election, when asked about Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the state. (Trump won.) Four years earlier, in Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers bragged that a new strict identification law would deliver the state for Mitt Romney. (He lost there, but four years later Trump won.) Republicans in states like Florida and North Carolina, likewise, have openly said that their voter ID laws are meant to smooth the path for GOP candidates. The North Carolina law was especially egregious, an effort that targeted black voters with “surgical precision,” according to a federal court.
In addition to voter suppression, North Carolina also saw an effort to all but nullify the results of an election, full stop. Following the surprise victory of Democrat Roy Cooper in the race for governor, the Republican-led legislature held an emergency session where it stripped the office of much of its authority, just a few years after those same Republicans expanded its power and influence under a GOP governor. Republicans eliminated executive appointments, removed the governor’s power to appoint trustees to the university system and the state board of education, and “reformed” state election boards to protect Republican efforts to restrict the vote.
One can read these measures as crude attempts to win partisan advantage—hardball political tactics taken too far. But they cannot be viewed outside the long history of efforts to curtail voting among black Americans and other more marginal groups. These are also in line with a long strain in American thought that has cast suspicion on the political claims of women and nonwhites, groups held as “dependent” and thus unsuited to self-governance.
The founders of the country were preoccupied with what they called “republican virtue.” In their view, a democratic society couldn’t function without a virtuous citizenry, with virtue defined by one’s economic independence. Landowners and self-sufficient farmers were imbued with the qualities for “republican” self-governance. Women, enslaved people, and anyone without an obvious stake in society—like immigrants and industrial workers—were not.
For as much as we have expanded our notions of citizenship—of who counts and who can govern—those ideas are still embedded in our political culture. They found expression after the Civil War, when opponents of black voting rights argued that the experience of slavery rendered black Americans unable to participate in the process of self-government. They found expression at the beginning of the 20th century, when a new Ku Klux Klan established itself on a white supremacy and patriarchy informed by that republican tradition and its suspicion of the dependent and propertyless. We even see it now, albeit in less extreme form; Romney’s “47 percent” and Paul Ryan’s “makers and takers” remarks during the 2012 campaign both reflected the belief that there’s something illegitimate in the claims of people who rely on explicit aid from the state.
Supercharging these strains of thought are the homogenous demographics of the Republican Party itself. It is the political home of the large majority of white Americans, especially in the South, where it dominates. In turn, it has absorbed that region’s legacy of reaction, including a radical theory of democracy—articulated by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun—that placed sovereignty in political minorities, and which sanctioned nullification as the proper response to governments that overstep their bounds or infringe on the “liberty” of the powerful to exert force for the powerless.
Whether or not Republican politicians articulate these views and ideas, it’s clear that their actions are informed by them. It takes few conceptual leaps to move from classical republican thought to the idea that, because of their membership, some political parties are more legitimate than others; to move from Calhoun to the reactionary ethos that demands the restoration of an imagined America under an idealized Constitution.
In the Trump era, the drive to delegitimize opponents has only grown stronger, driven in large part by the president himself. In his short tenure as chief executive, Trump has attacked federal judges for challenging his “travel ban”; portrayed protesters as tools of shadowy conspirators; and continued his crusade against the news media, denouncing it as “fake” and even calling it “the enemy of the people.” Far from defending journalists, more ordinary Republicans have joined in, taking a blind eye to attacks on reporters—sometimes literally—even building political strategy around anti-journalist sentiment, stoking and embracing anti-media sentiment to “show Republicans voters that they, just like the president, are battling a biased press corps out to destroy them.”
In their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote that “the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier— ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That was published in 2012. Since then, the GOP has gotten worse. The Republican Party is even more scornful of its opposition, and even less willing to concede their legitimacy. It is even more contemptuous of shared governance—crafting vast, consequential legislation in complete secrecy—and increasingly hostile to those who vote and march against it. None of this is to say the Democratic Party is faultless. But its problems—most prominently its myopia, muddled message, and hidebound thinking—are typical. They’re normal. The GOP doesn’t have problems, it has pathologies. And they are not normal.