The Republican Party was founded 165 years ago in Ripon, Wisconsin, by a few dozen dissidents who placed their faith in the radical promise of the United States Constitution: that the rule of law might apply equally to all. They rejected the compromises imposed by southern slaveholders and their northern allies, refusing to bend to the will of the presidents and partisans who were making the American experiment into a pale reflection of their infamy.
At its best over the ensuring decades, the Republican Party has maintained the high ideals of its founding. At its worst, the party has abandoned those ideals.
No serious observer of the party’s trajectory would suggest that the party is today at its best. When Wisconsin Republicans gathered in Oshkosh, barely 20 miles from Ripon, for last weekend’s annual party convention, the event confirmed the sad degeneration of a once-great party. The principles that once animated Republicans were tossed aside in favor of cult-of-personality politics, as media reports described a convention where “the party faithful gathered” to “gear up to defend President Donald Trump in his 2020 re-election bid.”
Seated in shiny stuffed chairs that made them look like presenters at a comic-book convention, Congressmen Sean Duffy, Glenn Grothman and Bryan Steil celebrated Trump and Trumpism. Duffy led the cheerleading, with a warning that the 2020 choice would be between the president and the prospect that the United States might soon emulate the chaotic circumstance of Venezuela. With all the theatricality that is to be expected from a showman who, like the president, found success on reality TV, Duffy fretted: “If we go by the way of Venezuela, there is no America to save us.”
Needless to say, there was scant discussion of the fact that the president Duffy and his compatriots were so ardently defending has created quite a bit of chaos here at home.
But not all Republicans are willing to surrender their party to Trump.
On the same weekend that Wisconsin’s Republicans were sacrificing their future on the altar of Trumpism, a Republican congressman from the neighboring state of Michigan was noting that the emperor and his attorney general have no clothes.
After reading the redacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller on wrongdoing by the president and his associates, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning conservative who has frequently broken with his party on constitutional issues, wrote:
“Here are my principal conclusions:
"1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.
"2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
"3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances.
"4. Few members of Congress have read the report.”
Amash then detailed his thinking with regard to the attempted whitewash by Attorney General William Barr and explained: “In comparing Barr’s principal conclusions, congressional testimony, and other statements to Mueller’s report, it is clear that Barr intended to mislead the public about special counsel Robert Mueller’s analysis and findings. Barr’s misrepresentations are significant but often subtle, frequently taking the form of sleight-of-hand qualifications or logical fallacies, which he hopes people will not notice.”
But the congressman from Michigan was not confused by Barr’s machinations.
In the best Republican tradition, he went to the heart of the matter, noting: “Under our Constitution, the president ‘shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ While ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ is not defined, the context implies conduct that violates the public trust.” And he explained: “Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment. In fact, Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.”
Democrats and Republicans tend to be cautious about impeachment, and Amash acknowledged this. But he said, “While impeachment should be undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, the risk we face in an environment of extreme partisanship is not that Congress will employ it as a remedy too often but rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter misconduct.”
Republicans in Wisconsin, and across the country, like to claim that they are "constitutional conservatives." For the most part, this is a convenient lie. But, for a rare few Republicans, the Constitution contains truths that remain self-evident. They recognize, as did the founders of the Republican Party, that they cannot be ignored.
It is not necessary to agree with Justin Amash on every issue to respect the sincerity of his observation: "Our system of checks and balances relies on each branch’s jealously guarding its powers and upholding its duties under our Constitution. When loyalty to a political party or to an individual trumps loyalty to the Constitution, the rule of law — the foundation of liberty — crumbles."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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