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On the afternoon of January 6, the Republican Party brought its protest against Trump’s electoral defeat to the floor of the Senate in a final attempt to use the special weapons of legislators — long-winded and self-indulgent speechifying — to delay and disrupt the formal process of certifying the official election results.
This protest by Republican members of Congress was soon backed up by hundreds of Trump’s true believers who stormed the Capitol.
Today’s performance brought to mind an obscure phrase from our Anglo-American past that helps us make sense of what we are witnessing: “the loyal opposition.” The phrase seems both familiar and obscure, also a bit obsolete, but its history sheds light on our current crisis.
The past four years have forced our attention on two topics we normally take for granted: representative democracy and party politics. The reason for the first is obvious; why, therefore, the second?
First, President Trump has dedicated himself to attacking both the legitimacy of our electoral processes and the evidence that foreign powers have interfered with them. In the weeks after he was defeated in the national election, these fraudulent attacks culminated in charges that president-elect Biden’s victory was the result of widespread election fraud and in attempts to manipulate the vote of the Electoral College. Blithely playing the fraud game in this way exemplifies the narcissistic anti-logic that we all learned and outgrew in childhood but that has fueled Trump’s pathology of denial throughout his term in office: “I’m rubber and you’re glue, everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”
Second, Trump’s ludicrous challenges to state and federal election results continue to be thrown out by the courts. But his folly continues to demand our attention because it’s sponsored by the Republican Party. Looking back no further than late last month, 60% of House Republicans endorsed a Texas lawsuit’s effort to overturn the ballots of citizens who had voted against the president. Charged with subverting the Constitution, the Republican Texas attorney general used rubber-and-glue logic to assert that defending against threats to “citizens’ rights of suffrage in presidential elections upholds the Constitution.” He was joined by 17 other Republican state attorneys who supported House Republicans in their fraudulent allegation of election fraud. Early in January, 12 Republican senators vowed to reject President-Elect Biden’s election when it’s formally certified by Congress in three days’ time.
It’s important to stress the Republican sponsorship of Trump’s electoral behavior for two reasons. First, interference with democratic elections has been a Republican strategy for many years. Second, apologists currently attribute the continuing alignment of Republican leaders with the outrageous policies of the president to their fear of Trump’s vengeance. This explanation dates back to 2016, when Trump was elected and it proved useful to suggest that the Republican Party was taken aback by Trump’s opinions, their popularity, and the enormity of his “base.” But Trump is really a creature of his fellow Republicans. Take Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader staunchly sponsored Trump’s initial efforts to perpetrate election fraud and to sabotage the Electoral College. Earlier, in Trump’s impeachment trial, McConnell abetted the president’s obstruction of congressional authority. Still earlier, in 2016, McConnell refused to consider Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s nominee, as justice of the Supreme Court. Since well before Trump’s term of office, McConnell’s advocacy and agency have served to turn the president into a creature of his party, and that party is the true base of Trump’s opposition to representative government, as well as to income equality and racial justice.
Critics of Trump’s policies rightly call them antidemocratic. In a nation founded on democracy, these policies clearly attack first principles and are criminal. Yet the exorbitance of Trump’s policies has made even the charge of being antidemocratic sound abstract and formalistic. Moreover, Republicans have worked hard to stretch the application of executive privilege, executive orders, and executive immunity to criminal and civil cases so far as to challenge the democratic notion that no one is above the law. The result has been to thwart legal remedies for presidential crimes against democracy.
But policies backed by the Republican Party are also antidemocratic, and political parties are not immune to legal remedies. We’re reminded of this when we delve into our past and recall that the roots of our democracy are entangled in the origins of political parties. In the current crisis, the wretched status of “loyalty” is summed up by the fact that the blind demand for it is Trump’s only political precept. This is loyalty as anterior to reason, even to politics: loyalty as religious faith. Loyalty acquires a new-found freshness when we look back three centuries to the notion of the loyal opposition.
Before that notion arose, the language of political affiliation was that of not political parties but religious sects. Seventeenth-century English people were ruled by royal absolutism, which was authorized by church dominion. With the mid-century outbreak of England’s civil war, this rule was opposed and repudiated by Parliamentary forces, the reigning monarch, Charles I, was beheaded, and the first glimmerings of modern democratic theory were generated before royal rule was restored 20 years later. That theory would inspire the American revolution against British colonial rule in the middle of the following century. And for the rest of the 17th century, English people fiercely and sometimes violently debated whether absolutism in church and state was to be restored along with royalism.
These debates brought political parties and “party politics” into being. The Tories represented the royal interest while the Whigs opposed it. And at the turn of the 18th century, when, after three decades of conflict that fell short of armed battle, it became clear that the most recent successor to the throne, James II, was determined to revive the political and religious absolutism of his father, he was not beheaded but deposed. Monarchy persisted, but its authority and power were replaced by a slowly developing system of parliamentary democracy. Party politics and the contention of ideologies, influence, and interests had emerged as the alternative to civil war, which no one wished to repeat.
Carl von Clausewitz was soon to write: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Party politics, however contentious, were embraced by English people as the continuation of war by other means. In the 18th century, whichever party had lost the election was understood to exercise the role of a “loyal opposition” (the phrase itself came later), which meant that the party currently lacking the electoral authority to rule would not try to subvert the ruling government, because even in opposition it was part of the government. The nature and limits of loyalty were set by a commitment to this principle.
The democratic franchise didn’t exist in the 17th century and subversion of the government was understood only in military terms. Thereafter subversion has come to include the refusal to honor the will of the electorate, the subversion not only of physical power but also of the electoral mandate. (This is why in recent weeks we’ve been able to imagine a coup that didn’t necessarily involve a military takeover.) A corollary of the concept of the loyal opposition is the principle that political opposition in itself is no longer sedition or treason. But any opposition that amounts to the subversion of government is seditious and treasonable, whether it issues from the antidemocratic disloyalty of a party within government or from the military coercion of a foreign power.
In our current crisis, the Republican Party has abrogated its loyalty to the U.S. government. The party has reverted to a sectarianism defined by a religious faith, higher than politics and reason, that dictates seditious and treasonable action. The first signs of the Republican Party’s willingness to serve as the disloyal opposition can be dated to 2000: When the presidency was won through the party’s fraudulent interference with Florida’s election ballots; when President George W. Bush exploited outrage at 9/11 to foment the invasion of Iraq through lies about its supposed weapons of mass destruction; and when state terrorism waged the “War on Terror” on tens of thousands of foreigners, both those indiscriminatingly killed abroad and those victims of terror denied refuge here. The Republican “Tea Party” was a breeding ground for Trump’s followers, and anticipated his “fake news” and cult of ignorance. The very name “the Tea Party” twisted historical truth into grotesque “disinformation,” turning a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression into oppressive resistance to that resistance. Similarly, the evangelical Right has turned the 17th-century achievement of freedom from the religious absolutism of the state into freedom of religion from supposed state control. In the case of both Trump and the Republican Party, conspiracy theory is the secular equivalent of religious belief: faith explicitly validated by the absence of empirical evidence.
The losses in the 2010 midterm elections owed too much to Obama’s commitment to compromise with the Republicans, whose disdain for compromise is one hallmark of the party’s disloyalty. If the nation can be “healed” — an open question — it will not result from reaching across the aisle. In 18th-century Britain, the deposed monarch and then his son — “the old Pretender” and “the young Pretender” — raised armies in efforts to seize the throne by military force and were defeated on the field of battle. To be healed our national wound must be publicly identified as having been inflicted by our Republican pretenders, the party of disloyal opposition.
In truth, reaching across the aisle to Trump’s Republican base is analogous to healing our wound by appeasing his popular base and forbearing to prosecute the crimes of the president and his party. Instead, Trump’s two bases must countenance their defeat and be made to face what they stand for. This will require not making nice but straight talk — facts, evidence, and arguments — from the leaders of the Democratic Party, its rank and file, those who voted against Trump, and all right-thinking people, including those few Republicans who have demonstrated that they know what it means to be a member of the loyal opposition.
It’s not Biden’s job to educate the disloyal opposition or those who voted against him. But in performing the formidable labor of running this country he should expect no willing cooperation from the other party, and he should extend it and its members no easy exoneration. The job of education belongs to the rest of us. One part of it is the lesson that by betraying the electoral mandate, the Republican Party, in disloyal opposition, has betrayed the U.S. government. If we are to “heal our wound” and “move forward,” this must become our understanding.
Trying to placate Trump’s two bases misreads the meaning of the past four years. Obama’s election seemed to signal radical change. But his mild demeanor and moderate policies only enraged those he might have opposed more forcefully, and the resulting blowback has fueled Trump’s two bases. This rage must now be named and answered in the language of social justice and through the action of political change. This second chance may be our last one.
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Michael McKeon is a professor of literature at Rutgers University.