The party of Lincoln worshipped the rule of law. The party of Trump will dismantle it.



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In a solemn courtroom as yet another Jan. 6 defendant was sentenced to prison, Judge Royce Lamberth, a Ronald Reagan appointee, expressed his frustration at the lack of respect for the law exhibited by many of the insurrectionists: 

“The Court is accustomed to defendants who refuse to accept that they did anything wrong. But in my 37 years on the bench, I cannot recall a time when such meritless justifications of criminal activity have gone mainstream.”  

Judge Lamberth then issued a powerful rebuke to those attempting to rewrite the history of that fateful day, saying he was “shocked to watch some public figures try to rewrite history,” by “claiming rioters behaved ‘in an orderly fashion’ like ordinary tourists,” and “martyrizing convicted Jan. 6 defendants as ‘political prisoners’ or even, incredibly, ‘hostages.’” 

Calling the behavior “preposterous,” he warned: “The Court fears that such destructive, misguided rhetoric could presage further danger to our country.” 

Lamberth’s broadside took direct aim at Donald Trump and the leaders of the Republican Party. Trump has described the Jan. 6 rioters as having “love in their hearts.” 

Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), who helped to barricade a door to keep rioters out of a House chamber on Jan.6, has depicted those who breached the Capitol that day as being on a “normal tourist visit.”  

Former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has described the cowardice exhibited by several House Republicans who refused to indict Donald Trump during his second impeachment because they feared for their personal safety. Cheney cautions: “And that tells you something about where we are as a country, that members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes or feel they can’t, because of their own security.” 

Now, House Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) is doing Donald Trump’s bidding by refusing to put a compromise immigration bill on the House floor calling it “dead on arrival.”  

Sen. Tom Tillis (R-N.C.), a key Senate negotiator, told the truth about Trump’s refusal to let the bill come to a vote: “I didn’t come here to have the president as a boss or a candidate as boss. I came here to pass good, solid policy.” 

Never before has a major political party been so thoroughly dominated by its putative leader as the Republican Party has been by Donald Trump.  

Franklin D. Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried in 1938 to purge recalcitrant southern Dixiecrats who opposed his New Deal reforms from Congress.  

Ronald Reagan, another powerful president, faced resistance from liberal and moderate Republicans that caused disappointed conservatives to cry out, “Let Reagan be Reagan.” 

But Donald Trump leads his party much in the same way as the old party bosses once did. Sniping at his lone remaining rival for his party’s presidential nomination, Trump threatened Nikki Haley, saying: “I don’t get too angry. I get even.” 

With its rewrite of Jan. 6, and Republicans about to award their presidential nomination to a candidate indicted in four different jurisdictions and facing 91 felony counts, the Republican Party has abandoned its founding principle of respect for the law.  

In 1837, 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave a remarkable speech in Springfield, Ill. Lincoln worried about the turmoil already dividing the country and his generation’s ability to preserve the republic. In his address, Lincoln declared that reverence for the law should become “the political religion of the nation.”

“Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars,” he said. 

It is respect for the law that became the political religion of Lincoln’s Republican Party. Political scientist Harvey Mansfield once summarized the key distinction between Republicans and Democrats: “The Republicans stand for the rule of law, and the Democrats for the rule of the people,” and “the Democrats, because they stand for the rule of the people, believe that rule should be paramount, and the technicalities are subordinate to that will. Whereas Republicans believe in doing things properly or legally.” 

It was Republican insistence that procedures be followed and the rule of law respected that guided their arguments during the infamous Bush v. Gore contest of 2000. And it was Al Gore who, upon conceding the election, called upon his disappointed supporters to accept the Supreme Court’s ruling: “Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it.”  

Gore then offered his unconditional support to President-elect George W. Bush: “I will do everything possible to bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.” 

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution form an American compact that has bound our citizens together. The aspirations contained in the declaration, combined with respect for the rule of law that the Constitution requires, have combined to create the political religion that Abraham Lincoln so desired.  

But adherence to those religious principles has been upended by the Republican Party and its boss, Donald Trump. Still enraged by his loss to Joe Biden, Trump wrote in 2022: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” 

In his Springfield address, Lincoln warned, “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”  

Donald Trump’s breaking of the American compact, and the willingness of his party to go along, will surely be the death knell for the Republic. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America. His forthcoming book is titled “Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism.” He can be reached at johnkennethwhite.com.   

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