The Coming Moral Test for the Republican Base

[This piece will be appearing as an op/ed in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06) in late March, 2023.]

The Republican base is facing a major moral challenge. It recently faced a similar moral test, and failed it. There is a lot at stake for America in whether it does better this time.

That moral challenge can be stated in this way: Will the Republican base choose to support a Lie that is being wielded by Trump in his war against the Rule of Law.

  • The first time around, the Lie was that the election had been stolen from him.
  • In his new Big Lie, as with the previous one, Trump claims himself a victim. This time, he claims that the law’s investigating (and likely soon prosecuting) him is a politically-motivated attack on him by his enemies.

The truth in both cases could hardly be clearer.

  • The falsehood of the Lie about the Stolen election was proven abundantly by mountains of evidence. Never has the legitimacy of an American election been more completely established.
  • The evidence regarding Trump’s criminality is likewise overwhelming – even just what’s been publicly revealed. Some crimes were committed before our eyes. Some – like those investigated in Georgia – are clearly exposed by actual recordings.

In both instances, Trump’s Lies represent a serious assault on the Rule of Law.

  • Elections are at the foundation of America’s democracy, which dictates that “the will of the people” shall choose who will wield the power of the state.
  • Also fundamental to our American heritage is the idea that “No one is above the law.”

In both cases, Trump wields his Big Lies to rally his supporters to help him prevail over the American system, i.e.:

  • a system of elections by which the people made the choice to take the powers of the presidency away from Trump; and
  • a system of justice by which those who violate the law are to be held accountable.

In both cases, for the nation the stakes are high whether the Republican base believes Trump’s lies, and whether they would support the lawless man or the Rule of Law.

  • The belief by the great majority of Republicans in Trump’s Lie about the “Big Steal”  created the climate that enabled Trump to incite the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol (and on the constitutional process). The persistence of that belief has further undermined American democracy by leading millions of people to deny the legitimacy of the presidency that “the will of the people” had put in place.
  • With the new Big Lie, the stakes are just as high, as several jurisdictions look likely to hold the former President accountable for crimes: Will the Republican base —  buying the Lie that Trump is the victim, rather than a dangerous criminal – once again create the climate of rage that will lead to violence? And will a substantial portion of Americans lose faith in our basic systems (of justice, this time) because they see the legal process as Trump being persecuted by his enemies, rather than as the Rule of Law being upheld?

There is much to fear from the Republican base, but there is always  hope.

One can reasonably fear that the Republican base will again create the climate for another attack on that “domestic tranquility” mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution. (Perhaps groups—like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who attacked the Capitol. Perhaps “lone wolves” like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995?)

Clearly,  Trump is inviting violence: in recent days, he’s explicitly threatened “death and destruction,” and posted a picture of himself menacingly holding a baseball bat, juxtaposed with a picture of the District Attorney who may soon indict Trump.

Trump is repeating his previous pattern. But one may hope that this time the Republican base will make a different choice.

One can hope that they will move out of whatever frame of mind they were in before (that made it possible for self-described American “patriots” to support a man openly assaulting the American order he took an oath to protect and defend), and will instead this time awaken to a state of consciousness in which they will believe what the evidence shows to be true (not whatever Lie Trump, an extraordinarily prodigious liar, decides to feed them).

And what the evidence shows – so blatantly – is not only has Trump’s veritable crime spree justified his being prosecuted, but that the Rule of Law requires it more than any other prosecution in American history. (Requires it because 1) so much of the criminality is visible to the public, 2) some of the crimes (e.g. to overturn a presidential election) are so clearly as serious as crimes can be, and 3) Trump has so openly sought to intimidate the system of justice.)

The failure to prosecute this criminal would do profound damage to the basic ideal of the American order: that, as John Adams said, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.”

The challenge this poses to the Republican base is a moral one because:

  • between a Lawless man and the Rule of Law, it’s obvious what the right choice is; and
  • likewise between the truth and a Big Lie.

There’s a reason why Satan has traditionally been called “the Deceiver.”

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