Richard Nixon — who people are talking about a lot these days, for some reason — was a complicated man. As a politician, he played to win and bent the rules to the breaking point and arguably beyond, to the point of alleged treason in his 1968 campaign and turning to dirty tricks to win reelection in 1972, capped by a cover-up and a constitutional crisis. But even Nixon had his limits, and clung to some nagging respect for democratic norms.
In choosing to resign in August 1974 rather than fight an impeachment battle over his Watergate scandal to the bitter end, Nixon told the nation that “to leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first.” Even more notable was what happened 14 years earlier, when some Republican leaders pleaded with Nixon to demand a recount and contest his narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, suggesting that irregularities in Richard Daley’s corrupt Chicago and lost votes in one or two other states could change the outcome. But Nixon conceded the race and never publicly challenged the result, telling a journalist “our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.”
That simply wouldn’t have happened in 2018’s Republican Party, where Nixon probably would have been dismissed as a low-energy wuss. The take-no-prisoners approach to politics has been hardening for years — remember the “Brooks Brothers Riot” and some of the other shenanigans during the 2000 election, which actually did go to a recount? — but it reached its epitome in the arrival of Donald Trump. Schooled in the mobbed-up rumble-tumble of New York politics in the 1980s and especially by the McCarthyite attorney Roy Cohn, Trump learned to never concede one inch, to threaten to sue or actually sue anyone who criticized him or beat him out for a job, and — entering politics — to label every negative article against him as “fake news” and rampage against every slight, real or perceived.
Trump’s shamelessness — and his willingness as president to put the interest of “Trump” first, rather than America — has never been more brazen than the past week. The drama over the Nunes memo — a giant nothingburger that actually makes Team Trump look worse on the issue of alleged collusion with Russia’s 2016 election meddling, but which riles up the 37 Percent watching slanted coverage of it on Fox News — is not worth more than one sentence of my time or yours. But Trump’s willingness to fire or pressure anyone at the FBI or the Justice Department investigating that collusion or a growing cover-up, his unending attacks on journalists and other democratic institutions, and his demands of unwavering loyalty from Republicans in Congress needed to check these abuses, combine to pose a threat to American democracy that is without precedent. As the New York Times noted in an analysis on Sunday, “The president has engaged in a scorched-earth assault on the pillars of the criminal justice system in a way that no other occupant of the White House has done.”
But attacking the pillars of U.S. government is a slippery slope. When the president of the United States goes after our basic institutions and gets away with it, it inspires others — and now that political cancer is spreading to our home state of Pennsylvania. The issue here is what Republicans are willing to do to cling to the political power that’s exercised through their control of the Legislature in Harrisburg and their current dominance in the congressional delegation in Washington — amid voting trends that have been mixed but trending Democratic for statewide offices such as governor, other row offices, and top judicial races.
We got a taste of how far Republicans were willing to go in 2012 when lawmakers and then-Gov. Tom Corbett tried to enact a voter-ID law that could have made it harder for non-whites and other groups that lean Democratic to cast ballots and that rising GOP Rep. Mike Turzai, who now is speaker of the house, admitted was crafted to help then-nominee Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania. (He didn’t, and the law was largely struck down.)
But in legislative races, Pennsylvania Republicans still had their ace in the hole: gerrymandering. The map drawn by lawmakers in 2011-12 with Corbett’s approval has been described as one of the most warped district maps in America, creating Rorschach test absurdities like the Seventh Congressional District in Delaware County and far beyond, and making the state’s delegation in the U.S. House — 13 Republicans, five Democrats — slanted far more to the GOP than what one might expect from statewide voting patterns. Activists eventually filed suit, arguing the congressional gerrymander is so extreme and so partisan that it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. Last month, the state Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, agreed and gave lawmakers a tight schedule to redraw the map ahead of the May primary.
That’s when Pennsylvania Republicans found their Inner Trump.
Last week, Pennsylvania State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati stated that he simply won’t comply with a related order from the state’s highest court to turn over voter data related to congressional districts, claiming that the court lacks jurisdiction and thus triggering our own constitutional crisis right here in the Keystone State, to run in tandem with the bigger ones that Trump is provoking in Washington.
But that’s not all: At the very moment that the president and his allies were publicly attacking the ethics of the FBI and Justice Department in the nation’s capital, local Republicans were inspired to go after the integrity of the elected justices who dared rule against them. Pennsylvania’s GOP leaders are now pushing to remove one of the justices, David Wecht, because of comments he’d made in 2015 that didn’t address this specific case but did criticize gerrymandering. There’s talk Republicans may move against a second justice who voted for the new map.
It’s a scorched-earth policy — does that phrase sound familiar? — intended to undermine and ignore an entire branch of government rather than comply with the rule of law. Somewhere down there, Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn are looking up and smiling. All of this is cascading toward the U.S. Supreme Court, which — at the urging of Republican bigwigs from around the country — is weighing the unprecedented move of stepping in and overruling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on its interpretation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. That would allow new justice Neil Gorsuch, who only reached the bench because Republicans defied all democratic norms and precedents — stop me if you see a pattern here — to flex his judicial muscles in a case eagerly watched by Republicans who engineered the Gorsuch coup.
Meanwhile, a host of overwhelmingly Republican states like Kansas, Texas and Utah are supporting the Pennsylvania GOP’s case at the U.S. Supreme Court with legal briefs — which reveals the panic in Republican circles that what’s happening here will expose and ruin the secret sauce behind conservative dominance of American politics in recent years. I don’t know about you, but I resent someone from Kansas trying to tell me who I can, or can’t, vote for here in the state where I live. But the guy from Kansas doesn’t care about that principle. He just wants to win.
And that’s where we’re at these days. The conservative movement has already pushed democracy to the brink with voter ID, gerrymandering and other tactics intended to keep citizens from voting and limit the true impact of the votes that actually are cast. And now that this house of cards is in danger of toppling, we are seeing an autocratic-style war waged on the integrity of a key branch of government. That this is happening in Pennsylvania is just one more sign of the ways that Trumpism and creeping authoritarianism corrode American values. People who care about democracy and the rule of law should fight to keep this madness from infecting our own state.