What Has Become of the Republican Party?

GUEST WORDS-Do you remember when the Republican Party was led by staunchly anti-communist Cold Warriors such as Ronald Reagan, issuing dark warnings that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire” posing an existential threat to America’s freedoms and way of life?

Remember Reagan’s exhortations to Russian President Gorbachev to “Tear Down that Wall!” Remember when it was the party of fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets and conservative democratic principles? 

That Republican Party no longer exists. The new Republican Party is now a pro-Russian party that, under the unchallenged leadership of leading Russia apologist Donald J. Trump, continues to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that it was Russia that launched the hugely successful cyberattack and disinformation campaign on our American democracy during the 2016 election. 

In her dramatic testimony, Fiona Hill, the distinguished former National Security Council official, warned that the fictional narrative and conspiracy theory being supported by Republican members of Congress –  that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election – was consistent with Russian disinformation talking points and was distracting from the very real threat that Russia poses to America’s democracy.

As long as Trump is in the White House, it is a virtual certainty that Republican members of Congress will continue to live in fear of expressing concern over the White House’s extortion campaign of the Ukraine Administration. Republicans continue to take the short-term, myopic view that their own political survival is more important than a principled vote in support of the simple premise that a sitting president is prohibited from seeking foreign assistance for his re-election campaign while holding up critical military aide to an important ally.  

Russia’s successful attempt to co-opt the Republican Party closely parallels its broad campaign to compromise right wing populist politicians in Europe with offers of cooperation, loans, propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Anti-European Union candidates and parties in Austria, Italy, Holland, France and Germany have received either overt or clandestine backing from Russia over the past several years, and a recent suppressed report on the Brexit vote found that it is highly likely that Russian money played a significant role in the successful pro-Brexit campaign to withdraw the U.K. from the European Union. 

These far-right European parties – like Trump and now apparently the entire Republican Party – have embraced Putin as the exemplar of the patriotic, nationalistic strongman who is dedicated to national traditions and realpolitik, rather than the internationalism and democratic institutions that have long characterized Western liberalism. Also like the new Republican Party, these right wing, nationalist parties tend to be virulently anti-immigration, xenophobic, racist, and deeply suspicious of genuine democratic institutions, an independent judiciary or a free press that may challenge the unbridled exercise of executive power. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and his Fidesz Party are prime examples of how democratic institutions can be gradually eroded over a period of years, to the point where the country can be considered as more an “illiberal” semi-authoritarian state than a truly democratic one. Orban took over as Prime Minister in 2010, and in only nine years was able to transform the country into an authoritarian regime more aligned with Russia than its other partners in the European Union. Can Trump and the Republican Party do the same if Trump is re-elected in 2020?       

Only time will tell whether America will further drift right towards anti-democratic authoritarianism. Indeed, the more likely scenario is that America will do what France did when faced with a choice between a Kremlin-loving right-wing candidate like Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party, or the strongly pro-democratic and centrist candidacy of now-President Emmanuel Macron. With its deep democratic traditions, France overwhelmingly rejected the pro-Russian and anti-European message of Le Pen. Similarly, I think it likely that the majority of American voters will ultimately reject the best effort of Trump and his co-opted Republican Party to paint Russia as a benign force that has been unfairly blamed for the 2016 election interference, and to portray Ukraine as a corrupt, unreliable ally. 

If the Republican Party does not re-embrace its bedrock core principles, if it does not come to its senses and recognize that Russia is now (and always has been) a major adversary of the U.S. and the greatest threat to NATO and our European allies, then it runs the risk of not only seriously damaging America’s national security, but also of facing political disaster in the 2020 elections. It can no longer call itself the Party of Lincoln, or even the party of Eisenhower, Reagan or Bush. 

Unless Republicans right their own ship, it is destined to become a permanent minority party that has drifted far from the mainstream of American democratic principles, or just a footnote in American history like the Whig Party. 

(Kenneth Foard McCallion is a former federal prosecutor and human rights attorney who has represented numerous Ukrainian and other European clients, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine.  He is the author of “Treason & Betrayal: The Rise and Fall of Individual-1.”)