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Opinion: America's most important political battle

Frida GhitisFrida Ghitis
The battle is visible in skirmishes big and small across the country. Moments like when Rep. Liz Cheney and nine of her GOP colleagues voted to impeach Donald Trump in January, acknowledging his role in inciting the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Or when Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a conservative Republican, vetoed a bill that would have restricted how doctors can work with transgender patients. Or when Republicans in Georgia stood firm in rejecting Trump’s relentless pressure to overturn the election in their state.
Republicans are locked in battle about what kind of a party they will be: one that stands for conservative values and seeks to craft legislation in support of those ideals, or one that will continue drifting to the extremes, breathing life into lies that rile up the base while undercutting faith in the country’s democracy.
So far, it’s very clear which side is winning, and the potential consequences for the country are ominous.
A new poll from Reuters/Ipsos found that 60% of Republicans believe the Big Lie, the false claim that Trump won the election. And, nearly half of all Republicans believe the latest outgrowth from the Big Lie, the New Lie — Trump’s claim that instead of the deadly violence by his supporters on January 6, the day Congress was certifying Biden’s winning vote count, the rioters were “hugging and kissing” the cops in what was nothing but a peaceful protest. Unless it was violent, in which case it was the work of leftist agitators.
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It’s easy to become accustomed and blasé about this new reality. But we should stop to think about what it means: One of the two governing parties in the United States is controlled by people promoting the delegitimization of America’s duly elected president, people who are endorsing or refusing to rectify dangerous lies.
The phenomenon risks making political violence more acceptable. Although most Americans blame the former president for the deadly events at the Capitol, according to an ABC poll, a majority of Republicans think Trump did nothing wrong.
It wasn’t very long ago that the country had two reality-based, generally centrist parties. Democrats and Republicans, with different philosophies, debated the merits of their ideas, in search of a workable compromise.
But then, bit by bit, the GOP started veering in a different direction. By the time Trump became president, the maximalist, nativist, conspiracy-driven, scandal-manufacturing, hate-stoking wing was already ascendant, propelled by the engines of Fox News and other far-right provocateurs. Trump’s victory was the coup that toppled the old GOP and turned it into the extremist MAGA machine.
Many of Trump’s former critics, people like Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, who had all lambasted him in the past, now praise him with unselfconscious abandon.
The party’s unraveling will be described in unsparing detail in a memoir by the former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has been offering tantalizing glimpses.
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In an article in Politico, Boehner dissects the rise of the lunatic fringe, tracing it back to the start of Fox News and its quest for ratings. By 2010, he says, the new class of Republican lawmakers were beholden to Fox and had little interest in compromising. Ronald Reagan, he says, had said getting 80 or 90% of what you want is a victory. Now they wanted 100% or nothing. In fact, Boehner writes, by 2013 “they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.”
Notice, this is not about doing what’s good for the country. “The chaos caucus,” Boehner said, “had built up their own power base thanks to fawning right-wing media and outrage-driven fundraising cash.”
This is self-serving politics taken to the extreme, seeking not to legislate but to enrage and fundraise. Boehner names Sen. Ted Cruz in the Politico piece as “the head lunatic leading the way.”
But that was before Trump, who broke through every guardrail of decency, and took most of the party with him.
Every day the GOP sounds less committed to democracy — see the new voter-suppression laws in Georgia and elsewhere popping up. Every day, the leaders who once stood up for democracy and basic truth sound less interested in either.
And yet, the fight is not over. More than a few Republicans are still willing to speak out. This is not about Republicans deciding if they are conservative or moderate, it’s about deciding if the party will respect the truth, democracy, and some manner of principle other than what is good for Trump and those seeking favor with him.
We’ve seen flashes of courage from conservative Republicans, like Rep. Liz Cheney and moderate ones like Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger. And at the state level, we saw Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other Republican election officials hold firm despite Trump’s verbal slings and arrows.
Other political battles may seem more interesting, more urgent, maybe more entertaining. But when it comes to America’s future, this one matters most. American democracy will struggle to survive if one of its two parties turns its back on reality and stops believing in democracy.
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