As the media continues to track the presidential election like a horse race, more Republicans seem to be crossing the aisle to support Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Meanwhile, other Republicans are trying to deter the electoral voting process.
President Donald Trump has been unlike any predecessor. Between campaigning to build a wall and saying “it is what it is” about the high count of US COVID-19 deaths, the president and his administration capitalize on the division running through the country.
But how will that all change when Trump leaves office, whether it be in January or four years? How will the Republican Party change?
In conversation with Terry M. Moe, professor at Stanford University and co-author of the recently published book Presidents, Populists, and the Crisis of Democracy, The Globe Post discusses what is needed to guide not just the Republican Party forward, but the American government as well.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Globe Post: Do you think President Trump has set a precedent in regards to lying to the American people and disregarding news and facts?
Moe: Basically no, I think that Trump is an outlier as a president and I think that Democratic presidents will continue to behave in accordance with what we have come to consider the norms structuring the historical presidency.
Republicans are a different matter. I think that the Republican Party has been transformed by Donald Trump. I think that his populist base drives many politicians and extreme ideology drives many of its politicians. They now have a tradition of demonization and bomb-throwing and a very loose connection to the truth, which makes them dangerous.
I don’t say that out of my own ideology. I think that this is simply true. I think that the Republican Party has become an anti-system party, and the people who lead it now have strong incentives to behave in an anti-system way.
The fact is that we have a democratic system and so they are driven to attack our institutions, attack the media, attack the courts, and demonize the other side, and to do everything they can to ensure their own hold on power.
It wasn’t always this way but it evolved this way within the Republican Party and with Trump. He has basically completed the transformation, and now I think the Republican Party is dangerous to our democracy.
The Globe Post: Do you think that the Republican Party could go back to what it was before the election of Donald Trump and before the politicians we have now were elected?
Moe: I think these kinds of reversals are difficult. You basically have a Republican Party now that’s populated at the elite level by ideological extremists and populists and they’re still going to be there after this election. The people who vote in Republican primaries support those kinds of values. This transformation, which was completed by Trump, didn’t happen overnight.
It goes back to Newt Gingrich around 1990 or so, 30 years ago. Now what would have to happen is a Republican Party that sees its own political prospects be threatened by all the demographic advantages that the Democrats have going forward.
As the older supporters of Republicans die off, they’re replaced by younger voters who are more liberal and more cosmopolitan and as increasing numbers of minorities become voters. This is a shift that has been increasingly reducing the prominence of less educated, white voters in the country which are the base of the Republican Party. Year after year that base gets smaller and smaller.
As Republicans look at that, and especially if they lose this coming election, some people in the Republican Party are gonna say “hey, we need to become more moderate,” “we need to go to the center,” and “we need to attract more Hispanic voters.”
There were people saying that in 2012 and it didn’t happen; the opposite happened. The party is populated by people who believe in those opposites. Hard-edged, anti-democratic, highly ideological approach and even if they lose this upcoming election, I think it’s gonna take a lot and a number of defeats in a row for them to wake up and potentially change the party.
The Globe Post: Where do you think these extreme views and policies within the Republican Party come from?
Moe: There are wings to the Republican Party, there’s the sort of a traditional free-market wing and there’s a socially conservative wing which makes the Republican Party the white party. I know it appeals especially to less-educated whites who feel they’re being marginalized in our society, but then there are all the free market types in the Republican Party, sort of the Paul Ryan wing.
Those people have traditionally led the Republican Party. Social conservatives felt that they weren’t getting their “piece of the pie” from Republicans. Now they’re in the driver’s seat to a large extent but it’s still a coalition between these two sides.
Really they’re both important parts of the party, but as you can see, we have a populist demagogue as president — the leader of the Republican Party — who has got the more established, traditional Republicans running scared and he’s doing everything he can to push them out of the party.
The Globe Post: Do you think that the Republican Party will be able to rebuild the trust between the party and Americans after Trump?
Moe: Well, politics is so polarized and there’s some percentage of the population that is perfectly happy with the Republican Party the way it is. So the question is: can they win over the trust of more people over time?
I think that depends upon how the party adjusts going forward. If they win the election, they’re not going to change their approach. They’re going to think that this is a winning formula. I think that would wipe the legs out from under American democracy.
Trump is an autocrat. He is constrained by the separation of power, but our system is much weaker than most people think. He is doing everything he can to control the government and to attack our institutions and to give us a democracy in name only.
If he wins another four-year term, this country is in very, very serious trouble. And also, the Republicans are trying to change the electoral world through voter ID laws and changes in the registration roles. They’re trying to push minorities and disadvantaged peoples off by making sure that ex-felons never get the chance to vote — anything that you can think of that reduces turnout, which is likely to reduce turnout among minorities and Democratic voters disproportionately.
They’ve become an anti-democratic party and they’re doing everything they can to change the rules so that they can keep winning. And they will continue to do that in the next four years and if they win we’ll see a lot more of that.
The Globe Post: You mentioned the idea of the political system being weaker than most people think. In what ways is this true?
Moe: It takes a simple question, like when you have a rogue president that seems to be doing things that are illegal or counter to the constitution, what is the check on his power? The main check on his power is Congress. How good of a job has Congress done checking Trump? It’s done a terrible job. Why? Because the Republicans in Congress refused to check him.
They circled the wagons and protected him. This is very tribal, very polarizing and it doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter how offensive it is or how dangerous it is to democracy. They protect him. When Democrats gained control over the House in 2018, they tried to [check him] but there was a Republican Senate.
Furthermore, when the Democrats tried to investigate the Trump administration and Donald Trump himself, when they tried to get his tax returns and all the rest, Trump simply refused to allow anyone in the executive branch to testify and refused to allow anyone in the executive branch to provide documents.
When the Democrats took him to court, all that happened was that the court system did its thing and delayed everything. So, here we are almost at the end of 2020 and all of these efforts on the part of Democrats in the House have fallen flat because they couldn’t do anything right. The court system has not yet [been able to check him]. Congress has been unable to check him. This is a system that does not work.
The Globe Post: How can we make this system work for the American people?
Moe: That’s a serious issue. I think this is a system that doesn’t work. William Howell and I have a book from 2016 called Relic, and it is about living with a constitution that’s 235 years old. It was designed for 1787, not for 2020.
We live in a modern society with serious modern problems and we have a government that was designed for four million people, almost all of whom were farmers.
So, we have a government that wasn’t designed for modern times, and it’s made all worse by polarization. You have a system of checks and balances, you need to have bipartisan majorities where people can cross party lines and draft legislation for the nation that actually tries to address serious problems.
But we don’t have that. All we have is gridlock and partisan animosity and tribalism. There aren’t any easy solutions within this system. I think that what we have to hope for is that Democrats win, not because I’m a big supporter of Democrats but because Trump is enabled by Republicans and they are completely fine with protecting an autocrat.
So what we need is for the Democrats to win and take control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate and do their best to adopt programs and institutional reforms that will allow us to have a more effective government that can really address the problems of the country and reduce the kind of anti-system anger that the people voting on the Trump side feel.