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Gene Lyons: It’s not only conservatism at risk. It’s democracy

August 1, 2018

How long will it be, do you suppose, before the initial “R” signifying “Republican” is also understood to mean “Russian”?

Let’s assume that special counsel Robert Mueller produces strong evidence that shady GOP campaign officials such as, say, Paul Manafort, conspired with Russian operatives. What would it take for your Trump-loving brother-in-law to transition from “Witch hunt!” to “Thank God Putin saved us from Hillary Clinton”?

Three days? A week?

And what if FBI counterintelligence investigators probing the National Rifle Association end up proving that it laundered millions in illegal cash from a Russian oligarch and diverted it to Trump’s campaign? Would NRA members abandon the organization or take up the manly tradition of Cossack dancing?

Third question: Should the Trump cult seize complete control of the Republican Party, would that be good for the GOP, or not?

Writing in The Atlantic last January, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum put it this way: “Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

The way I see it, many already have. A substantial number of Trump supporters have taken on many of the characteristics of an authoritarian political cult. You could see it in their reactions to their hero’s incoherent performance at the Helsinki summit -- first cowering in the face of Vladimir Putin’s arrogant denials of Kremlin dirty work during the 2016 election, next reading a painfully unconvincing staff-written walk-back of his own remarks, and then walking back the walk-back while crying “Witch hunt!”

Three days, three mutually incompatible positions.

Republican politicians previously reluctant to criticize the president were appalled. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former CIA agent, wrote a New York Times column expressing his astonishment that “the leader of the free world actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial and weakened the credibility of the United States.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, told NPR he was “frankly sickened by the exchange” between Putin and Trump. Indeed, the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that strong majorities agree. Fully 65 percent of voters now believe that the Russian government, as Mueller’s recent indictment charges, interfered in the 2016 election. Forty-one percent think it probably changed the outcome. That’s up considerably from a year ago.

Then there’s the Trump cult. According to a CBS News poll, 68 percent of Republicans believe Trump did a dandy job in Helsinki. Other surveys have shown that as many as 79 percent of GOP voters agree. You do have to wonder what these people are drinking.

Stolichnaya, I’m guessing.

“Deep state!” they cry -- a nonsense term signifying the U.S. government. (It’s full of Jews and people with Ph.D.s, you know.) Supposedly, the FBI and CIA, along with 15 other intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice, have conspired to frame poor President Trump, whose only crime was defeating Crooked Hillary fair and square. “No puppet. You’re the puppet!”

Indeed, the most recent iteration of the Trumpian conspiracy theory would require the active participation of four Republican-appointed FISA judges. If your brother-in-law believes that, you know he’ll believe anything.

Hey, pass the Stoli! At least Putin’s a white man, am I right?

But here’s Trump’s problem: Realistically, anything under 80 percent of partisan approval on a red-letter issue isn’t a strong number for a president. If upward of one-third of Republicans mistrust Trump regarding Russia now, what will his numbers look like after — as appears increasingly likely — Mueller’s grand jury brings indictments closer to home?

Maybe that’s why the president acts so paranoid.

Then there’s the fact that the Republican Party has measurably shrunk since Trump’s election -- possibly as much as 3 to 5 points. A Gallup poll late last year showed a 5-point drop in persons calling themselves Republicans, from 42 to 37 percent. Democrats stayed the same, at 44 percent.

In short, the Trump cult’s takeover of the GOP — along with establishment Republicans’ timidity about standing up to it -- could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to American conservatism.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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