Senate Republicans on Friday lined up behind President Trump, poised to protect him from witness testimony in his impeachment trial, a development that is neither surprising nor particularly difficult to understand. Most of the popular explanations, though, fail to explore the underlying dynamics of conservativism. As a result, the Senate’s apparent willingness to engage in a cover-up is seen as an aberration or low point for the Republican Party, rather than as a coherent expression of their theory of power.
Pundits looking to excuse Republican senators will say they were being held hostage by a party where Trump has a high approval rating. They have no choice but to fall in line for their own political futures. Or, alternately, we’ll hear that some Republican senators wanted witnesses but preferred to return the chamber to regular order to “get things done.”
The tendency to focus on the particular quirks of individual law makers — what is Susan Collins saying today? — can obscure the larger story, which is that conservatives want the president to be a king-like figure above and outside the law. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” argued Trump’s attorney Alan Dershowitz from the Senate floor.
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This authoritarian strain is not a recent development. Even going back to Richard Nixon’s famous line, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” is insufficient. In his ground-breaking analysis of the history of conservative thought, The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin articulates a theory of conservatism that demystifies crucial aspects of the Trump presidency, and explains why the Senate’s likely cover-up makes perfect sense.
The animating principle of conservatism, writes Robin, is a defense of inherited hierarchies against attempts by the left to distribute power and freedom more broadly. “Conservatism is an ideology of reaction — originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies,” Robin writes. The goal of the left, Robin argues, has been to extend freedom to oppressed classes. The right, correctly, has seen these efforts as attacks on their very sources of power, both publicly and privately. “Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected,” Robin writes.
But the conservative project is not as simple as restoring the old regime. The existing power structure must be rendered not as a byproduct of inheritance, Robin writes, but as the result of “the arduous struggle for supremacy.” Trump, despite having been born wealthy, positions himself as the ultimate underdog. Republican senators, despite being permanent members of the ruling class, cast themselves as reluctant warriors against an over-reaching left. “The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes the left has been in the driver’s seat since, depending on who’s counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation,” Robin writes.
Trying to find an explanation for Republicans’ behavior in the impeachment trial based on conservative talking points is impossible. Professed adherence to small government, or local control, or fiscal responsibility are useless in predicting or analyzing the Republican Party over the last six months. It is insufficient to see this inconsistency as hypocrisy, though.
If you interpret conservatives’ decisions as geared toward consolidating power within an authority that will reinforce existing hierarchies across race, gender and class categories, what they are doing makes sense. That figure of authority can be a unitary executive, a police officer or a patriarch in the home. Seen through that lens, their actions are no longer confounding, but consistent. “If a government can do this to the president of the United States, they can do it to you as well,” said Georgia Rep Earl Carter, in denouncing the impeachment inquiry. “You need to be scared. You need to be very scared.”
The defense of the president is transformed from the ruling class protecting one of their own to the protection of the common man, the Forgotten Man, against left-wing tyranny. Conservatives don’t simply want to exist outside of any democratic accountability — they seek to portray rallying around their king as the ultimate expression of the defense of democracy.
There will always be a cottage industry of mainstream pundits who exhibit shock at conservative authoritarianism. The real surprise would’ve been if Senate Republicans had decided to act in favor of democracy.