It is extremist to claim, in the complete absence of evidence, that the election was stolen.
It is extremist to demand that millions of legal, valid ballots be tossed out by the courts, by state legislators, by Congress or the vice president. It is extremist to claim that those who upheld the election, who abided by the word, letter and spirit of the Constitution, are somehow enemies of the Constitution.
It is extremist to make common cause with people who would take the law into their own hands, who would inflict vigilante mob violence on our elected officials and government. And it is downright obscene to do so in the name of preserving that same Constitution.
It is extremist to acquit the man who set all that in motion, who tried to interfere directly in the peaceful transfer of power, to transform democracy into dictatorship.
It is extremist to then attack those seven Republican senators and ten Republican House members who dared to buck their party, who chose truth and the Constitution over blind loyalty to the man whom I hope will always be the most terrible president in American history, because if we get one worse than Donald Trump the republic may not survive it.
The GOP is not a moderate party attempting to purge its extremist elements and return to the mainstream. For the foreseeable future, it is an extremist party that even now is attempting to hunt down and purge its moderate elements, and by doing so become even more extreme.
In fact, we should face the fact that extremism has become central to the identity of what by habit we incorrectly call “conservatism.” They now define themselves by the chasm that separates them from the mainstream, and extremism is the lever that they use to create that chasm. They don’t fear being “canceled;” they court it, they demand it, and will do and say whatever it takes to earn that status.
Within the party, it is moderation, not extremism, that is viewed with suspicion. It is moderation that must be hunted down and forced to either recant or be evicted, and to even acknowledge extremism as a danger is to side with the media, to admit that yes, we may have gone too far and that the liberals might have a point.
How can you get to “yes” with a movement whose entire identity is wrapped up in the joy of screaming “no?”
Many Republicans can’t even condemn violent groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, because to do so would be imply a traitorous longing to reconnect with the larger country. Donald Trump knows that instinctively, which is why he has repeatedly refused to denounce such groups. So do the likes of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“Whose side are you on, mine or the left-wing, fake-news media?” Greene in effect asks constantly, confident that her audience doesn’t dare to psychologically break with a fellow tribe member, even one as wacky as she is.
There simply is no incentive, no reward structure for confronting extremism within the Republican Party, other than the reward of doing the right thing. Ask Brad Raffensperger. Ask Jaime Herrera-Beutler, the congresswoman from Washington state who last week revealed Trump’s startling conversation with Kevin McCarthy, and for that heroism is now reviled by her own party.
Conversely, if you want to find the safest place in the party, the place of the least risk and most reward, always look where Lindsey Graham is hiding. One moment he’s here; one moment he’s there, but he never strays far from safe harbor.
In the immediate wake of the Capitol attack, an emotional Graham announced he was done with Trump, whom he clearly blamed for the riot. “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way,” he said from the Senate floor. “But today, all I can say is, ‘Enough is enough’”
Now, he’s back under Trump’s wing.
“Donald Trump is the most vibrant member of the Republican Party,” Graham said over the weekend on Fox News. “The most potent force in the Republican Party is President Trump.”
“To the Republican Party, if you want to win and stop the socialist agenda, we need to work with President Trump,” Graham said. “We can’t do it without him. … I’m into winning.”
Somewhere in there is our answer. If we want the Republican Party to change, then that change must begin by changing its incentive structure. It can’t be done from within the party; within the party there is no price to be paid for extremism. The price must be paid outside the party. It must be exacted by major donors unwilling to fund it; it must come from community and religious leaders unwilling to tolerate it. It must come from law enforcement unwilling to give its violent elements free rein. And it must come from the voters, the American people.
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He now contributes to the Georgia Recorder, which first published this essay.