How dismal it is to see the rush of Republicans distancing themselves from Donald Trump; discovering their principles not two weeks before the end of a four-year presidency that has made a mockery of everything their country and party are meant to hold dear. The images at the Capitol that prompted them to do so may well come to define Trump’s term, summing up the unhinged extremism of the man in the White House and his most die-hard supporters. Yet they will tell an incomplete story. Just as central a place in histories of the Trump disaster must be reserved for those same, once-respectable conservative politicians who have enabled the president to whip up the chaos they now, finally, deign to criticise: the Lindsay Grahams, the Mitch McConnells, the Mike Pences, the Marco Rubios
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This pattern is not just confined to the US. Much has been written about the nationalist populist wave of recent years. Yet surely more powerful than any individual political victory by the populists themselves is the way they have co-opted and lastingly changed parts of the supposedly mainstream right (or threaten to do so). In Europe, conservatives in countries like Austria, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and France have adopted the language and tone of the hard-right. Old cordons sanitaires have broken down, with extremists entering coalitions or otherwise cooperating with more established parties at local or national levels. Brazil’s hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power with the help of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party. The turns towards authoritarianism in India, Turkey and Hungary have all been led from within established conservative parties.
Often, as is the case in the Republican Party, the justification offered is that by working with or emulating hardliners like Trump, the mainstream can contain them and channel their excesses. Almost invariably, the true motivation is rank opportunism. You see that on the right of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union as it approaches its leadership election on 16 January; with Friedrich Merz, the candidate proposing a pivot away from Angela Merkel’s centrist formula, essentially arguing that the party can squeeze the hard-right Alternative für Deutschland by stealing some of its clothes. You see it in British politics in David Cameron’s bid to suppress the Eurosceptic right by acceding to its core demand, and where that has ended up. You see it in the way the centre-right European People’s Party persistently refuses to expel Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, however brazenly he crushes Hungarian democracy and civil society.
Copying and colluding with the extremes rarely defeats them. It legitimises them, helps them achieve their goals and can lastingly change politics in their favour. Of this, too, the US now offers plenty of evidence. Witness Mitt Romney, isolated and vilified in the party that chose him as its presidential candidate not a decade ago. Read the YouGov polling showing that 45 per cent of Republican voters approve the storming of the Capitol and that of those voters who believe the election was fraudulent, 56 per cent say the invasion was justified. And reflect on the damage that a future, more competent American demagogue could now wreak with the help of this movement. This, not mealy-mouthed, last-minute, self-serving, faux-ignorant expressions of regret at where the Trump circus ended up, will be the wretched legacy of those cynical doyens of the Republican Party who emboldened and enabled him.