In 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, Henry Lee, “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties.’’ For most of its history, America’s political life has consistently affirmed that judgment, with two parties intent on competing but not on destroying each other or the republic.
That is why it is so important that there are signs of some Republicans standing up for principle in important states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia.
Even before we get to the states, let’s note that on May 26, 20 former Republican Congressman urged Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and four other Republican members to comply with the Jan. 6 Committee’s subpoenas: “A full and honest accounting of the attack and its causes,” the former officials wrote, “is critical to preventing future assaults on the rule of law and American institutions — and ensuring that we all can move forward.”
Even if the message falls on deaf ears, it matters that there are Republicans of principle willing to speak the truth. From vital kernels of integrity in the party, cornfields could grow.
They are not alone. On May 25, Dean Knudson, a Wisconsin former state legislator resigned from the state’s election board — which he had helped design — saying “Two of my core values are to practice service above self and to display personal integrity.”
“To me,” Knudsen told the Milwaukee Sentinel, “integrity demands acknowledging the truth even when the truth is painful. [T]he painful truth is that President Trump lost … the election in Wisconsin in 2020. And the loss was not due to election fraud.”
Debate can be endless about whether principled resisters should “stay and work from the inside” or head for the exits when the candle is no longer worth the flame — but there’s little question that if one chooses to leave, taking a public stand for principle advances the common good.
Something very similar happened on April 26 in Michigan. Republican Tony Daunt sent a scalding letter of resignation to the party’s governing committee. He excoriated the committee for its subservience to Trump, whom Daunt referred to as “a deranged narcissist.” He wrote of “cowardly party ‘leaders’” who were “cravenly loyal” Trump.
Then, in the rarest of actions, the Michigan House of Representatives’ Republican Caucus removed Trump firebrand Matt Maddock from membership. He has attacked other Republicans for not being sufficiently loyal to the former president.
Of Maddock’s removal, Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator in Michigan, told the Washington Post, “I think the Republicans just decided we’ve just got a cancer eating us from within and we’ve got to get rid of it.”
We don’t yet know where the fight over Trumpism in Michigan will end, but we do know the Greeks’ “golden mean” — nature abhors excess. We saw it in politics on May 25 in Georgia’s primary where Trump lost the trifecta: Three Republican candidates whom Trump had endorsed were defeated by those he loved to hate for certifying the 2020 election of Joe Biden – incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Attorney General Chris Carr.
With Republicans trying to leapfrog each other in extremist positions to gain favor with Trump and his followers, the trend toward abandoning the moderation of traditional Republican icons like Dwight Eisenhower or John McCain may come back to haunt the GOP in places like Pennsylvania. There, Republican primary voters nominated extremist Doug Mastriano for governor. He is running against the extremely capable Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. One election predictor, Race to the Whitehouse, which correctly called the narrow 2020 victories of Joe Biden in Arizona and Michigan as well as of Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia, projects Shapiro to win by 9 points.
All in all — without denying the brutal facts of Trumpism’s current dominance in the GOP — there are reasons to keep faith that at least some Republicans will continue the fight for a return to common sense and conventional belief in the nation’s founding principles.
To understand the importance of having principled Republicans, one need only think back to Jan. 6 and Vice President Mike Pence, who resisted almost unbearable pressure from Trump to reject or delay the Electoral College vote. Or to Georgia’s Raffensperger, who did the same in Trump’s Jan. 2, 2021 call in which Trump sought 11,780 votes, one more than needed to overturn the Georgia election.
Aaron Van Langervelde also comes to mind. He was the Michigan Republican who in a “Profiles in Courage” moment in late November 2020, broke a 1-1 tie on the state’s electoral Board of State Canvassers, voting to certify Biden’s election. That vote quickly cost him his seat on the board. (The good news is that Tony Daunt remains there as his replacement.)
History has affirmed what Thomas Jefferson understood — our politics have always operated with two major parties. We need them to differ on policy but to remain resolute in their commitment to a constitutional system in which the people’s will rules and no person is above the law.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
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