Andrew Bjelland: It’s time for Utah’s moderate Republicans to take back their GOP

Many U.S. citizens are losing faith in our democratic institutions.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Sen. Mike Lee, right, joins Rick Larsen, President and CEO of the Sutherland Institute during a speaking engagement at the conservative public policy think tank on the University of Utah campus on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

Utahns cherish the U.S. Constitution and acknowledge it is grounded in the sovereignty of “We the People.” This sovereignty is expressed in a constitutional order that regulates the actions of all citizens, especially those of political leaders. This order is founded upon a bedrock principle: All citizens are equally accountable before the law.

That principle is being severely tested.

Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s “Democracy’s assassins always have accomplices” could not be more timely. This column and their book, “How Democracies Die,” should be required reading for Utah’s public high school students engaged in fulfilling their legislatively mandated civics requirement.

The column’s opening is of utmost importance. During the first GOP presidential debate, six out of eight candidates indicated they would support Donald Trump if he is the Republican Party’s nominee — and support him even if the former president is convicted for any of ninety-one alleged felonies.

The two authors persuasively argue that the candidates’ support for Trump must not be dismissed as “relatively harmless”— as merely “a small act of political cowardice aimed at avoiding the wrath of the base.”

This show of cowardice should inspire Utah voters to ask themselves: What further displays of MAGA-induced spinelessness will Republican politicians exhibit during the current campaign cycle?

United States v. Donald J. Trump is a major test of our commitment to the rule of law. Many Republicans — including Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee and Celeste Malloy, Rep. Chris Stewart’s heir apparent — discount the legitimacy and gravity of Trump’s criminal indictments.

Sen. Mitt Romney is the sole member of Utah’s congressional delegation who publicly and courageously acknowledges the validity of Trump’s indictments and attests to the gravity of the charges against him.

In “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a chilling insight: The people have never turned back a nation’s drift toward authoritarianism. Only political parties have done so — and they have done so only when a conservative party, recognizing the threat from the radical right, has joined with a liberal party to counter a rising authoritarian tide.

Ever since Newt Gingrich declared politics is warfare, Republican leaders have increasingly become power-politics partisans. Many have abandoned authentic conservative principles and, together with their media enablers, have institutionalized demagoguery.

Watch Fox News and other right-wing media. You will witness GOP politicians and their enablers employing demagogic tactics: gross oversimplification of complex issues; fear mongering; scapegoating of minorities; dog-whistle triggering of racial prejudices and other biases; accusations that opponents are disloyal or weak; attacks on the mainstream news media; and refusals to condemn violent acts committed by the most extreme forces on the ultra-right.

Many U.S. citizens are losing faith in our democratic institutions. How could it be otherwise when, thanks to the Citizens United decision, the political influence of billionaires’ dark money is unregulated? How could it be otherwise when politicians must spend at least one-third of their time soliciting donors to fund their next costly campaign? How could it be otherwise when campaign funding and other election reforms are stymied by partisan obstructionism?

When money talks, virtue walks. Well funded anti-democratic forces have all but won the day. Significant and much needed election reforms are now virtually impossible.

Is the GOP now the cunning and effective anti-democracy party? Is the Democratic Party — virtually powerless in Utah and other deep-red states — a wholly ineffective counter to the current authoritarian trend?

Whatever their flaws, Democrats attempt to pump life into our flagging democratic institutions. Republicans may pretend to do so, but their fidelity to an extremely impulsive and quadruply indicted former president — and their employment of demagogic means — undermines democratic institutions and ideals.

Trumpism is not a cancer that recently invaded the Republican Party. Trumpism is the latest symptom of the demagogic cancer that decades ago metastasized within the Republican Party. It is time for Utah’s moderate conservatives to reclaim the GOP.

Andrew Bjelland

Andrew Bjelland, PhD, is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University, where he held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities and taught political philosophy, jurisprudence, medical ethics and logic. He resides in Salt Lake City.