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Former GOP congressman: ‘Republicans have thrown acid on the Constitution’ | COMMENTARY

Former Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a nine-term Republican, switched party affiliations in 2019 and is now a registered Democrat.
Former Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a nine-term Republican, switched party affiliations in 2019 and is now a registered Democrat.(File photo Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

As the rationalizations poured in — convicting Donald Trump 10 months before the next presidential election would tear the country apart; his impeachment was partisan and, therefore, fatally flawed — a former Republican member of Congress had this to say from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore:

“The Senate Republicans have just thrown acid on the parchment the Constitution is written on.”

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Nor did Wayne Gilchrest mince words about the senior Tennessee Republican who cast the key vote against bringing witnesses into Trump’s Senate trial: “Lamar Alexander will never be seen as having integrity again.”

Gilchrest is, like the majority of Americans who told pollsters they wanted witnesses at the trial, appalled that the Republican majority voted to reject further testimony about Trump’s extortionate campaign in Ukraine.

In doing so, Alexander conceded that Trump’s shakedown of an ally was “inappropriate.” He agreed that House Democrats had proven their case: Trump ordered nearly $400 million in military aid withheld to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation potentially damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The whole scheme was about getting a foreign government to give Trump an advantage in November. That’s an abuse of power, a threat to the integrity of the 2020 election.

Doesn’t matter. Senate Republicans support Trump and his draconian policies. They fear Trump’s tweets and his rally-crowd base. They don’t buck a bully.

So, no witnesses. No John Bolton. No real trial. Next step: The formal, and foregone, acquittal. Trump will get off, with only mild criticism from members of his party.

“I knew some of those senators when we were in the House together,” says Gilchrest, who represented Maryland’s 1st District from 1991 to 2009. “They came in with a really strong thing called ‘family values’ and now they’re all in for Trump.

“[Ohio Sen.] Rob Portman was considered a tower of integrity and intelligence. … [Kansas Sen.] Jerry Moran was religious. He was an evangelical, stridently moral. … And there was another, from Mississippi, I served with, [Sen.] Roger Wicker ….”

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They all voted to protect Trump.

Confidence that the Senate is more than just a representative body — that it’s the place where grownups reflect, debate, deliberate and lead — has been greatly diminished, Gilchrest says, and the downgrade has been a long time coming.

Gilchrest left Washington a decade ago. But his experiences there and observations since brought him to some woeful understandings about many who serve in Congress.

“You think these are people of substance, but they are not smart, and they don’t care about public policy,” Gilchrest says. “They just put on a suit and spout talking points. … They don’t do research. They have their minions getting them coffee and lunch and handing them speeches. It’s like an assisted living facility.”

Gilchrest was a genuine moderate Republican. But the party’s turn to the extreme right finally caught up to him in 2008, when he lost a primary election to Andy Harris. First District representation went from thoughtful moderation to tea party conservatism. Harris remains in office and all-in with Trump. As I previously reported, Harris also has taken supportive interest in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a so-called “soft dictator” who has diminished democracy and human rights in his country.

This admiration of autocrats is strange and troubling, particularly because the Republican Party once boasted resolve against communism and the Soviet Union. It lionized Ronald Reagan for standing up to the “evil empire.”

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It is no longer that party, the one Wayne Gilchrest, a Vietnam veteran, joined way back when.

“The change started with Newt Gingrich,” Gilchrest says, referring to the caustic, anti-government Republican who became Speaker of the House in 1995, a historical marker on the road to political polarization.

In 1999, Gilchrest notes, the Republican who replaced Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, devised a rule that kept Democrats and Republicans from working on bipartisan legislation. The Speaker only called a floor vote on bills that had the support of a majority of Republicans; the “Hastert rule” kept Democrats from passing bills with the help of a minority of Republicans.

“And,” says Gilchrest, “that’s about when [House Majority Leader] Dick Armey and others started calling Democrats the enemy.”

The road we know so well — from polarization to super-polarization — includes the startup of Fox News; Bill Clinton’s impeachment; the 2000 “hanging chad” election of George W. Bush; the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and the birther campaign, led by Trump; the tea party and the bitter fight over Obamacare; Trump’s presidency, Trump’s corruption and now the Senate’s refusal to do anything about it.

Where do we go from here?

“We have to keep speaking out as citizens,” Gilchrest says. “It’s not a time to be quiet. And we have to start teaching kids about democracy. You know, ignorance and democracy are not compatible. I didn’t come up with that, someone else did. But it’s true. … Democracy can crumble. It’s not set in stone. It depends on people with integrity, morals and competence.”

That’s why, Gilchrest says, he finally switched his party affiliation to Democrat last year. He was at an event where one of the speakers was Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, wife of Gilchrest’s former House colleague, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (and a candidate to succeed her husband in Tuesday’s special election).

“It was last spring or summer,” Gilchrest says. “I felt close again to Elijah’s deep courage and integrity, morality and justice, and therefore compelled to leave the Republican Party, lacking in all four.”

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