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Witcover: Can the Grand Old Party survive Trump?

Donald Trump is a divisive figure for the Republican Party. Besides his crude rhetoric, he has also spurned the GOP on its views. There have been rifts over trade, Social Security and financial regulation. Here is where Trump and the Republican Party disagree.

Donald Trump's legal but destructive hijacking of the Oval Office has taken the Republican Party with it. The party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan is now a mere shadow of the former bastion of economic and moral conservatism that once had a leavening effect on the nation's civic and civil public discourse.

In its place is a fearful shell of Republican accommodation with Mr. Trump's chaotic, irreverent and corrupt words and actions as president, which ignore or dishonor America's pillars of democratic government.

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On the recent congressional resolution opposing Mr. Trump's naked usurpation of Congress's constitutional power of the purse, the House of Representatives now under Democratic control voted overwhelmingly against him, 245-182.

The Republican-controlled Senate followed suit, voting 59-41 to block the national emergency that would permit Mr. Trump to divert money from elsewhere in the government to build the border wall. Twelve Republicans opposed their president, despite his caution not to "fall for the Democrats' trap of Open Borders and Crime," neither of which Democrats advocate.

But Mr. Trump went ahead and vetoed the bill, the first of his presidency, and the opposition lacked the two-thirds majority required to override. His veto, however, violates the specific instruction of Article I, Section 7, which unambiguously specifies that "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments on other Bills."

So far, 16 states led by California have filed suits in lower federal courts challenging Mr. Trump, with the case likely to reach the Supreme Court, where Mr. Trump's confirmed two appointees give his party a 5-4 majority. But the president's violation of the Constitution in this case is so patently obvious that a vote in his favor might create a public uproar matching all his other legal and ethical problems to date.

What does all this mean to a Grand Old Party that before the advent of Donald Trump was a full and generally respected partner in the American two-party system that emerged out of the Civil War?

Abraham Lincoln was the party's first presidential nominee, and after his assassination in 1865 the new party fell into the hands of an old Democrat, Andrew Johnson, chosen by Lincoln in 1864 as his running mate. He replaced solid Republican Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, in a move designed to strengthen the ticket.

It proved to be a monumentally bad decision, when Johnson was impeached for internal political considerations and escaped conviction and removal by a single vote in the Senate. His presidential reconstruction plans in conflict with those of Congress further impeded the restoration of order and comity in the defeated Confederate States.

Nevertheless, the Republican Party survived with the election of Civil War hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872, and the GOP held the White House in seven of the next nine presidential elections, until Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied it for two terms starting in 1913.

Thereafter, Republicans Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover held the presidency in undistinguished fashion until 1933, when Democratic political dynamo Franklin D. Roosevelt won four unprecedented terms, from then to his death in 1945, in the closing months of World War II. In 1952, another war hero/president emerged in Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ike accepted the party recommendation that he take Richard Nixon as his running mate, but that decision eventually ended very badly in the later Watergate scandal that forced Nixon as president to resign in disgrace in 1974.

Of the most recent two Republican ex-presidents, the senior George Bush and his son George W., the first was genial but unimpressive and the second a snappish wise guy who started a war on false assumptions that the enemy had threatening weapons of mass destruction.

Now has come Mr. Trump, a crass demagogue ill-fitted by knowledge or temperament to lead this country. Much of the organized GOP, in and out of Congress, has genuflected or fallen for his promises and/or bold lies, eroding the party's greatest claims from the past to success and honor.

Unless true conservative Republicans find a way to regain their once revered place in a functioning two-party system held together by shared ideals and genuine bipartisanship, survival is uncertain.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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