Today, in what is meant to be a solemn ritual of democracy, Congress meets in joint session to consecrate the will of the American people and mark the election of Joe Biden as president.
Unfortunately, President Trump refuses to accept the reality of his substantial loss, and so becomes determined to create an alternate reality in which he won. As he crosses that rubicon, Mr. Trump has taken many in my party with him, all of whom seem to have learned the wrong lessons from this anomalous presidency. George Orwell, after all, meant for his work to serve as a warning, not as a template.
How many injuries to American democracy can my Republican Party tolerate, excuse and champion? It is elementary to have to say so, but for democracy to work one side must be prepared to accept defeat. If the only acceptable outcome is for your side to win, and a loser simply refuses to lose, then America is imperiled.
I once had a career in public life — six terms in the House of Representatives and another six years in the Senate — and then the rise of a dangerous demagogue, and my party’s embrace of him, ended that career. Or rather, I chose not to go along with my party’s rejection of its core conservative principles in favor of that demagogue. In a speech on the Senate floor on Oct. 24, 2017, I announced that because of the turn my party had taken, I would not run for re-election: the career of a politician that is complicit in undermining his own values doesn’t mean much.
As a lifelong conservative Republican, I was surprised to find myself so profoundly at odds with my own party and with the man who had used its ballot line to vault to power. But the values that made me a conservative and an American were indeed being undermined, the country was paying a steep price for it, and I would be a liar to my family, my state and my conscience if I were to pretend otherwise.
It is hard to comprehend how so many of my fellow Republicans were able — and are still able — to engage in the fantasy that they had not abruptly abandoned the principles they claimed to believe in. It is also difficult to understand how this betrayal could be driven by deference to the unprincipled, incoherent and blatantly self-interested politics of Donald Trump, defined as it is by its chaos and boundless dishonesty. The conclusion that I have come to is that they did it for the basest of reasons — sheer survival and rank opportunism.
But survival divorced from principle makes a politician unable to defend the institutions of American liberty when they come under threat by enemies foreign and domestic. And keeping your head down in capitulation to a rogue president makes you little more than furniture. One wonders if that is what my fellow Republicans had in mind when they first sought public office.
But if it was my obligation to end my congressional career by speaking out in defiance, then my time in Congress had begun in awe.
It was the first few days of my first term in Congress — Saturday, Jan. 6, 2001, 20 years ago today — when I witnessed an act of civic faith that was simply extraordinary. With utmost fidelity to our founding principles and the reverence the United States Constitution deserves, one presidential administration handed over power to another, peacefully and with dignity, after the most highly contentious election in more than a century, an election decided by just a few hundred votes in a single state. Perhaps most moving of all was that this ritual transition of our democracy had over the time since our founding become so ordinary.
A kid from Snowflake, Ariz., doesn’t often get to witness such history, and so I kept a journal:
The family flew home on Friday afternoon. I had to stay until Saturday afternoon because the House and Senate met in joint session to count electoral votes. Given the disputed election, there were fears that the Democrats would try to pull something. A dozen or so House Democrats did object to the Florida electoral votes, but because they failed to get any Senate Democrats to sign on with them, they failed to thwart the proceedings. It was quite a spectacle nonetheless. Vice President Al Gore, who presided over this historic meeting, was forced to call the game for his opponent, George W. Bush. I met Gore afterward, who had to be feeling pretty rotten to have won the popular vote but to have lost in the Electoral College.
One thing I left out of my journal entry was that in affirming that his opponent, George W. Bush, would be our next president, Mr. Gore said this: “May God bless our new president and new vice president, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Mr. Gore’s was an act of grace that the American people had every right to expect of someone in his position, a testament to the robustness and durability of American constitutional democracy. That he was merely doing his job and discharging his responsibility to the Constitution is what made the moment both profound and ordinary.
Vice President Mike Pence must do the same today. As we are now learning, a healthy democracy is wholly dependent on the good will and good faith of those who offer to serve it.
Today, the American people deserve to witness the majesty of a peaceful transfer of power, just as I saw, awe-struck, two decades ago. Instead, we find ourselves in this bizarre condition of our own making, two weeks from the inauguration of a new president, with madness unspooling from the White House, grievous damage to our body politic compounding daily.
My fellow Republicans, as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of Georgia has shown us this week, there is power in standing up to the rank corruptions of a demagogue. Mr. Trump can’t hurt you. But he is destroying us.
Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake), a former Republican senator from Arizona, is the author of “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.”
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